Canberra’s foreign and defence bureaucracy is appalled by Donald Trump’s monstering of the Anglo allies and of NATO, his enthusiasm for Kim Jong-un and his appeasement of Vladimir Putin. Where to without the comfort of a great, powerful and reliable friend, it asks? To Plan B, say some analysts – a more capable and self-contained defence force that can protect Australia without recourse to an increasingly unreliable United States.

Typical of these theorists is Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. He spelt out his wish list on the Weekend Australian of 21-22 July 2018.

It includes a predictable call to lift defence spending from two to three percent of GNP in order to expand the ADF establishment from the present 58,000 to around 90,000, and buy the weapons Jennings claims we need, all to be delivered and commissioned into the ADF without lengthy delivery times. The weapons would include nuclear-propelled submarines equipped with long-range missiles, and long-range bombers, the latter to be developed in some kind of commercial arrangement with an American aircraft company. How such a ‘commercial arrangement’ would differ from the late delivery and never-ending escalation of costs we are locked into with Lockheed Martin over F-35s Jennings does not make clear. Nor, if our need for bombers is so compelling, why we can’t buy existing long-range bombers such as the B-1 and B-2s off the shelf. Nor how, with our rudimentary involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle, Australia could be expected to make its own nuclear propulsion systems for submarines. As Jennings correctly says, the United States Navy will not sell them to us.

He then suggests Australia negotiate defence treaties with Japan, France and Britain, build strategic partnerships with India and Indonesia and  stop the Western Pacific from turning into a de facto Chinese lake by becoming a security guarantor to the Pacific micros states.

Few Australians, even those supporting neutrality, would argue against Australia having a capable defence force. But its range of projection from our shores is highly contentious. A dozen diesel-powered submarines combined with a capable littoral surface fleet would provide convincing area denial around the continent. But why does Australia need nuclear submarines carrying long-range missiles, and why strategic bombers? Long-distance cargo planes for disaster relief maybe, but what is the purpose and the price of longer-range aggressive assets? Great for the egos of naval and air force commanders perhaps, but hardly necessary in the defence of Australia.

Indeed, would such forces be effective in the face of the enormous growth of naval and air capability, not least in submarines, in the region? Russia, North and South Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia all have capable and growing submarine assets. The seas to our north are becoming increasingly crowded. The more effective Australia’s capacity, the more others will see a challenge to catch up.

Meanwhile, would India, France, Britain or Japan really favour some kind of obligatory mutual defence treaties with Australia, directed – as Jennings plainly implies – against China? And even if they agreed to negotiate such agreements (as Japan might), how would we manage the negative fall-out from China, which would quite naturally take a very dim view of such a ganging up against its own strategic interests? How would we be able to continue our immensely beneficial bilateral trade with China? And how would Australia react if Japan asked for our help in supporting its claims over disputed island territories with South Korea, or China or Russia?

A more intelligent response to the increasing unreliability of the United States under President Trump would involve a three-step approach. First, assume that whoever succeeds Trump will be equally averse to taking responsibility for Australia’s defence. Second, take steps to wean the ADF off the positioning and training with the United States that risks their automatic involvement in a regional war of America’s choosing. The Australian Government should stick to the literal text of the ANZUS treaty and consult the United States, but not necessarily go to war with them in the Pacific region or anywhere else. We should make a cool and rational assessment of Australia’s own national interests, and not, as Prime Minister Turnbull notoriously declared in 2017, consider ourselves to be ‘joined at the hip’ with American forces.  Third, we should discourage the tendency in Canberra to treat every regional dispute as being subject to a military solution, as the United States has a tendency to do and as China, up to now, has not. We should also invest much more on improving and expanding our diplomatic assets and seek to rebuild the trust we have lost. We can expand diplomatic staff in Beijing, open new consulates in more regional centres and improve Chinese language capability among our diplomats.

The Foreign Policy White Paper of 2107 promised a greater focus on ASEAN. Australia should ascertain what the ASEAN countries think about China and its territorial claims, and how they intend to meet the challenge of a more aggressive Chinese presence in the region. In the past, the Vietnamese and Indonesians have been particularly adept at responding effectively to Chinese encroachment. No doubt our embassies and high commissions in the region are in active communication with relevant foreign ministries, but how much do their reports find resonance in Canberra? To what extent can and should we cooperate with them?

Among the Pacific micro states, where a few decades ago we were panicking about Russia’s influence, we should seek ways to accommodate Chinese influence with our own development agendas. Nothing would cause the governments of these countries  to turn away from Australian cooperation more than the realisation that we are only doing it to keep the Chinese out. To be aware of local concerns about sea level rise and make a real commitment to countering climate change would be a good start. Much more effective than missiles and submarines.

Richard Broinowski is a former ambassador to Vietnam and Republic of Korea, and immediate past president in NSW of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.


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7 Responses to RICHARD BROINOWSKI. Defence Plan B.

  1. R. N. England says:

    Could it be that Richard Bronowski’s view of China’s potential for aggression is specially influenced by China’s attack on Vietnam in Feb 1979? Both countries quickly became embarrassed about that war, as it soon became very clear that it had been a severe blow to their long-term interests as neighbours. Why did China commit such a blunder? The answer may lie in the timing. The attack occurred right in the middle of a period when China was involved in intense negotiations to normalise relations with the United States and gain access to US and world markets. I can’t help thinking the attack was part of the deal. Vietnam, the US’ recently victorious enemy, was the Soviet Union’s ally in the south-east Asia. Brzezinsky the Russophobe was there, and Kissinger, the initiator of rapport with China, would have thought the same way. A major US aim would have been to inflame the already strained relations between China and the Soviet Union, even to the point of war. We are much less inhibited, these days, about thinking of the US as the root of all evil since 1945, than were in 1979. I don’t mean “evil” in a moral sense, but only the inevitable policies of a country with a historically aggressive, almost insanely messianic culture, that had become the captive of its own arms industry.

  2. Tony Kevin says:

    A thoughtful piece by Richard Broinowski. Richard does a nice job of demolishing Jennings’ strategic thought.

    Note there is barely a mention of Russia as a substantial Pacific power. That’s to be expected – Australian foreign policy elites have conditioned themselves to think of Russia only in terms of the prevailing anti-Putin false Russophobe narrative: foreign policy as entertainment. Policy planning in relation to Russia does not exist in Canberra : it has been replaced by a shallow culture of anti-Putin sneers and gossip, and wishful thinking that somehow when Trump goes, however he goes, everything will settle back to the status quo ante. It won’t, with or without Trump. The world has changed and the US has changed. We need to start treating Russia and China with respect, as the serious world players they both are.

  3. Andrew Glikson says:

    The article states “his enthusiasm for Kim Jong-un and his appeasement of Vladimir Putin.” It has not been explained what exactly is the fear from negotiations with North Korea and Russia, the only substitute to which would be nuclear wars, even if such negotiations are conducted by Trump. The consequences of nuclear war, like the consequences of ongoing global heating, have not been explained to the public by the media in any detail. Otherwise calls for more weapons readied for more wars would leads to such wars, with the only beneficiaries being the weapons manufacturers.

    • R. N. England says:

      G’day Andy,

      Richard Bronowsky is usually moderate and well informed, but he shows here that has been exposed to too much of the weasel-language of Anglo-diplomacy, which heaps blame on the victims or their leader before they are attacked, and is later used to justify the attack. It is both the artillery barrage that precedes the infantry assault, and a component of the pacification necessary to complete the conquest. The diplomatic weasel-language of the Anglos includes Anglo-exceptionalism: our attacks are always justified because we are always morally right and our victims are always morally wrong; Gott mit uns; the victor makes the rules anyhow. Other cultures use this strategy but none so relentlessly and successfully as the victorious Anglos and their brazen media. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is blighted by the Anglo-culture’s characteristic weasel-language of freedom and dignity. Others have observed how it pushes the American way of life on the world.

      It is easy enough to see the saturation-barrage of blame being heaped on Trump as a prelude to his deposition, and a justification once it happens, possibly illegally, possibly (preferably?) at the hands of a poor dupe with a gun.

      I am sure Richard Bronowsky is (imperfectly) aware of all this because of his ability to look at Anglo-culture from the outside (something all us semi-outsiders share). But we are partially blinded to the ugly truth by being partly inside it too.


      • Andrew Glikson says:

        Thank you Dick
        The tragedy of democracy is that much of the privately owned, as well as public owned, mainstream media has to a large extent become a propaganda machine which, through its choice of derogatory words, commonly enhance adversity, hate and ultimately war.
        The single critical example is the underplay or denial of the existential threat of global heating for humanity and for nature.

  4. R. N. England says:

    Richard Broinovsky’s fundamental error is to swallow Anglo propaganda that the Chinese are aggressive. Chinese civilisation has never been aggressive. Chinese civilisation, gentle and strong, has even survived the rule of whole dynasties of barbarians. It has built walls to try to keep barbarians out. It has taken over the administration of unproductive territory to its west, to try to keep barbarians out. It has taken over the administration of otherwise useless Tibet to protect the flow of its lifeblood, the great east-flowing rivers that water its fertile plains. Its former policy of isolationism was to keep barbarians out. That defensive policy was vindicated by the devastation wrought on China by money-crazed, drug-peddling, armed, British barbarians. China’s opening out to world trade was dictated by the need for friends and foreign-sourced commodities, and the need to appease the nuclear-armed Anglos.

    It is the cultural descendants of the invader William the Conqueror (and probably also the invaders that preceded him) that have been the most consistent aggressors in modern History. That is its most salient fact. As one might expect, it is a fact consistently covered up and lied about by the aggressors themselves. (Fake) history is written by the winners. Others have briefly tried aggression on the scale of the Anglos, like imperial Japan and militarist Prussia-Germany, but the Anglos are still top dog. It is a great hope for world civilisation that the Anglos’ aggression is turning inwards. They are fast demolishing the structure of their own culture. The wise policy of the civilised Chinese is to appease the nuclear-armed tyrants for as long as it takes for them to destroy themselves. A rare overt Chinese defensive measure has been to try to protect their world trade from blockade by building islands in the south China Sea.

    The core of the problem with an enlarged defence force for an isolated Australia is that our military is always straining at the leash to commit some act of aggression or other. That is the Conqueror’s cultural DNA still expressing itself after 1000 years. Our military will eventually bight someone big who will defend herself and kick us in the guts.

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    Here’s a question that doesn’t get asked.

    How do we accommodate China and reduce the amount of arms in the world? I would like to see some discussion of this.

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