A national security yardstick on which the Coalition doesn’t outshine Labor

Mar 2, 2022
Marise Payne

The use of national security for political advantage is a perilous business.

There is no single yardstick for competence in national security policy, only best efforts under uncertainty. Hubris the only sin. Cynicism, sadly, is the constant condition.

Few incoming ministers from either side of politics in Australia have a background in strategic policy, and few leave with their ignorance much reduced. The humility, prudence, and willingness to take advice required for the job is rarely evident. Nevertheless, the political imperative to inflate their own capacity to protect the nation, and to diminish the strategic policy credentials of their opponents, seems irresistible.

If the intellectual effort of producing a Defence white paper was any indication of seriousness and competence in strategic policy, then perhaps it is significant that of the first six to appear in Australia four were published under Labor governments. The first Defence white paper in Australia’s history, in 1976, was initiated and largely completed under the Whitlam government, although publish by the Fraser government.

Between the 1976 white paper and Tony Abbott becoming Prime Minister in 2013 there had been a white paper roughly every 6.2 years.  The prescience of the Coalition governments concerning developments in Australia’s strategic environment can be gleaned from the need for the 2016 white paper and the 2020 Strategic update (effectively a white paper).

The increased frequency of revisits to the policy fundamentals might be a good indicator to the sustainability of the Coalition’s strategic judgements and their confidence in their vision. The government’s self-satisfaction with the 2016 version was evident in the observation of the then Minister Marise Payne that it was “the culmination of a thorough process of review and assessment of Australia’s security environment spanning the next 20 years”.

There has never been a time when predictions over years, let alone decades, has been prudent. For example, the 1987 white paper missed the fall of the Soviet Union, the 2000 one missed 9/11 and the war on terror, and the 2020 Strategic Update makes no reference to Afghanistan and the Taliban, Russia, or Ukraine. All understandable, and all proving the point that future disruptions are generally strategic surprises.

Any comparison of the 2016 white paper with the Strategic Update, that takes into account and the strategic debate in the US or Australia leading up to 2016, will reveal that the the Coalition government missed important issues. It is specious to argue “While the drivers shaping the development of Australia’s future strategic environment identified in that white paper remain relevant, some have accelerated in ways that were not anticipated in 2016”.

Only six years ago, in the 2016 white paper, the Coalition inexplicably did not mention Taiwan in the text, and only indicated its location in a map. Hong Kong was completely ignored.

However, the future of Taiwan and US policy towards it was a hot topic in Washington circles leading up to 2016. In 2014 John J. Mearsheimer was warning “The unification of China and Taiwan is one of the core elements of Chinese national identity”. Many other writers were also highlighting the seeming inevitable rise of tensions between the US and China over Taiwan as Chinese power grows. The prospect of conflict was seen as real by many.

Writing in in 2014, Thomas Heberer noted Beijing was already adopting a hard line towards democratic forces in Hong Kong and it was feared attacks on Hong Kong’s autonomy might “in the long run lead to a creeping erosion of Hong Kong’s specific liberties”. There was no sense in the white paper of the  potential for Hong Kong to become a flashpoint for China and a cause for western nations.

Major strategic developments in the region were ignored. The pivot to Asia by the Obama Administration, and the Pentagon’s so-called Air-Sea Battle doctrine, were already major issues in US -China relations in the period immediately prior to the 2016 white paper.

It is not that the strategic and defence policies of governments are to be judged on their predictions of the future. That would be absurd. But the commitments to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, in particular, should be a cautionary tale over rushing into conflicts the end states of which are obviously unclear. That circumstances always change should encourage care in politicising national security for short term gain.

Nor does it make sense to criticise governments for their level of investment, although the wisdom shown in the choices they make in the Defence investment program deserve close examination. An obvious case is the submarine program, where delivery of the first submarine is “not likely to be until at least the late 2030s”. The utility of tanks must be questioned given the Coalition’s description of the threats.

Less than two-years old, the 2020 Strategic Update stated “Reduced warning times mean defence plans can no longer assume Australia will have time to gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges”. Currently the government, in the 2020 Strategic Update and elsewhere, are warning about imminent threats but are spending the bulk of the taxpayers money on things their grandchildren will hopefully find useful in whatever strategic circumstances prevail in the second half of the twenty first century.

Strategic and defence policy should not be a shouty exercise across the chamber of the House of Representative but an intellectual and management exercise by ministers charged with the administration of the complex business of the Defence portfolio. It is a task that must be approached in full knowledge that the strategic environment is shaped by forces beyond any nation’s control, and the forces at play are often unknown. To claim expertise, let alone infallibility, is a serious mistake.

The willingness of the Prime Minister and Defence Minister to find cracks in the bipartisan approach that has characterised Australia’s national security policies is reckless. Moreover, it is based on a claim that is not supported by the evidence.

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