In his important new book How to Defend Australia, Hugh White has placed before us a very clear picture of the contemporary security challenges now confronting Australia. First and foremost is China’s re-emergence as a (or maybe the) major power in the Western Pacific. This challenge for Australia is heightened by the Trump administration’s confusing responses to Beijing’s assertiveness across the region. Moreover, the United States may not be all that interested in guaranteeing Australia’s security into the next three or four decades. And even if it were so inclined, will its military capabilities be able to easily counter those of a risen China?
In the decades since World War II, complacency rather than realism has characterised the country’s foreign and security policy-making processes. We can refer to this pathology as “the great Australian complacency” (GAC). Our political leaders (of all stripes) continue to wilfully ignore the glaring ambiguities and strategic inadequacies of the ANZUS alliance in the face of growing security challenges in the Western Pacific.
Despite advice from a succession of experts for almost a century now, Australian policy has assumed a persistently Anglospherist focus, distracting it from a deeper understanding of the remarkable transformations going on in its immediate geographical neighbourhood. Claiming to be a middle power, Australia in fact has been an awkward partner in its region, similar to Britain’s long-standing awkwardness in its relations with Europe.
Australia’s awkward partnering is especially evident in its diplomacy with Asian states that are crucial to its security and economic prosperity – especially Indonesia, India and China. This awkwardness has become all the more problematic in the light of contemporary America’s awkward partnering with its traditional allies, as well as Donald Trump’s fake partnering with the likes of Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and Rodrigo Duterte.
At the same time, Australia has been unforgivably awkward in its relations with the island states in the South Pacific. Canberra’s arrogant dismissal of those states’ concerns about climate change and rising sea levels has opened the regional door to China. At the same time, Australian governments have been stupidly reluctant to develop a well-regulated temporary working visa program for South Pacific Island citizens to work in this country in areas where there are labour shortages – for example, in rural Australia.
It is impossible to predict at this stage precisely what kind of big power China will be in the Western Pacific. There are, however, important historical reasons to imagine that it could be different to the super powers that dominated global politics after World War II up to the collapse of the USSR. So far, the China debate in Australia is being conducted between “hysterics” on one side and “panda huggers” on the other. This is the antithesis of the cool, hard-headed and informed debate that is urgently needed about what Australia’s China policy should be. It is reminiscent of the crudest versions of Cold War politics. We have to do much better.
It is also too easily forgotten that the America with which Australia signed the ANZUS treaty in 1951 is not the same America today. The contemporary USA is deeply riven by a range of populist-nationalist, isolationist, racist, and socio-economic divides. Its leadership is increasingly unpredictable. It would be foolish to bank on the United States remaining a reliable ally. It’s time to halt Australia’s characteristic impulsiveness to rush off to America’s wars – particularly as the crisis in the Middle East deepens and a potential conflict with Iran looms. As Malcolm Fraser wisely advised back in 2014, it’s time for Australia to seriously think about divesting itself of its ANZUS obligations altogether.
Moreover, today Australia is a very different country to the one that signed the ANZUS treaty over half a century ago. Back then Australia was a small, querulous country high on nostalgia about the British Empire which even then was in terminal decline. The white Australia policy isolated it from its region. And most Australians were naively convinced that allying with (relying on) “great and powerful friends” was the way of the future. Today Australia is a richly multicultural country. It’s time for us to awaken to both the challenges and opportunities that await us in the region.
Hugh White’s timely analysis of Australia’s looming security challenges has led him to conclude that Australia must think about doubling its defence budget while radically re-shaping its military preparedness, even asking whether the country should contemplate acquiring nuclear weapons. He wants Australia to become a “strategically independent middle power.”
However, it is s not enough to focus simply on Australia’s military capabilities – especially their inadequacies. As Professor John Langmore has also recently pointed out, Australia has to comprehensively restore its diplomatic resources. For years now DFAT’s budgets have been serially depleted by governments in thrall to the GAC. A highly educated and culturally and linguistically sophisticated diplomatic corps is as important for Australia’s security today as a strong military.
A major part of the new diplomacy will be to develop a range of multilateral relationships with like-minded states on a range of issues of mutual concern. These must include alliances to tackle climate change, terrorist threats, disease pandemics, the refugee crisis, human right matters, and so forth. In dealing with conflicting relations between big states (China, the USA, Russia) and other threatening states (North Korea) Australian diplomats could well think about reprising something like the post-War Non-Aligned Movement. There are historical lessons to be learned from that development.
Australia needs to go on a major cultural diplomacy offensive in its region, explaining itself to its neighbours, many of whom have some fundamentally wrong ideas about the land down under. In addition to expanding Australian Studies programs in major Asian universities, it’s time to send Australian drama, music, films, writers, dancers and artists to major Asian festivals. This should include popular cultural participation too. Instead of the ridiculous participation of Australian popstars in the Eurovision contest, for example, Australia should be sponsoring an annual Asia-vision contest.
Back home, there is also much to be done. As the Garnaut Report of 1989 and the Henry Report of 2012 both recommended, Australians urgently need to be taught about Asia in their schools and universities. Asia-literacy and Asia-awareness in this country is at appallingly low levels. To advance Australia’s prosperity there is a need to educate a substantial corps of highly proficient and knowledgeable people about Asia in order to staff government, business and academic/research positions and to create layered-in relationships at all levels in the many other areas of Australia-Asia contact. In the area of security there is a lack of expert Asia hands with the language and content studies that would enable them to closely follow developments and to understand them in contemporary and historical frameworks.
How to defend Australia is not therefore simply a military responsibility. It is very much more complex than that.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne-based academic. His book Australian Foreign Policy in Asia: Middle Power or Awkward Partner? was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.