ANDREW FARRAN. ASPI – a house divided?

May 1, 2019

It is heartening to observe that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a body heavily subsidised by the Commonwealth Government to provide objective strategic advice, is beginning to open itself up to contestable thinking on critical strategic issues. Perhaps the government, of whatever persuasion, may be about to get its money’s worth.  

For many months now we have been subjected mercilessly to a series of strategic assessments by its Executive Director, Peter Jennings, to the effect that the post-WW2 rules-based order essential for Australia’s security and prosperity could only be sustained by the continued dominance of the US in in this region. Jennings’s view is that for an Australian government to remain beholden to this assumption, and the mere hope of US protection underlying it, would be like pining for a dead parrot (Inquirer, Weekend Australian, 27-28 April, p.18). Instead the government should work to convert hope into certainty with respect to securing an on-going US commitment in spite of the geopolitical signs being otherwise.

Further, he argues, Australia should develop an agenda for wider alliance cooperation, keeping the US here as before but bringing Japan closer into the partnership, together with Indonesia (the linchpin), Malaysia and Thailand, in addition to the Pacific Islands – “as the price of the leadership role we claim for ourselves in regional security”.

Apart from the fact that this is politically unrealistic, its prosecution would be read as a further provocative, if not hostile, move against China. The presupposition is that China is bent on destabilising the region, and that it is abandoning previous adherence to the central tenants of core international legal norms. It does not allow that China might be seeking to attain a status in the system commensurate with its power and interests, no less than what the US has sought for itself since the 19th century –  overlooking that the situation in the South China Sea has its US counterparts.

Mr Jennings’ colleague, Mike Scrafton, a former senior executive of the Department of Defence and former ministerial adviser on defence, sees a similar shift in the regional power balance but advances a different strategic response (see ASPI’s The Strategist, April 26, 2019 at: Recalling the government’s 2016 Defence White Paper, he asserts that it was based on ‘“misjudgements” and blinded by an inability to distinguish Australia’s security interests from those of the US. Indeed he asserts that the US in recent times “has been corrosive of the rules-based global order”. Unlike Jennings, he views the prospect of US-led regional coalitions in future as remote.

Of necessity both of these views are in summary form only but they do define respectively the critical strategic issue facing Australia, and hopefully this is being divined in considerable more width and depth within ASPI. One view would have Australia adopting positions and making preparations that are combative towards China. Although lacking – and with little expectation of attaining – the requisite military force to back that stance, we should prod them all the same. The other advocates the need for a rethinking, for more caution in our diplomatic discourse, and would rebase the strategic assumptions underlying our defence postures and force structure in line with reality. Either way there are risks, but the former would have costs disproportionate to the advantages to be gained otherwise for national development across the board.

In effect Jennings would have us preparing for more war or wars in partnership with the US – whose recent record in warfare in terms of outcomes is negative. We should expect to be involved in conflict not only within the region but beyond if it would further the alliance. The lament presumably is that our armed forces will lack the capacity for this on present plans, if at all, until well in to the 2030s and beyond. The need for this level of preparations at this time is pure supposition as the main trend towards any major destabilisations in the region will continue to involve external insurgencies and terrorism – the countering of which in so far as we might have some responsibility doesn’t rely on capital ships and aircraft but state-of-art intelligence, low level military capabilities, and effective policing.

Jennings also advocates that we should lessen our economic dependence on China. He is probably correct in the case of some educational institutions and universities which would seem in certain respects, as a consequence, to be open to intellectual debasing and corrupt practices. But in most other respects economic inter-dependence follows supply and demand and the market. It would be counter-productive to interfere with the market for this purpose and to shed our obligations under a multitude of trade agreements and the WTO – a rules-based system we have good reason to uphold.

To give one easy example where we are already locked in dependency concerns the wool trade where China takes some 70-80% of overall wool production and controls the greater part of downstream processing and manufacturing worldwide. Is Mr Jennings advocating we sacrifice this iconic industry in all its manifestations from farm to consumer when there are no viable alternatives? These were sought in the 1990s but found wanting.

Finally one should mention Huawei, the privately owned Chinese hi-tech multinational. This matter has many more aspects than security important though that is, even if exaggerated. The issue has become compounded by the US’s failure to keep up with China in this field and is essentially political. The present US/China trade war over intellectual property is part of it. The security assessments on Huawei are not uniform and the fact that the UK has seen a way around a blanket ban on the adoption of Huawei’s technology for its 5G is indicative. The leak from the UK’s top level Security Committee can probably be explained by the fact that the issue is political and should be discussed in the public domain. The arbitrary detention in Canada and threatened extradition to the US of Ms Meng Wenzhou,   Huawei’s founder’s daughter and chief financial officer, is an abuse of legal process. US sanctions against Iran which Mrs Weng is accused of violating have no status in international law, have not been approved by the UN Security Council, and involve a territorial overreach of jurisdiction which should be condemned for its ulterior purpose.

Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, Defence Department official, law academic, and trade policy adviser. He is currently, in semi-retirement, a woolgrower.

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