Australian defence: from self-reliance to subsidising US war with China

Feb 23, 2024
Three cogwheels on slate background with the flags of USA and the China and a question-mark in the middle

Our leaders have rendered us America’s pawn, contractually. Australia has abrogated the right to choose peace with China. Dumbly. Unnecessarily. Deceitfully. For political ends. We once had a leader who put Australia’s security before the desires of a distant, powerful protector. What is the prospect of chancing upon another of Curtinian quality?

Periodically, it is fashionable among Australia’s geostrategic glitterati to ask what to do about America, as if that’s never really been addressed. Of course, the question has dogged Australian governments and officialdom at least from the day Foreign Minister Percy Spender signed the ANZUS treaty in San Francisco in 1951. Having obtained a treaty we then wondered what it meant? It fell short of what we asked for, which was one just like NATO’s with Article 5, please. But what Spender obtained was most unlike NATO. ANZUS holds no assurance that America will assist with armed force if Australia is attacked. It was no oversight. America tenaciously rebuffed such commitment.

As a face-saver America agreed to a “treaty” with a non-committing clause – to “consult” should one or other party be threatened. But ever alert to political opportunity, PM Menzies acclaimed ANZUS to the Australian public as if it contained NATO’s Article 5 security for Australia. The bluster and deceit has been maintained by Australian governments and media to this day. Today most Australians believe that the US guarantees our security.

At the time even the hard-heads in Defence and Foreign Affairs were hopeful that the treaty might be interpreted generously by the Americans. But it didn’t take long for that optimism to evaporate. Repeatedly, over the first twenty years, America made it clear that it saw the treaty running in its direction. On issues with Indonesia (eg konfrontasi) Australia had unambiguous signals that we were expected to deal with regional issues independently. Meanwhile we were sending our forces into faraway situations created by the US, suffering heavy consequences viz Korea, Vietnam.

The unlikely choice of self reliance

Then in 1969 President Nixon announced the Guam doctrine – each US ally nation in Asia was considered by the US to be in charge of its own security. After two decades of Australia faffing over ANZUS, clarity emerged. The major political parties were at one that Australia should take responsibility for its own defence.

Looking back, that was an extraordinary step for Australia. We acted promptly by restructuring the defence assets – the three military arms were folded into a Defence Force with the organisation overseen jointly by a civilian and military head. Which portended a revolution in thinking.

By 1976 a comprehensive blueprint was ready. Australia’s first ever White Paper on Defence spelt out the intellectual, practical and financial basis for an Australia secured by self-reliant defences:

“A primary requirement is for increased self reliance… we no longer base our policy on expectation that Australia’s forces will be sent abroad to fight as part of some other nation’s force.

“we believe that any operations are much more likely to be in our own neighbourhood than in some distant or forward theatre… we owe it to ourselves to be able to mount a national defence effort that would maximise the risks and costs of any aggression.“

For the transformation to work clarity was necessary around America’s role. Our concepts would be directed to defence of Australia. Our scarce resources would not be applied to anyone else’s priorities. It was agreed that American forces would have no operational role in our defence planning. Should America request armed assistance from us and it was judged in our interest, any contribution would be drawn from assets acquired for our own defences. But only after any competing Australian needs were met.

America fully supported this regime throughout the decades.

Australia’s defence policy unambiguously pursued self- reliance over many and varied governments. The objective was articulated in every government review and white paper – until the ascent of PM Abbott. With bipartisan acceptance, even though it meant hard, big decisions from governments. The Hawke government scrapped Navy’s aircraft carrier, to reorient our focus to land-based defences. Large expenditures went preferentially to new equipment, infrastructure and bases across the north. Our ports were a focus for anti-mining measures. We developed a peculiar hybrid of technology which overcame the tyranny of vast maritime surrounds making them a singular strength -our over- the- horizon radar network is unique, unmatched anywhere. Our confidence in detecting air movements all across our northern approaches and beyond went from zero to 95%. Similar numbers apply to ships. A profound increment in the fundamentals of maximising risk for any aggressor, with pervasive synergies.

Three decades after embarking on the self-reliance journey Australia had created a formidable capacity to “maximise the risks and costs of any aggression”. We did it our way, overcoming seemingly insurmountable barriers. With political unity generally.

Sadly, no Defence Minister ever took the trouble to explain to Australians what had been achieved – how and why we should be confident of our security without American forces.

Receding self reliance

Things changed abruptly with the Obama presidency, and its geostrategic “tilt to Asia”. President Obama’s visit here in 2010, grasped as electorally advantageous by the waning Gillard government, put an end to pursuit of self- reliance. The principles of our hard-won independence were eroded almost overnight. Unsaid. Infused with political gratuity. Obama was applauded by our Parliament in announcing that henceforth the US would rotate marine soldiers through northern Australia in increasing numbers.

At the time it looked like a US attempt to turn Australia to joining US competition with China. Ever since it has looked more and more exactly that. We are now fourteen years on from the Gillard capitulation. That period has seen continual sly, escalating obeisance to Americas objectives against China. With no heed to the contradiction that while America identifies China as its chief strategic opponent, it is both the centre of our region and Australia’s foremost trading partner.

In 2014 Foreign Minister Julie Bishop signed a “Force Posture Agreement” (FPA) with US Secretary of State John Kerry, who dines on foreign ministers. The FPA permits US naval and air forces to be based in Australia, to mount operations into our region. At America’s discretion and sole direction, with token consultation. The obvious object being China. The stationing of B52 bombers at Tindal equipped with long stand-off nuclear tipped cruise missiles (near impossible to intercept), makes the devastation of China’s big eastern cities achievable any day, by lunchtime, with confidence, on a signal from Washington.

China must now see that Australia is a permanent threat to its existence, and we have no say in that role. Because America can attack China freely from our shores the FPA effectively means that if US operations are mounted against China, from anywhere, Australia will find itself automatically at war with China.

The Abbott government knew what it was conceding to America in the FPA. Peter Dutton later as a minister of the Morrison government observed that it would be “inconceivable” for Australia not to join a US conflict against China. Yet not a murmur was heard from our Parliament following Bishop signing away our sovereignty. Or even since, ten years on. PM Albanese recently made virtue of the acquiescence saying national security was purposely quarantined from criticism when Labor was in opposition.

A profound blunder by Abbott and Bishop, impossible to overstate. Compounded by a decade of Parliamentary ignominy.

No longer is our defence spending solely for Australia’s priorities. Increasingly since the Obama visit, funds appropriated for Australia’s defence have been directed towards subsidising US confrontation with China. Alongside American staff being internalised here.

The zenith of our conservative governments’ distorting profligacy is the nuclear submarine of AUKUS. Designed to attack China’s nuclear submarines in and around its waters, it is said that PM Morrison created the arrangement in order to “make a meaningful contribution” to US operations against China. All of this project is madness- most obviously the cost borne by us. The project could only be confected by an authentic fool. Any number of credible authorities condemn it. See Hugh White recently.

The Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR) was drafted by a US- educated academic without experience of Australia’s defence or its intellectual capital. Necessarily delivering a view built on books and American perspective; now at the United States Studies Centre at Sydney University, underwritten by our Defence outlays and US patronage.

That DSR recommended that our Army be developed for amphibious attack operations -such as is embedded in US plans for combat in the Island Chain off China with US marines. One wonders how Australia’s Army greets this role- itself deeply encultured with the primacy of the direct defence of Australia.

Minister Marles then appointed a former US admiral to further review Australia’s naval future. The criteria are withheld but it’s a sound bet that the China strategy of the Pentagon was more a factor than was Australia’s self- defence. That report is in and only just responded to by government.

One could go on. Enough has been said to demonstrate that every Australian government since Gillard’s has led Australia into an embrace of US Indo- Pacific re-posturing against China – quietly, slyly, progressively conceding sovereignty and diverting effort and scarce resources from our own hard-won and capable sovereign defence prowess. Without ever frankly saying that the days of self- reliance are over: ie that Australian defence policy is now consumed by something else, contradictory to the policy of preceding decades, which essentially we have no control over.

Creating security policy for Australia again

Astute observers are now picking how governments have failed us. Professor James Curran kindly observes that: “The Morrison and Albanese governments have struggled to articulate a compelling case to the Australian people about the nature of the threat and defence capabilities needed to confront it. Indeed, the entire edifice of current Australian strategic policy is founded on a largely unstated, untested and purported “threat”.”

No doubt Curran knows that anyone can look up Pentagon reports to Congress to find detailed American threat assessments: that China is stressed to handle even modest Taiwan contingencies. If it weren’t for America, Australia would be watching thoughtfully but probably increasing defence spending only selectively.

A more basic concern is that Australian governments do not recognise the risk imposed on us by this American pretext in the Pacific. Our governments have shown themselves manipulable and incapable of protecting our sovereign interest in dealing with US pressure.

It is a modest encouragement that none of our sell-out governments have specifically rescinded the pursuit of self- reliance. Surely that is our comeback point now. America should be reminded that it agreed Australia owes it to itself to pursue its self- defence. On its own President’s advice. And reminded of its obdurate failure to dignify our friendship with a treaty as if we really matter. These are enduring anchors in our relationship, which must not be brushed aside when it suits our powerful friend.

America can withdraw at any time, on the whim of a President. Leaving Australia in utter disarray. Australia’s need for self-reliance has not altered; it’s just ignored.

Even without the volatility of US politics, the risks dictate that Australia pursues self- reliance. Australia must revisit the Force Posture Agreement – Australian sovereignty being the issue. Our autonomy has to be retrieved. The FPA has an exit provision of 3 months notice, available to either party.

Australia’s leaders have deceived us into America’s service. Dumbly. Unnecessarily. For political ends. We once had a Prime Minister who, against formidable might, put Australia’s interests before the desires of a distant, powerful protector. John Curtin knew when a new time had to come. What is the prospect of Australia finding another of Curtinian quality? Able to discern and protect Australia’s interest above all others’, against the tide. The rest would follow.

(Postscript: I had the privilege of a working career in the body created to steward the transformation of the 1976 White Paper, “Force Development and Analysis Division” in Defence.)

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