CAMERON LECKIE. Fear mongering by a think tank funded by arms manufacturers.

Apr 21, 2020

Having a strategic policy think tank co-funded by some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers is inconsistent with providing sound policy advice that is in the broader national interest. Peter Jennings recent Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Strategist article is a desperate attempt to wrangle more taxpayer’s dollars for unnecessary defence expenditure.

The article, titled Preparing for the crisis after the crisis, describes how China is using the COVID-19 pandemic to emerge strategically stronger than the United States and its allies in the Asia-Pacific. Jennings, ASPIs Executive Director, describes a number of actions by the Chinese Government, ranging from propaganda through to military drills, which aim to extract ‘maximum advantage for itself at the expense of every other country.’ He then goes on to speculate how China may use its current advantage to create a crisis over Taiwan. From this speculation Jennings then proposes a number of steps the Australian Government should take in response; the key one being an enormous increase in defence spending from just under 2% percent of GDP to around 3.2%.

There is actually quite a lot in the article that I agree with. That China aims to emerge strategically stronger than the United States is neither controversial nor surprising but rather an acceleration of a pre-existing trend. A co-ordinated response to Chinese military opportunism by regional actors, if it was to occur (bravado via China’s English newspaper the Global Times and heightened military exercising does not count), is also reasonable. A new Defence White Paper is definitely required as is focusing on supply chain security, both of which I called for in my last P&I contribution. However from these reasonable recommendations to a requirement for a massive increase in Australian defence spending requires a considerable leap of logic.

Jennings’ seems to equate the defence of Taiwan, which the Australian Government recognises as being part of the People’s Republic of China, with the defence of Australia. Whilst Australia should actively discourage any military adventurism by the Chinese Government, just as it should discourage the United States’ tendency towards military adventurism, Australia is under no compulsion to involve itself in a conflict involving China and Taiwan. Indeed it is very difficult to see how being involved in such a conflict would make any real difference to the outcome or benefit Australia. The consequences could very well be catastrophic for both our national security and the economy.

Nowhere does Jennings indicate exactly how Australia could involve itself militarily in such as conflict. At best any Australian contribution to a conflict in the South China Sea would be token compared to the potential size of the other forces involved. The navy of the People’s Liberation Army, the largest in the world, has over 370 surface combatants and 66 submarines. Even if Australia committed all of its available surface combatants this would only amount to a handful of frigates, destroyers and submarines. China has an extensive range of missile systems, including hypersonic missiles, against which even the Carrier Battle Groups of the United States have no realistic chance of defence. The best our Navy has to counter this threat is the new Air Warfare Destroyers with a maximum missile defence range of only 150 kilometres against non-hypersonic missiles. An Australian naval contingent would be extremely vulnerable. Just how many ships and sailors lives should we be prepared to sacrifice to defend Taiwan?

Whether we like it or not, China is Australia’s largest trading partner and will remain so for many years to come. With our economy already reeling from the economic impacts of the pandemic, increasing tensions with China, up to and including involving ourselves in a military conflict would have to be one of the most counterproductive decisions an Australian Government could make. China holds the upper hand in all the matters that count. Over half of Australia’s diesel fuel transits the South China Sea and would be placed at risk; China could withhold exports to Australia of a range of critical items whilst the global crash in demand for raw materials would limit any impact of Australia restricting exports to China. The risks are asymmetrical and in China’s favour. Conflict with China would in all likelihood be an act of economic suicide.

The fact that these considerations are not even mentioned, let alone considered, highlight the underlying motive for an article of this nature. I suspect that Jennings’ is reading the Canberra tea leaves and foresees the defence budget will be placed under a lot of pressure for the foreseeable future as the Government grapples with an economic crisis that will be at least on par with the Great Depression. It should be remembered that defence spending was cut by double digit percentages for several years during the Depression. Raising the spectre of Chinese military adventurism, good old fashioned ASPI fear mongering, is the go to play for justifying increased defence expenditure. It seems that for organisations such as ASPI no matter what the circumstance the solution is always the same; more defence spending.

The primary threats that Australia faces are economic and environmental, not military, a view at least partly shared by other contributors to the ASPI Strategist such as former Chief of the Defence Force Chris Barrie and retired Army officer Michael Thomas. With the Reserve Bank already printing money to support the economy; Australia does not have the resources required to fund a response to the pandemic, adapt to environmental threats and increase military spending. Perhaps the Government could save a few pennies by ceasing ASPIs funding. As demonstrated by Peter Jennings irresponsible call for an enormous increase in defence spending, it seems that having a strategic policy think tank co-funded by some of the world’s largest arms manufacturers is inconsistent with providing sound policy advice that is in the broader national interest.

Cameron Leckie served as an officer in the Australian Army for 24 years including three operational deployments. He maintains a keen interest in strategic affairs.

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