De-risking Australia: separating our vital interests from America’sJul 7, 2023
Does it really matter that Australia’s defence policy has no moorings, and is created unaware of past pain, lessons and policy responses? By agents with unknown interests. And that American influence has been ushered into this void, most recently by Minister Marles?
‘De-risking’ is the latest term in geopolitics. It mostly concerns China. European leaders made headlines with a pledge to de-risk from China, and to meet to discuss what that means.
De-risking is nothing new. Nor is it difficult conceptually. It first requires leaders to stand back dispassionately and identify, weigh and ameliorate risks. Dealing with the results is the difficult bit.
Hence, for Australia the United States has to be our start point. Identifying America as Australia’s largest security risk puts us in revered company. Recall Kissinger’s insight: “To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.”
But decades ago Australia’s leaders did not need Kissinger to alert them to the dangers of befriending America in a security pact. That became starkly evident with our experience of the Vietnam war. The United States fabricated a security threat to Australia, and effectively presented an ultimatum to join in forcefully reshaping Asian geopolitics to its liking. The ruthlessness in and around that experience transformed security thinking in Australia’s leaders. It evinced an elemental rethink of our security risk. Australia’s leaders, on both sides, concluded that Australia had to be self- reliant in its defence. And set out on a long de-risking path to achieve that objective. Which was successful.
I have covered this process before – it began under the Whitlam government and was accepted bi-partisanly in the first ever White Paper of 1976. The parallels with today’s strategic dilemma for Australia are uncanny. America is fabricating a military threat from China. Thereby walking back on four decades of acceptance that Australia chose to be self-reliant. It is now demanding integration of our defence forces into its planning against China on its south-east flank. To control China’s maritime supply.
That is a dagger at the throat of every economy in Asia. Particularly Australia’s.
America Flooding Into Policy Vacuum
It is remarkable that today’s security thought leaders have no awareness of Australia’s strategic rethink after the Vietnam debacle. Which resulted in an explicit strategy to de-risk from the United States. That is, the risk of America already has been weighed by our most serious strategic minds. Experienced diplomats with policy mileage -from the breadth of Arthur Tange to the meticulous intellect of his deputy Gordon Blakers. And worked through parliament painstakingly. Yet today’s “thought leaders” and influencers openly display ignorance of this seminal achievement.
Kevin Rudd, former PM and now ambassador to the US, recently met with a Washington think tank and observed :
“The truth is the evolution of Australian defence strategy and policy and doctrine in the post-Second World War era has gone through several phases. We went through a period of extended what we used to call forward defence, which was largely in partnership with the United States but others in the region, through the ’50s and the ’60s through – and ’70s of different organising principles. But, essentially, that was the principle and therefore a great emphasis on naval capabilities, of air capabilities capable of reaching deep into the region, but also over time let’s call it expeditionary forces on land to partner with the United States in multiple theaters. And the post-’45 history reflects how that worked.
Then, beginning in the mid-’80s, we began to transition towards what’s called in our part of the world a DOA doctrine, Defence of Australia. And starting probably with the Dibb Report of 1986, I think –“
Rudd’s knowledge is comprehensively deficient. Ignoring Vietnam shows that its influence is unappreciated. And Australia began to transition to “defence of Australia” a full decade earlier than Rudd knows. And it brought less, not “great”, emphasis on naval capabilities. The first ever Cabinet decision of the Hawke government was to retire the Navy’s aircraft carrier without replacement. Land-based air defence and strike capabilities being the most cost- effective foundation for our new posture.
And nothing significant started with the Dibb Report. It was little more than a ten-year update on progress since the founding White Paper of 1976, with the department’s tutelage. The Dibb thing really was to allow Minister Beazley to avoid addressing certain strategic nonsense from certain military stakeholders. That’s when the frailty of Beazley’s ticker was exposed. These days Beazley seems bent on reinventing history to his own acclaim, by eliminating the decade of innovation and progress which he inherited.
Australia’s public security intellectuals are similarly deficient. While also defined by America, overtly. Defence Minister Marles would have approved the choice of Peter Dean, an academic/think-tanker, to draft the Defence Strategic Review (DSR). Dean is on record expressing the same ignorance as Rudd of our strategic policy foundations. With his background strong on US influence and devoid of Australian policy pedigree, it is unsurprising that the thrust of the DSR dovetails with America’s military planning against China. Dean now works for the US Studies Centre.
Does it really matter that our defence policy has no moorings, created unaware of past pain, lessons and policy responses? By agents with unknown interests. And that American influence has been ushered into this void, most recently by Minister Marles?
America More the Danger
Today, even more compelling reasons exist to treat America as our dominant security risk. The evidence is everywhere except in mainstream western media and political lexicon. The US proxy war in Europe against Russia is a fresh exemplar of the hapless fate of America’s friends and allies. Its tentacles reaching far beyond Ukraine. But don’t take my word for it. Knowledgeable American commentators are providing damning material online. Finkelstein’s strategic analysis is extensive and shows the facility with which America will see its European “friends” demolished. And here a sagacious US military officer, Col Douglas MacGregor, rips through the facade around the Ukraine conflict.
A superpower cannot bury nation states systematically without a modus operandi. Leaving fingerprints. This explanation by American Brian Berlectic coldly pulls the evidence together, directly relevant to China, and ourself. He starts slowly but stick with it.
So now to the hard part – de-risking from the America of today. Fellow Pearls commentators Michael Keating and Mike Scrafton each have pointed to the tension between the Albanese government’s foreign policy, of peaceful strategic equilibrium in our region, and its defence posture to preserve American hegemony. It is obvious where change has to be wrought.
On assuming office Defence Minister Marles inherited a defence posture which was progressively coalescing our forces with America’s to attack China. Marles then enhanced it. This Minister is foremost a defence enthusiast, displaying no judgement on his ultimate responsibility. His immediate enthusiasm to prostrate himself before a key Washington think tank was telling. Not only did the Minister fail to recognise the nuclear submarine circus as primarily an outlandish LNP electoral wedge, designed to press buttons on traditional Labor nuclear and defence spending nerves, but then “improved upon” the absurdity by doubling its already unspeakable price. History suggests the cost will be near a trillion dollars.
Australia has no credibility in seeking regional equilibrium while it is embedded in American operations against China. Including assisting nuclear first strike from America, by hunting China’s counterforce submarines. This is the hidden bottom line of our defence posture and its crushing spending implications. The nuclear submarine wedge was not demanded by the US but confected secretly by the LNP. It should be unpicked similarly.
So, de-risking Australia’s security from America is primarily a diplomatic challenge. We have re-arranged Defence before in response to foreign policy, with practical and impressive outcomes. Today, once more, fresh self-centred thinking, structures and people transparently independent and accountable to government are the way back to a defence policy which separates our vital interests from America’s.
Finally, I must acknowledge that without the influence of my late friend Dennis Argall, once our ambassador to China, little of what I say would have been possible.
For more on this topic, we recommend: