The Defence Strategic Review: What suffering will we accept to keep America in first place?

Sep 13, 2022
Royal Australian Air Force Aircrew in a Boeing F/A-18F aircraft while it taxis at Avalon Airport.
Image: iStock

Do we want to risk incalculable suffering to prevent America from slipping to ‘second place’ among the nations of the world?  Without serious assessment of what cost we are willing to pay in the Defence Strategic Review – how much death and destruction we can tolerate – planning for war is little more than a vacuous exercise.

On August 3rd the government announced the establishment of a Strategic Review of Australian Defence jointly chaired by Stephen Smith and Angus Houston. The Prime Minister explained that as our national security landscape changes ’it is vital that our defence force remains positioned to meet our global and regional security challenges.’ The report will be delivered in early 2023.

It seems most unlikely that any new or creative ideas will emerge. Even if they did it is doubtful if they would be welcome by the government. The Labor Party has been so determined to avoid being ‘wedged’ by the Coalition that it has given uncritical support to every measure relating to defence and security introduced since 2013. Whether there has been internal debate is hard to determine. It relinquished the role of an Opposition, robbing the whole community of the rigorous debate essential to national life. It is not as if the last decade has lacked issues that were both contentious and momentous. But the wide range of opinion out there in the community rarely surfaced in the parliament.

This brings us to the problem of the AUKUS agreement of 2021. Defence Minister Richard Marles has predetermined the Review’s outcome declaring that it would explore opportunities to ‘better integrate and operate’ with the United States, the United Kingdom and other strategic partners. A contemporaneous ALP discussion paper proudly declared that the party had’ given bipartisan support to the AUKUS partnership with the Unites States and the United Kingdom to strengthen the Asia-Pacific’ –whatever that means. There is no suggestion that notice should be taken of the growing public disquiet about AUKUS. But even more concerning is the intimation that it is already a fait accompli and now beyond question. We must recall here that we know so little about the provenance of the agreement. It was entirely the work of Scott Morrison and negotiated in secret. Equally secret was his close personal relationship with Mike Pompeo. When every aspect of Morrison’s legacy is currently being appropriately called into question can the ALP continue to hold the position that AUKUS is beyond reach of sceptical re-examination? That we must henceforth be perpetually tethered to Morrison’s most consequential and arguably most portentous decision?

With a little deft diplomacy the government could use this moment to step back from AUKUS. And there are good reasons to so do. Is the Review expected to take account of the current turmoil in America with the up- coming mid-term elections? It is no longer a stable or predictable diplomatic presence. Any serious survey would give consideration to Malcom Fraser’s cogently argued view that America is our most dangerous ally. And then there is Britain’s role in AUKUS. Should we give solace to a nation desperate to regain a global role post-Brexit, to return after many years absence to the world east of Suez? It is doubtful if any of our Pacific and South-East Asian neighbours look forward to the return of the erstwhile colonial powers to the region with old bull belligerence on their minds.

North Australia presents a new set of problems for defence planners. In a recent article (P&I 17/8/22) John Menadue explained how it is becoming a U.S military colony committed to what is called’ high end war fighting.’ But it can no longer be treated as terra nullius as were the central deserts in the 1960’s facilitating Britain’s nuclear tests. Vast areas of the north are now held as native title. Small permanent and semi-permanent homelands are scattered across the landscape. Much of the most vulnerable coastline and off-shore waters are controlled by the ‘salt-water’ people. The First Nations are politically organised and have both moral authority and discursive power. At some point they will have to be consulted about the plans for their homelands to be thrust into the front line of impending war which they may have little commitment to. The Review will be seriously deficient if, as we might expect, it is silent on the impact on the First Nations and their homelands.

The lack of serious debate about defence policy leaves the field open to reactions which are more visceral than intellectual; atavistic rather than analytic. During the first half of the 20th century strategic thinking was burdened with two obsessions. There was the yellow peril focussed on Japan. Then there was the powerful input of the Empire loyalists who could not distinguish between what was necessary for Australia’s national interests and what was best for the Empire. We have contemporary manifestations of both obsessions. Commitment to America or to ‘the West’ is widespread and often appears to overreach loyalty to the Australian nation and its people. Our fear of China has grown rapidly over the last five years carefully nurtured by the security establishment and the main stream media. A study released yesterday by the Australia Institute concluded that Australians are more worried about being attacked by China than their Taiwanese counterparts. One in ten of us believe China will attack our country which is double the number of Taiwanese who fear a similar offensive. Slightly more Australians (85%) than Taiwanese (80%) perceived China as aggressive. The Institute’s director of their International and Security programme Allan Behm observed that it was ‘astonishing’ that more Australians than Taiwanese were afraid of an attack.

But as well as being astonishing this fear is a political fact of great significance. It is self -perpetuating and obstructs the attempt to re-set relations with China. It provides a deep reservoir of Sinophobia that can reliably be drawn upon by the many groups committed to the mission of ‘standing up to China.’ In fact it seriously cramps our diplomatic mobility. Indeed the distorted, unrealistic view of China nourishes an equally unrealistic view of America and the ANZUS alliance and bolsters our chronic sense of dependence. And it can be cynically played upon in exactly the same way that the British before 1914 used the Australian fear of Japan, which they thought was overblown.

All the evidence available to us at the moment suggests that the central purpose of the Defence Review is to mobilise our forces to confront China. The failure to frankly spell this out leads into a tangle of obfuscation. But it will also disguise the reality underpinning it all that whatever planning we do will be entirely dependent on American politics and strategic doctrine. Things will be the same as they have been virtually since the South African war at the time of federation. If and when we go to war will be decided elsewhere as will the question of who we fight, where we fight and in what manner we fight. Any strategic plans we have can only be tentative and likely to swing in any wind change emanating from Washington. The reason for war, the justification, the supporting rhetoric can be easily manufactured as we learnt when we joined the illegal crusade to destroy Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Can the Review or indeed the Australian people accept that what we are seeing is a struggle for supremacy? The dynamics of which were set out by President Obama in his first State of the Union address in January 2010 when he declared: ‘I do not accept second place for the United States of America.’ We have to decide how much we are willing to sacrifice for the perpetuation of American global supremacy. That is a decision we simply cannot avoid before we get swept away in a torrent of catastrophic violence. For this will not be a replay of our long tradition of sending often quite small expeditionary forces to American wars far away in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. We will be in the centre of a war fought in our neighbourhood far away from our ‘western’ allies be they in NATO, ANZUS or AUKUS.

It is all very well for the government to review our defence ‘posture’ but without a serious assessment of what cost we are willing to pay, how much death and destruction we can tolerate, planning for war is little more than a vacuous exercise. The inescapable question staring us in the face is: do we want to risk incalculable suffering to try and prevent America from slipping down to second or even equal first place among the nations of the world?

Read more in our Defence Strategic Review series of articles.

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