DENNIS ARGALL: Australian strategic posture from here forward

May 28, 2019

There is no sign of political enthusiasm to grasp the need for coherent national strategy, but basic principles need to be put in place and three particulars need urgent attention.

Australia’s international strategy has somehow slipped to mean, in political and public minds, military strategy. This is wrong and needs to be corrected. It should be central to Australian strategy that we seek war avoidance and pursuit of Australian interests by non-military means. This should be obvious but it’s not how things stand. Resort to the use of force needs to be put back in its place as an instrument of policy, bearing in mind Clausewitz’s admonition that statesmen need to be aware that this instrument of policy, having been embarked upon, tends to drive out policy and pursue its own ends. The question must remain “what are we trying to do here, what do we need?” rather than “what will we do with these submarines that will be irrelevant to security before they slide into the water?”  (substitute aircraft, other weapon systems and the overall comprehensive integration of Australian defence forces into interoperability with US forces.) Which is the brain, which is the tail of this dog?

I should perhaps stop there.  If focus goes towards that kind of thinking all else should fall into place.

But there are three urgent needs.

1: The United States Government needs to be told clearly that Australia will not go to war with Iran. One needs to say such things while they are hypothetical.  Leaving aside arguing this way and that on issues, such a war would not work. Some basics:

Iran area 1.6 million square kilometers.  Just a bit less than the combined land area of the UK 240,000, France 640,000, Germany 357,000 and Spain 506,000.

Iran culturally complex. They already had very complex societies and governance, agriculture, industry and defence capacity long before the brave English King Richard the Lionheart paid to use the flag of St George of Genoa to sail safely along the scary Mediterranean to whack Muslims. To go to war now with Iran, leaving out of the equation the use of nuclear weapons, would be like the old joke about Russia attacking China: “on day 1 the Russians advanced and took a million prisoners; on days two and three they did the same again… and on day four they surrendered.” Ludicrous, foolish to contemplate…but inasmuch as Bolton dreams about it, we need to say “no, not us, not this time” even before thinking through the Iran issues which do not compel to violence. It is a curious situation to have Trump as best hope against madness.

2: US and China. Interesting that while Jeff Bezos who made Amazon owns the Washington Post, Jack Ma, his China equivalent, who established Alibaba, now owns the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.  A better paper since Murdoch gave it up.

On 21 May 2019 the SCMP gave substantial coverage to President Xi Jinping’s speech commemorating the Long March, in which for a year, in 1934-35,  the Chinese Communist Party walked away from conflict to survival and a future.

A Long March in which Bob Hawke’s great friend. General Secretary Hu Yaobang, was once left on the battlefield triaged to die, and on another occasion was sentenced to death — Hu, whose purging and later death in 1989 precipitated the popular push for freedom in Tiananmen Square, after the crushing of which Hawke wept at a service in Parliament House in Canberra and granted residence to a host of Chinese in Australia at that time, the second wave of Chinese to shape Australia. I am old enough to have seen the anti-Chinese yellow peril advertising by conservatives in the 1950s, wise enough to recognise the old-as-Australia hysterical nonsense in the tide of anti-Chinese sentiment being whipped up now in Australia. We have to get back to the values in the Australia-China relationship as they were before they vanished under money and thoughtlessness in the Howard years. We don’t have to agree with China on everything, just as we should not have to agree with the US on everything.  The mark of a valuable country, a valuable friend, is possession of clear mind, with confidence and ability to express views that are fair, clear and directed at positive outcomes. Views that add, not just mimic. A vice foreign minister in Beijing, one night as we politely endured a long cultural event together in 1985, said: “we have always appreciated the way you have dealt with difficult issues. You have made Australia’s interests clear and Australia’s views are seen by us in that light and unlike the United States Australia has dealt with issues calmly, unlike our situation with the United States, where issues too often are inflamed and insoluble.

We tell, or we should tell, our children such principles. Easy.  Can we get back to that sort of practical decency.  Back from in the immaturity of social media and the general rubbish of much mainstream news in Australia about the region, our attention dragged to saucy margins. Can we focus on the fact that China’s population is 56 times greater than Australia’s population; that China has land borders with fourteen other countries; that the fifty five ethnic minority populations in China number around 120 million, about five Australias. Imagine our border security chiefs dealing with all that!

China is positioning itself for likely failure of sensible negotiation with the Trump Administration. Xi Jinping has called on China to undertake another Long March. We do not know to what extent China may need to discard its western financial assets. China holds over a trillion dollars in US Treasury Notes. The prospect is not of flamboyant shedding of such assets, but we should expect China to continue as now to pick apart dependence on the dollar in international finance. There is a measure of hysteria about the BRI, China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As noted above China is a continental state, with borders with fourteen other countries and long traditions and modern practical advantages in rail and other ground connection with the world. White globalism has a history of talking down to China. China now expects others to understand its five principles of peaceful coexistence. This is a useful little paper from Columbia University on that.

Contrast with the dominant meme in US strategic thinking, as first articulated by Alfred Thayer Mahan, first commandant of the US Naval War College. Thousands of metres of writing and doctrine-building about that but at its core, the idea that there can only be one dominant navy, one dominant power. As articulated not least by former president Clinton to the 2012 Democratic Party nominating convention: “We can and we will be great again.” That’s a dream, a problem-building dream, not a basis for strategy that works unless for example you really just want to be National Security Advisor to the President and have a big horse.

There is a big clash between how China and the US see the world.  We need to be focused on defining Australian interests and the weight we give to negotiation and dispute resolution on the one hand and violence on the other.  In a letter to then Foreign Minister Downer in 2003, I wrote:

I have become increasingly of the view… that it is in the nature of modern war that it tends, more than anything else – certainly it does not tend to ‘victory’ – to import into the righteous invading countries the problems you seek to eliminate by invading.

I also said then that

I am … of the view that since September 2001 we have been watching events and strategic responses unfolding as at the outbreak of war in 1914:

  • Delusions of moral rectitude.
  • Defence of imperial status quo.
  • Nothing but narrow military options.
  • Resort to alliances, hostility to thought.
  • Vilification of the enemy, climate of fear and promotion of paranoia.
  • Simplistic notions of victory, expectations of speedy end.
  • Failure to address real wider issues.
  • Enveloping sea of violence.

Alex didn’t reply. The problems still swell. We are so stuck that we have lost track of how permissible vocabulary and attitude have shrunk since 2001 as also we fail to see that the diverse horrors around the planet as they proliferate are directly comparable to the out-of-control mental frameworks and eruptions of WW1. As a nation we shut up fifteen years ago, as told to do. But the wrongs against which people spoke in 2003 are there still and are larger, smothered though they may be by downloadable pap projectable on finer and finer TV screens, far from reality.

3: Indonesia

Somehow we have to have a brain-reset about Indonesia. Away from cheap holidays to understanding that this country next door with ten times Australia’s population has a GINI coefficient (measure of inequality) not far from Australia’s. Its GDP will very soon pass Australia’s. Its affluent consumer class will soon be eight times Australia’s population. Had Indonesia at any time pursued adventurist power projection policies like Australia’s we would have fainted long ago and gone home to mamma. It is amazing that sensible nearby countries dealing with huge problems in development have continued to take seriously almost all Australian leaders, or at least receive them politely. If we cannot advance in prosperity with Indonesia then we will as a medical professional suggested to me some time ago, be the white trash of Asia. Many of us in the foreign service from the 1950s and 1960s, when national perspectives were too often disrespectful and harmful sought to advance Australian interests in the world positively, avoiding the manner and style of Apartheid era South Africa in arrogance and ignorance. We have to make up for lost time.

Dennis Argall’s career in public service was cut short by illness.  For a time he was head of the parliament’s research service, before that in domestic, defence and foreign affairs departments and overseas postings including as Counselor and Acting Minister in Washington and as Ambassador to China.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!