Australia’s Defence:  All the way with the USA, again?

The PM’s July speech launching the new strategic documents presents an alarming picture of the state of our immediate region, on which he says the Government will focus.

However, he goes on to endorse our alliance with the US, which he describes as “ever-closer” and “the foundation of our defence policy”.  He wants us to be a “better and more effective ally” of the US.  There’s nothing in the speech to indicate that there’s been any sustained examination of the regional situation from a non-military standpoint.

The PM’s speech to ADFA on July 1, launching the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the 2024 Structure Plan, contains some contradictions.  Importantly, it asserts that the Update represents “a significant pivot” from the objectives outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper (the only obvious change is the omission of “operations in support of the rules-based global order”), to “focus on our immediate region”.

But later in the speech, he says that “We remain prepared to make military contributions outside of our immediate region, where it is in our national interests to do so, including in support of US-led coalitions”.

Later in the same section, he is fulsome about our relationship with the US, which of course many countries now fear is an unreliable ally.  He refers to our “ever-closer alliance with the US, which is the foundation of our defence policy.  The security assurances and intelligence-sharing and technological and industrial cooperation we enjoy with the United States are and will remain, critical to our national security.  They are enduring.  But if we are to be a better and more effective ally we must be prepared to invest in our own security”.

Earlier in the speech the PM notes that “Relations between China and the US are fractious at best, as they compete for political, economic and technological supremacy”.  The next day the Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, made it clear what the Government thinks of that competition when she said that “some of China’s actions have deeply unsettled the region.  They have not positively contributed to Australia’s – or the region’s – security and stability.  Australia is far from alone in being troubled by this”.

So is the PM holding out the prospect of Australia, as a loyal ally, becoming enlisted in a US-led coalition against China, our largest trading partner?  Surely that is the last thing that Australians want.

The speeches by the PM and Defence Minister, on successive days, contain a great deal of interest, too much to respond to in one article.  Costs, and the extent of new money involved in the announced programs, are one example.  The availability of skilled personnel for the programs is another.  Sam Roggeveen has dealt with the dangers in the planned examination of acquiring long-range strike weapons in articles in Lowy’s “Interpreter” and the SMH (3 July).  Another issue is the way in which the need to acquire longer-range missiles for the Hornets glosses over the reason for this, namely the not-real-world time-lags accepted for the extraordinarily expensive programs to acquire the new submarines and F35 aircraft.

And finally, as various commentators have pointed out, there’s no mention of a foreign policy examination of what might be done to cope using non-military means with an Indo-Pacific in which, to quote the PM again, “the institutions of patterns of cooperation that have benefited our prosperity and security for decades, are now under increasing—and almost irreversible—strain”.  Shouldn’t this have preceded, not followed, all this defence-oriented positioning and action—that is if it happens at all?

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Geoff Miller is a former Australian government official and diplomat.

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