JACK WATERFORD. Not quite Custer’s last stand, yet

Australia must have an independent defence policy as American power in Asia and the Pacific wanes. But there’s no reason to think us friendless.

Hugh White is travelling the nation’s highways and byways trying to scare Australians out of their complacency about the nation’s security  — not least by raising again the prospect of Australia’s being naked and abandoned, particularly by our once great and once powerful friend, our bones being picked over by China, or perhaps Indonesia.

He is right to be doing so, and some of his critics are misinterpreting his warnings as prophecies or statements of what he wants. His new book, How to defend Australia, (Latrobe Uni Press)  should be read by anyone keen to be well informed about our national interests and how they should be secured, as well as the new situation in which we find ourselves. We have to decide what sort of a power we want to be  — a middle power of influence, or perhaps an also-ran hoping no one nasty notices us. Whichever, we need to plan a new independent foreign and defence policy, and come to an appreciation of our geography, not least as both an island and a continent.

American power is on the wane in Asia and the western Pacific.  Its influence is in decline because of the rise of China as an economic superpower, with a GDP soon to move past the US. India too, and perhaps Indonesia in 50 years time, will pass American output. China is no longer complacent about America’s capacity to project force in the north Pacific, not least against China itself.

The security of Australia, like Japan and South Korea, has long been based on the expectation that the US would intervene to protect us in  the face of a direct or indirect attack from China. Indeed we three have assumed, if without explicit undertakings, that we are under the protection of the American nuclear umbrella, as well as the wider guarantees of the broad western alliance.

But what if there were an American strategic retreat? What if American physical power, particularly in the form of its navy was physically pushed back into its own western hemisphere, as Japan attempted to do at Pearl Harbour? Where would Australia stand then if China sought to exert its power right to our seashores?

What if Australia had to stand alone? One need not confine one’s imagination to an expansive China. It could be a booming Indonesia, or an India which like China has grown to be more economically and militarily powerful than any western forces able or willing to come to our aid. Could Australia fight off a physical invader? Do we have the clout,  the might and the will? It depends on what we want to be, on the sacrifices we are willing to make now, so as to be ready for any contingency. And if there is conflict, it depends on what we are willing to put at risk in order to resist threats or demands that weaken the sort of society that we are or want to be?

Our defence assets are ready to fight alongside Americans and others in a land or sea war. They are not so suitable for an Australia having to conserve every bit of its strength for denying access to our coast, or making invasion painful, bloody and ultimately unsuccessful.  Over the past 70 years, Australians have joined many American adventures with a view to proving ourselves a reliable American ally rather than because we believed in their instant  causes. We equipped for interoperability, and got into scraps, in theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan that would have been unlikely defending our own continent.

Hugh White, journalist, political adviser, senior military bureaucrat and professor of strategic studies at the ANU is not to be taken as necessarily believing that any, or all, of the possibilities of new economic and strategic circumstances in east Asia or the western Pacific will come to pass. Some of the possibilities are remote and unlikely, but not impossible. It is the task of those who study our strategic circumstances, and our interests, to look at all of the possibilities, and to plan, or at least to make provision for, the worst cases. What we get depends in part on what we want, what we are prepared to do to achieve it. But it is by no means necessarily focused on achieving some military victory as such as on raising the stakes and the risks for a potential enemy beyond the price it is prepared to pay for strategic objectives that impinge on our sovereignty.

White finds us ill-prepared for the change in our strategic circumstances. Many of our major military purchases of recent years have bought us equipment that might have allowed us to be a minor partner in some joint operations with the United States on sea or on land in Asia, but would contribute little to the postures we would have to take if we were preparing to fight alone.

He thinks, for example, that we should junk or sell off most of our surface ships, including the ones still being built in our shipyards. His fleet would have smaller ships focused rather more on denial than of control of our surrounding seas, would involve more aircraft, and, particularly, more submarines. And almost certainly not the French submarines we are presently planning to have on line in perhaps 15 years, with, instead ones of lower range but able to operate at choke points in the archipelagos to Australia’s north. They would not need the range we have been wanting for the French submarines, because the new ones  would be a lot less involved in electronic snooping on the Chinese coast.

We could, he thinks, have a much bigger submarine fleet if we scrapped the $50 billion French order and built updated Collins Class subs  — perhaps 24, maybe 36, for the same price.

But, he calculates, a posture which would make Australia defensible – or at least conquerable only at losses of people and treasure out of all proportion to that which could be gained – would cost heaps.  A lot more, perhaps twice what Australians are presently paying. Although Professor White prefers to talk dollars than percentages of GDP – for there is nothing magic about any percentage – he is talking about increasing expenditure from about $40 billion to $70 billion – from the present two per cent to three and a half per cent of GDP.

And perhaps half a per cent more were Australia to decide that our new strategic circumstances  made it desirable to have our own nuclear weapons. That’s not a decision he is advocating, so much as saying that it comes up for discussion given the dramatic way things have changed since Australia, in the 1960s, looked at this path and thought it inappropriate to our circumstances. As US power declines, Japan and South Korea, and possibly Indonesia, will also be considering nuclear weapons.  It is interesting to think that South Africa – a nation with a GDP equal to NSW – developed nuclear weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, before dismantling them and acceding to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 1989.

$30 billion extra a year is a lot of public money. It is, for example, about the same as the Commonwealth’s infrastructure spend.  Over a decade it’s bigger than the tax cuts just legislated through parliament.  It’s only a little less than the Commonwealth spends on education, and 37 per cent of what we spend on health.

Absent higher taxes, and we know that government has set its mind against that, the money could be obtained only by savage cuts to health,  education and welfare. Or by deficit budgets  — perhaps regarding some of it as investment, and taking advantage, as the Reserve Bank advocates, of the very attractive opportunities for government borrowing.

There are many people who would judge the price simply too high to pay, against risks that are not, immediately at least, so likely that the inevitable consequence of refusal is a trip to a Chinese re-education camp.

That would not surprise Professor White, who would say that it was a political question, and that the electorate gets what it pays for. He would add, moreover, that this might make more urgent the task of re-equipping for the new realities of operating without much in the way of friends and allies.

This is not necessarily a case of citizens putting their heads in the sand, as Australian politicians were alleged to have done in the lead-up to World War II, for which Australia was woefully unprepared. It depends on what people want and expect – something we should be talking about.

Yet even with ships and equipment not best suited for the new environment, Australia has an enormous stock of defence capital compared with most of our neighbours, most of whose budgets are swallowed up by wages.  And with or without direct assistance from the US, we have access to five-eyes intelligence and satellite surveillance that represents at least a $100 billion investment (by the US) that our potential enemies have not duplicated.

If there was a sudden sharp deterioration in our strategic circumstances, government would be able to take emergency measures, whether in the form of higher taxes, reduced consumption, and re-directed production which would realise cash at a far faster rate than any of our potential enemies. That cannot be instantly converted into a jet fighter or bomber, or a submarine, but it can permit resupply of arms and ammunition, missiles and capacity to convert some sorts of ploughshares into some sorts of swords.

Australia already has either the 12th or 13th highest military expenditure in the world. If we were to increase our annual spending to $US 46 billion, as White suggests, our military spending would be about the same as Japan ($US 47b)  or South Korea $US 43b), and only a little bit less than Great Britain ($US 50b), Germany ($US 49b). Our defence spending is 20 per cent higher than Israel’s.

The US, with annual spending of $$US 649b) still has an enormous lead over China ($250b), even as the size of the two economies comes closer. After these are Saudi Arabia ($US 68b), India ($US 66 b)  France $US $US 64 b) and Russia ($61 billion).

Annual Australian military spending exceeds the combined military spending of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. These are nations which may be able to field many more troops than Australia, but which presently lack the power to transport or supply them on any expedition that deeply affected our interests.

India, China, Japan and Indonesia are all nations that White says we must hope to keep as friends but which we must regard as potentially having interests that could bring them into conflict with us.

They are not the only players in the region. Russia fronts the North Pacific, and, with climate change, has increased capacity to enter North Asia from its Arctic coasts. Korea, divided or reunited, is an economic powerhouse. Vietnam may be still regarded as a developing country, but even in an undeveloped state, was able to comprehensively defeat both the US, and, later China, in battle. Cambodia and Laos are effectively Chinese satellites, but do not provide China easy access into the South China Sea.  There’s Thailand and Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. There are the Pacific nations, and colonial France. And even if the US has a good deal less power, compared with China than it now has, it is still a formidable power, with enormous military reach.

In general terms these (including China) are all our friends, nations with which we trade, whose citizens study in Australia, and are  in a busy-two-way tourist stream. We have differences with all of them which sometimes lead to sharp exchanges, but these have not so far interrupted trade, a dialogue, or a free flow of tourists and cultural exchange, let alone brought on hostilities.

Military action by any one of these bigger players against any other seriously affects the strategic position and interests of each of the others. China could not act against Japan without everyone else reacting. Nor against Korea. Australia must cultivate its neighbours to see any attack on Australia as a threat to their own security.

A China operating against Australia, for example, would pass half a dozen other nations on the way.  A Philippines or an Indonesia may not be particularly disposed to put its blood and treasure in the way to save Australia, as such. They just don’t like us enough. But they may well respond, in a coalition, because they would see control of Australia by another nation as threatening their own sovereignty, and tending to encircle them. So would India, increasingly looking east, for trade if not for empire.  It would be unlikely to stand still as the rival superpower was suddenly 3000 kms closer to them.

The debates going on in Australia resemble those in Japan, the Koreas, and in other countries unable to do much about the changing strategic circumstances, but not necessarily keen to see each other swallowed up, particularly by appeasement.

An independent Australia is not necessarily seeking military alliances, let alone military alliances against China, with all or most of the neighbours. What we should be doing is operating two in some imagined two-dimensional struggle with China, or three dimensional one also involving the United States, but a lively active growing neighbourhood, of mostly friends, or at the least, folks who will stick together if anyone is threatened. Sort of like the United Nations was once imagined to be.

I fear, alas, that Professor White is right about the risks and the worst cases. Australia must have it made clear that anyone who attacks us will find the costs far greater than the rewards. That said, I’d rather be spending extra money on diplomacy, even smoother trade relations, and aid. Indeed, I reckon that defence could be more efficient after its budget was reduced, not supplemented.

Jack Waterford is a former Editor of The Canberra Times

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John Waterford AM, better known as Jack Waterford, is an Australian journalist and commentator.

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