Indefensible policies – Defence Strategic Update

Jul 6, 2020

The recently released Strategic Update may please traditional security analysts, but it won’t  influence the behaviour of China or make individual Australians any safer.

The recently released Defence Strategic Update has elicited some fairly predictable, albeit highly divergent, responses. On one side of the debate is the highly influential, mainstream view of Australia’s security problems which sees threats everywhere, and contends that only a major increase in spending on evermore exotic forms of military hardware can address the threats we face.

The other much less influential and disparate grouping is composed of a small but growing band of sceptics who question the spending priorities of the government and the efficacy of traditional approaches to national security. Both sides have some compelling arguments to muster, but paradoxically enough, the sceptics have the great merit of getting a good deal more bang for their buck.

To be fair to the Canberra consensus based largely at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, there is much to be concerned about in the currently fashionable Indo-Pacific region. The People’s Republic of China – the unnamed central focus of the new Update – has been behaving badly. There is hardly a country in the region or the world, it seems, that China hasn’t been telling off for ‘hurting the feelings of the Chinese people’ or impugning the domestic or foreign policies of the PRC.

Even ASPI has been singled out for Chinese criticism. I suspect ASPI and its ubiquitous executive director, Peter Jennings, will wear this as a badge of honour in the increasingly acrimonious rheortical conflict that has broken out between Australia and China. He and other prominent warriors in the new Cold War have got some good points to make, however. The question is: what does a proportionate response that we can actually afford and that will actually make a difference look like.

This is one of the central arguments that those on the other side of the debate develop: the sorts of weapons systems the Morrison government is intending to acquire won’t actually deter China or anyone else for that matter, from acting differently. If the China’s leaders aren’t deterred by the overwhelming firepower of the United States, anything Australia does is going to make absolutely no difference; other than shoring up our reputation as a trusty American ally that can be relied upon to put another country’s national interest ahead of our own, of course. In any case, isn’t one of the great selling points of the alliance supposed to be the money it saves us?

No doubt the strategic hard heads will be appalled by that sort of claim. But gratuitously offending our hyper-sensitive major trade partner is probably not a good idea at the best of times. If there’s one thing we all can actually agree on it’s that these aren’t the best of times.

The not unreasonable question to ask in such circumstances is whether our policy actions are actually likely to make things better or worse. One of the more empirically robust historical lessons about war and conflict is that buying ever larger quantities of guns and bombs is absolutely no guarantee of security. On the contrary, ‘security dilemmas’ are one of the paradoxes of pointless arms races that invariably end in tears.

Even if it’s possible to argue that the most powerful weapons (ie., the nuclear variety) have been instrumental in keeping the peace, that happy state of affairs will (or won’t) persist no matter what Australia does. In the meantime, ramping up conventional military spending will only encourage some of our more impoverished neighbours to do the same and contribute to overall regional tensions.

Even in the unlikely event that Australia managed to assemble a suitably armed coalition of like-minded middle powers, it is difficult to imagine China responding in the desired way. On the contrary, ganging up on China is only likely to increase the sense of paranoia and outraged nationalism that is building up in the PRC.

So what do the limp-wristed liberal types suggest instead? From the perspective of our much invoked but rarely defined ‘national interest’, protecting us from the plague, revamping the economy along sustainable lines and generally acting as a ‘good international citizen’ might be a start. There’s a lot that could be done with $270 billion. There might even be a bit left over for the university sector.

Before the ASPI-esque crowd explodes into outraged harrumphing or world weary eye-rolling, it’s worth asking what a cost-effective response to traditional security threats would actually look like. If we assume that all our new weapons won’t stop China from behaving badly in the region—even the hard heads don’t think it’s really planning to invade Australia—then what exactly is the point of buying all these new weapons?

Even if you’re a supporter of industry policy (like me), there are better industries to be in than international arms dealing. We could even reduce our economic reliance on China in the process. A coalition of principled powers working to exclude China (and the US under Trump?) from the club of ‘civilised’ nations until it lifts its game, might be just as effective as—and a good deal cheaper than—twenty-first century gun boat diplomacy. History suggests that doesn’t end well either.


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