Our Defence Minister spurns realism, imperilling Australia

Jul 19, 2022
Parliament House, Canberra
Image: iStock

Behind the militarese the professionals know this means that Australia will cough up as much money and forces as necessary to fight China in a high-intensity war on China’s doorstep.

In Washington, far from the people he serves, Australia’s Defence Minister Marles has unveiled a totemic security pivot for Australia, fraught with risk, costing far more than the kings-ransom nuclear submarines of AUKUS. Nobody can blame the previous government. The Albanese government is taking Australia deep into dangerous, fanciful security terrain in Asia without justification.

Our new Defence Minister Richard Marles was turned inside-out by ABC compere Sarah Ferguson on the ABC’s 730 Report on 4 July, unable to say what Australia’s position is if China attacks Taiwan. Asked whether Australia’s ambiguity on Taiwan was unambiguous in the light of US contradictions the Minister was evasive.

Soon after, our Minister found himself amongst friends – in Washington speaking to the Centre for International and Security Studies on 12 July. Speeches are composites of multiple sources, most importantly departmental officials. For a fresh Australian Defence Minister in a newly elected government delivering his first major speech in the United States it’s a fair bet that every word has been put into the Minister’s mouth. At this time security issues exist in Asia affecting Australia differently from its powerful ally. So the speech is a good test of how Australia’s own interests are being handled by the Department of Defence.

The Minister turned straight to the ANZUS treaty complaining about “realists” who saw issues in it:

“I’ve always felt realists have never quite understood: that the treaty that codifies our Alliance is less a piece of paper than it is a network of people. ….Professionals whose commitment to each other depend less on a treaty’s text than on a set of shared convictions.”

So networking amongst defence “professionals” (ie those in the room ) is more important than the substance of the treaty.

Officials who fitted-up the Minister know full well that the Treaty text matters above all else when the going gets rough. And at this moment it is an embarrassment. Article 4 of ANZUS does not commit America to come to Australia’s aid if we are attacked: just to consult its Constitution. So ANZUS permits the US to lead us into a fight with a nuclear superpower in China and then walk away. By contrast Article 5 of NATO binds the US to treat an attack on any of its many members as an attack on itself. Britain, our AUKUS pal. is right up there benefitting from this guarantee.

But little old Australia misses out. Our Minister proclaims this doesn’t matter: “shared convictions” are enough. Australia’s security is not about coldly weighing realities but joining hands with whatever “network of people” is in Washington at any time. Hereby our Minister discards Australia’s defence posture of self- reliance, dating back to Whitlam’s day and embraced bi-partisanly thereafter – the consequence of US eschewing a security guarantee in ANZUS. Our defence posture was negotiated and implemented with US collaboration as the only prudent way ahead for both parties. Nothing has changed to invalidate that. Until now.

What Minister would steer Australia towards war at US behest with a nuclear power knowing the reality is scripted that we could be abandoned? If this Minister is genuine about Australia’s interests he will challenge the Americans to deliver a proper treaty. And he will do it openly. So that all Australians know the score. His advisers will dissemble. They will say we’ve lived with this for so long, it will have to go through Congress etc. But Minister, this time it’s different. You’ve drawn the short straw. Australia has never been pushed to militarily confront a nuclear-armed superpower before. We have the choice not to. Lots of options exist.

Moving on, our Minister says another really peculiar thing:

Notwithstanding our strong foundations, we can’t afford to stand still…… This Government is resolved that Australia will take greater responsibility for its own security.

Our Minister is inferring Australia has been derelict in taking responsibility for its own security. Surely, the Minister knows that the deal done on ANZUS is that Australia takes full responsibility for its security. And we have been doing that for fifty years. And we have been productive and astute in applying large resources to that end. And we have gone well beyond the deal by turning up for America’s great military debacles, none of which ANZUS obliged. Thousands of our young dead and disabled attest to that. What unctuous words to have put in your mouth, Minister.

What the Defence Department is wanting to convey through the Minister is that Australia will now go well beyond what ANZUS requires, in an undefined way. We will take responsibility for, and pay for, America’s view of security measures required in “any number of places in the Indo-Pacific”.

“In particular we worry about the use of force or coercion to advance territorial claims, as is occurring in the South China Sea, and its implications for any number of places in the Indo-Pacific where borders or sovereignty are disputed.”

This “worry” raises big questions. But back to the speech. The Minister’s punchline – he signals to Washington that Australian forces will operate with American forces in Asia to deny China its security.

“We will make the investment necessary to increase the range and lethality of the Australian Defence Force so that it is able to hold potential adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia. This will include capabilities such as longer-range strike weapons, cyber capabilities and area denial systems tailored to a broader range of threats, … the logistics, sustainment and depth required for high-intensity war fighting, including guided munitions”.

Behind the militarese the professionals know this means that Australia will cough up as much money and forces as necessary to fight China in a high-intensity war on China’s doorstep.

But wait, Minister. Surely an overarching issue should have been addressed first. What are the marginal benefits/disadvantages, risks and costs for Australia compared to our current longstanding posture? Nor should these be expressed just in defence terms. This is an  extraordinary foreign policy issue. With no clear advice to Australians, much less debate. Never mind that Australia is already quite secure through its own formidable capability. Never mind that no convincing evidence exists that China is a threat to us. Remember Iraq and the US ‘mistruths’ on WMD? Never mind that the financial cost will be crippling, yet our practical military contribution miniscule. Never mind that other options exist for Australia to contribute to US objectives, while remaining independent.

Finally, there is an ad for AUKUS:

“My first priority will be our trilateral partnership with the United States and the United Kingdom under AUKUS. For a three ocean nation, the heart of deterrence is undersea capability”

One day our Minister will realise that “deterrence “ is a well-worn term to avoid addressing cost and effectiveness. A military cover for cant. Only with the finality of nuclear weaponry is it apt. Germany failed to deter anything in the Atlantic with 3000 submarines.

If the Minister’s preparations for war with China proceed, Australia is placed on a narrow, logical long- term path. The US recognises how strategic and secure Australia has become. And its military basing in Asia will degrade. Australia, progressively, will be transformed into the home for the US to control the Indo- Pacific, to “compete” with China. Whereupon we have only token independence in foreign and defence policy. And in trade. And …. A priority nuclear target without nuclear missile defence. While America will eventually discover that leaving is in its best interest.

This decision is as critical for Australia as any government has faced. Nothing short of Chifleyan, utterly selfish, ungentle, knowledgeable clarity on Australia’s priorities is demanded. Let’s step back, think hard and consult Australians before dawdling into a sticky tunnel leading to a vassal state.

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