An incoming government addressing China in defence policy and strategic policy must overcome the natural impulse to assume the future will be a linear projection of the present. There is no reasonable scenario in which a major war in East Asia involving China does not end in disastrous outcomes for Australia and that determines the future strategic objectives.
There is a connection between defence policy and strategic policy but it is oblique and in negotiating the unfolding international environment it will be necessary to recognise that. China must be dealt with prudently and adroitly and the rigid elements of defence policy are no basis on which to build a strategic approach to China.
Defence policy concerns making informed judgements about the military force that needs to be available in the short term to respond to foreseeable or potential threats and tasks. Defence policy also encompasses long term capability investment decisions about the military force governments will have available in future. The lead times required for capability acquisition mean the future shape of the military is inevitably based on contemporary understandings of technology and geopolitics. It is not related to contingent circumstances and is not strategic in the wider sense.
The narrow definition of strategic policy is that it has to do with the use of armed force in international affairs. In the past this simple understanding has tended to see the military and security officials have disproportionate weight in shaping national strategic policy. Policy documents have been burdened with formulaic jargon and fashionably abstract concepts largely borrowed from similar United States documents.
The decision to use military force is never simply a force-on-force calculation. Each such decision is embedded in a host of prevailing political, economic, trade, diplomatic, geographic, and social conditions and governments should not detach these considerations from the use of armed force. In developing national strategic policy an incoming government needs to have a clear and comprehensive appreciation of all the factors and risks, and the understanding that these will shift and transform constantly.
Recent Defence White Papers have only served to illustrate the folly of confusing defence and strategic policy. The value to strategic policy of producing Defence White Papers, with their fixed presumptions and judgements, fixed at a point in time, is dubious. Almost invariably, they have not been good guides to the strategic issues that have dominated and defined the eras subsequent to their publication.
An incoming government needs to resist the urge to default to a new White Paper. The end of the Soviet Union was not foreseen in 1987, nor 9/11 and the War on Terror in 2000, nor the Chinese bases in the South China Sea or the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2009, and the 2016 White paper did not anticipate the disruptions of the Trump Administration. The perspicacious treatment of the rise of China in 1994 is the exception that proves the rule.
The embryonic transformation underway in regional and global power relations requires an incoming government to discard sentiment and habit. It will be essential to interrogate and challenge the use of the standard security community mantras and the institutional narrative. Government will need to rise above the deformations professionelles of the military, the national intelligence community, the security public servants, and the think tanks. To weigh seriously, objectively and critically their advice, not discard it; recognising each of these institutions will have deep reservoirs of expertise as well as blinkers arising from their purpose and history, especially on China.
Even the novice strategist knows to first look at the map. Whatever historical and cultural connections there are between nations, the facts of geography place real constraints on policy. National survival and the responsibility to secure the welfare, wellbeing, prosperity and security of citizens is not something an incoming government can share, delegate, or can subordinate to the strategic ambitions of another state. Certainly not one across the Pacific.
Far more than the United States, Australia’s economic and security interests are firmly rooted in East Asia. The alliance with the Americans is deep and wide and to wean Australia off it would be an incredibly difficult process and possibly perilous exercise. To do so would be a momentous step. However, it should not be automatically dismissed. To go lock-step into a conflict with the United States because of high levels of interoperability or mutual contingency planning, or some misplaced sense of overriding loyalty to an ally, would be grossly irresponsible.
Not only is China economically vital to Australia now, as its trading network through Central Asia matures and connects with the European market, and its domestic economy becomes more dependent on domestic consumption and less reliant on exports, it has the potential to become even more so. As time passes, the size and technological advantages of its military forces will only grow.
Contesting strategically East Asia with China now would be a costly and indeterminate enterprise and only the United States could attempt it. But in the end China would still be in Australia’s neighbourhood and still as full of long term potential. A fact easily lost in the Canberra security bubble.
The incoming government must also avoid the trap of becoming obsessed with China and ignoring developments in the Middle East, the subcontinent, the Russia/European border, or Asia minor. Major interstate conflict is more likely to break out in these regions.
There are many trajectories for East Asia and many potential advances and reversals for China. Avoiding any of those leading to war will be the priority. Boiled down, the strategic interests of Australia are advancing welfare, wellbeing, prosperity and security of citizens. Astute and nimble diplomacy and relationship building must be at the heart of strategic policy towards China. Not confrontation and military posturing.
The next three years may or may not see a major point of geopolitical inflexion in East Asia. A prudent and prepared incoming government must be open to the possibility.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.