Popularism in defence matters must have its limits. Being carried away on a wave of popularism may be exciting but when reality strikes the repercussions could be severe.
Making the US ‘great’ again was stirring for some. Boris Johnson in Britain is about to ‘build, build build’ the country out of bankruptcy, citing ‘Rooseveltism’ as his inspiration (‘Nothing to fear but fear itself’), And here we are again recycling the ‘the enemy’ syndrome – whether real or imagined – whatever it costs. If may cost a lot, but to what end? The separation between our military/intelligence complex and civil society hasn’t been greater.
The recent announcement about a fresh $270 billion to rev up the defence force – even one equipped with long range hypersonic missiles (an impossibility at this stage) – will tempt our Whitehall Warriors to overreach with their rhetoric and provoke a reaction from a much superior power that would be highly destabilising for us and for others. In the lead of this, stirring up the government, is the notorious Australian Strategic Policy Institute whose original purpose was to provide objective analysis of strategic issues but not to be a stentorian advocate of an aggressive foreign and defence policy. At its head is our very own ‘Secular Santamaria’, Peter Jennings, who gets disproportionate airplay on these matters by a susceptible government and media.
As the government has become heavily focussed on China, it being the military threat, what the government says and does from now on must be seen in that light. Considering the huge imbalance between Chinese and Australian military capabilities – our GDP is about 5% of China’s; the military comparison is much the same – one must ask if we were to engage militarily against China what optimum outcome would/could we seek? At the least it would be our survival, but the probability is that even that would incur great cost, involving great destruction.
Were we to engage in conjunction with the US, the outcome would be similar or worse as our most effective or currently valued capabilities (e.g. Pine Gap) would be picked out for destruction. To engage with the US in any case would be a mistake as we can assume that any such conflict would be initially and ultimately one directly between China and the US. Indications are that the US would not be exercising ‘leadership’, or what goes for leadership, for any purpose other than its own. That is the foreseeable and inexorable trend now. Australia, it must be stressed, does not lie naturally in the sphere of influence of either China or the US, which gives it the option of dealing with both pragmatically and rationally on a case by case basis.
Over time Australia has been, and continues to be, obsessed by an overriding sense of insecurity about its place in the region, and the world generally, causing its strategic policy to be fixated on the inevitability of conflict, discounting its ability to sustain an effective role in an orderly and stable world. Since the 1970s we have been engaged in wars of little or no strategic relevance, at a disproportionate cost in lives and substance. The only military examples of constructive relevance was our unarmed intervention in 1999 in East Timor under INTERFET, and peacekeeping operations in the Southwest Pacific under RAMSI in 2003, both with the full acceptance of the affected parties.
The strategic implications of Covid-19 are that we may be expected to do more on these lines and not more of the over-reaching interventionism of the kind witnessed in recent decades in the Middle East. We should act as an independent power within our own capabilities and not harness ourselves to the interests of any foreign power which complicates our relationships with others, especially our neighbours. If we continue to be connected ‘at the hip’ with one unreliable and irrational major power we will again be the first casualty of any misconceived adventurism.
What might justify a heightened build up of military capabilities, though not on the lines now proposed? It is said that the post-COVID-19 world will be poorer and more hand-to-mouth in nature than before, when there was a sense of order under a rules-based system. Hopefully elements of the rules-based system will be retained in the region, though it may break down in some places because of the pressures of poverty and dissatisfaction. As the much earlier UN Secretary-General, the late Dag Hammarskjold, famously remarked, the UN multilateral system “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell”.
To have the ability to assist regional states threatened by poverty and disease within, and disorder from without, may be a good thing in which Australia could have an effective (essentially peacekeeping or stabilising) role.
For that role we should develop a force structure suitable for the purpose, not for extraneous long-range purposes as would now seem to be the case. We should also, militarily and otherwise, develop a top-class counter-cyber capability both for our own protection and the protection of others. With regard to supply lines, these are predominantly serviced by foreign owned planes and ships for whose protection others have responsibility. If picked on by unfriendly fire, that would elevate a conflict beyond the region.
Overall, in this less stable situation, Australia should work closely with Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam to shore up regional cohesion, and with New Zealand in specific projects for stability and development in the South Pacific. Punching above our weight could lead to brawls. Punching at our weight is the way to go.