‘National Defence’ takes Australia closer to war with China

May 2, 2023
Australian missile defence system concept, 3D rendering

The 2023 Defence Strategic Review has recommended Australia adopt a new strategic conceptual framework dubbed ‘National Defence’ that incorporates a ‘strategy of denial’. This approach is tied to a broader concept of ‘collective security’ in the Indo-Pacific and is aligned with America’s framework for ‘integrated deterrence’ of China. ‘National Defence’ is consistent with American force structure designs to develop the northern Australian expanse as an increasingly important base of operations for force-projection.

From ‘Defence of Australia’ to ‘National Defence’

The recommendation by the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR) to abandon the long-standing strategic doctrine known as ‘defence of Australia’ (DoA) has been met with approval by the Albanese government, even as the doctrine had been previously eviscerated to conform with the requirements of the US alliance.

DoA reached its zenith with the release of the 1986 ‘Dibb Review’ that recommended a shift in Australia’s defence strategy from dependent expeditionary combat to ‘self-reliant’ protection of the continent and the air and maritime approaches to Australia. This was to be achieved by adopting ‘an essentially defensive posture in our region’ and employing a ‘strategy of denial’ with strike capabilities strictly limited in range to accomplish that objective. DoA was premised on Australia inhabiting a relatively benign security environment, with the potential for only low-level threats emerging in the foreseeable future, although it was hard to imagine even small-scale raids against Australia materialising as a credible contingency.

However, the concept of DoA was never fully realised. Australian leaders and national security elites were not content with an ‘isolationist’ force structure confined largely to defending the continent and its immediate approaches. They harboured long-standing aspirations for Australia to be an influential ‘middle power’ in international affairs, or more accurately, a ‘sub-imperial power’, which required undertaking regional ‘burden sharing’ responsibilities to preserve ‘stability’ on behalf of the US-led global order. Consequently, Australian forces were increasingly deployed to ‘our backyard’ in the Southwest Pacific throughout the late 1980s and 1990s in military operations that had little to do with the defence of Australia.

A major turning point came in late 2001 when the Howard government committed Australia to America’s ‘global war on terror’. The operational pressures from maintaining joint operations with the US military in distant conflict zones led to the restructure of Australia’s armed forces to provide niche capabilities that plugged seamlessly into US-led coalition operations. While DoA and ‘self-reliance’ remained official strategic guidance, operationally the Australian Defence Force (ADF) largely came to serve as an adjunct to the US military.

DoA has now been jettisoned entirely by the DSR in favour of ‘National Defence’, a new strategic conceptual framework based on the prospect of higher-level direct threats to Australia’s ‘national interests’ arising from US-China competition. Australia faces strategic circumstances ‘radically different’ to anything since the Second World War, the DSR warns, necessitating a ‘sense of urgency’ and a ‘whole-of-nation’ effort to strengthen defence and security. This entails abandoning a ‘balanced’ force in favour of a force structure that is ‘focussed’ on preparing for major war – with China.

A ‘balance of power’ that is favourable to our interests

It’s interesting to note how the recognition of apparently ‘unprecedented’ strategic circumstances in the present brings newfound clarity about inflated threat assessments of the past. ‘Regional conflicts in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s posed a threat in the near region’, the DSR enlightens us, ‘but no power in the (now called) Indo-Pacific could contest the United States or fundamentally challenge or change the United States-led post-war order’.

However, that’s not what Australians were told by the Menzies government when military forces were deployed to Malaya in 1955, and to Vietnam ten years later in 1965. The strategic rationale for both of these interventions was Eisenhower’s fictitious ‘domino theory’, and the related misperception of ‘monolithic communism’, that depicted nationalist anti-colonial movements in Asia as evidence of a Chinese communist ‘thrust’ into the region and a direct military threat to Australia.

Today, it is the supposed threat to the ‘rules-based order’ that functions as the new ‘domino theory’, where legitimate concerns about Chinese assertiveness in long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea is imagined as a direct military threat to Australia and our ‘national interests’. In the 1950s and 1960s, conservative Australian governments openly supported the maintenance of the European imperial order in Asia to defeat the supposed menace of ‘Chinese-communist expansion’. Today, the only achievable way Australia can deter China and preserve the ‘rules-based order’, the DSR tells us, is to work with the United States to support the maintenance of a ‘regional balance of power’. As our principal strategic partner, ‘close cooperation with the United States is central to achieving balance and stability in the Indo-Pacific’, the DSR asserts.

And yet maintaining a ‘balance of power’ has long been a euphemism in Australian political discourse for sustaining American military dominance or ‘primacy’. Even during the post-Cold War ‘unipolar’ moment, when uncontested American power dwarfed that of any other regional power, a central justification for supporting American military ‘engagement’ in the Asia-Pacific, including hundreds of sprawling military bases, was that it provided ‘stability’ and a ‘balance’ against regional tensions erupting, between China and Japan, and on the Korean peninsula.

The DSR more than hints that Australia will continue to support American primacy, even while acknowledging the ‘unipolar’ moment is over, revealing in a moment of transparency that a regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific means one that is ‘favourable to our interests’. The exercise of Australian foreign policy makes it clear that rhetorical support for ‘multipolarity’ and a ‘rules-based order’ is a discourse mainly intended to preserve US hegemony. Considering the trajectory of further military and strategic integration with the United States foreshadowed by the DSR, achieving ‘balance’ translates into an agenda for Australia to work even more closely with the United States, and key American security partners like Japan, to further encircle China militarily.

A perverted ‘strategy of denial’

The DSR repeats the alarm first raised in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update that the 10-year strategic warning time to alert the country to a high-level direct military threat has collapsed. Not, to be sure, in the case of invasion, which remains ‘only a remote possibility’. Rather, the apparent risks are to our ‘trade and supply routes’ that are often overstated and mischaracterised as threats to ‘freedom of navigation’. More plausibly, the DSR brings attention to the rise of the ‘missile age’ and long-range precision strike that has ‘radically reduced’ Australia’s geographic benefits.

The DSR’s strategy to address the risks of the missile race is for Australia to join it, adopting a new ‘strategy of denial’ with a focus on developing the ADF’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, including accelerating and expanding investments into long-range missile systems. This reflects the concern to secure Australia’s strategic supplies and protect the north of the continent for operations by US-long range strike forces into the South China Sea. The DSR’s recommendation to harden command and control networks and northern air bases also derives from this concern.

Unlike the strategic approach articulated in the 1986 Dibb Review, the ‘strategy of denial’ adopted by the DSR is tied to a broader concept of ‘collective security’ in the Indo-Pacific and is aligned with America’s framework for ‘integrated deterrence’ of China. It is consistent with American force structure designs to develop the northern Australian expanse as an increasingly important base of operations for force-projection and to offset the vulnerabilities of large concentrations of US bases in Japan and Guam to Chinese long-range missile attacks. It’s no surprise to learn, therefore, that the ‘prescribed response [of the DSR] is basically what the Pentagon would want to see’.

The biggest change foreshadowed by the DSR is to the Army, which will have its infantry fighting force dramatically scaled back and be optimised for littoral operations and enhanced long-range fire. In this respect, the Australian Army will follow emerging trends in parts of the US Army, and especially the US Marines, who are in the process of restructuring to become more lethal, mobile, and distributed, armed with long-range precision fires and optimised for littoral combat in the Indo-Pacific. Tellingly, the ADF has been actively engaged in recent years in military exercises with US armed forces as they test new force structures and operational concepts such as ‘island hopping’ and ‘mobile basing’ throughout the Indo-Pacific to defeat – with no hint of irony – China’s A2/AD capabilities designed to deny America’s ability to project force into China’s ‘periphery’.

A defence strategy for the wrong threat

Pillar one of AUKUS, and the concept of ‘impactful projection’, as Richard Marles has phrased it, fits awkwardly into the strategic denial aspects of ‘National Defence’. Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines, the DSR informs, ‘are key assets both in effecting a strategy of denial and in the provision of anti-submarine warfare and long-range strike options’. This is the great strategic folly of AUKUS. It will equip the ADF with a potent capability to strike the Chinese mainland and, in coalition with the United States, play a frontline role in hunting China’s nuclear-armed submarine force and its critical second-strike nuclear deterrent capability.

While AUKUS risks contributing to an existential nuclear threat to China, the DSR reassures Australians that we remain safe from nuclear annihilation under the protection of America’s ‘extended nuclear deterrence’, for which there are no credible assurances, and in efforts to pursue ‘new avenues of arms control’, of which there are none, except that which the Albanese government has yet to join – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons – despite assurances by the Labor Party to the contrary.

Finally, climate change is belatedly recognised as a significant national security issue in the DSR, but largely as a distraction that risks detracting from Defence’s primary objective of defending Australia against China. The DSR calls for adequate ‘plans, resources and capabilities’ for state and local governments ‘to deal with all but the most extreme domestic disaster operations’. Meanwhile, the potential for ‘mass migration, increased demands for peacekeeping and peace enforcement, and intrastate and interstate conflict’ that the DSR acknowledges will arise from climate change, is not apparently a significant factor in Australia’s new defence strategy.

The DSR overstates the threat China poses to Australia, appears wilfully blind to the risks of nuclear escalation inherent in the defence strategy it recommends, and understates the existential threat of climate change which it fails to confront. What’s more, ‘National Defence’ dictates an acute focus on preparing Australia’s armed forces to integrate in a substantial way with American force structure plans to carry out what should be utterly unthinkable: a high-end war with a nuclear-armed China that risks wreaking a global catastrophe.

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