Oh, for a Prime Minister honest about Australia’s security

Jun 29, 2022
Now that policy has been abruptly buried with AUKUS requiring our taxes to heavily fund US strategic denial of China. Image: Flickr / USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

How did it come to this? Australia’s defence policy has been baldly sacrificed to US interests via AUKUS with little public discourse.

Mostly, those that present as security experts have mumbled support as the US entangles Australia in its planning for war with China. Not a word from the serried rows of professors, publicly funded, who otherwise jostle for public exposure.

For five decades Australia’s security policy has centred on defending our territory independently. Self-reliance has been the prudent and rational posture for Australian governments with ANZUS deliberately avoiding a commitment to armed response by the US in the event of attack on Australia.

Implementing that strategy has been a big task – intellectually, financially and managerially, requiring all our defence spending to be directed to that objective. Whenever we have chosen to join the US in its global wars we did so with modest contributions drawn from forces created for our own priorities, measured to signal political support but not detract from our own objective. Now that policy has been abruptly buried with AUKUS requiring our taxes to heavily fund US strategic denial of China – building nuclear submarines of little value for our own needs to fit with US planning for military conflict with China.

How could Australia’s security policy move largely unremarked from an earnest and internationally respected self-defence policy to mounting aggressive deployments into China’s adjacent waters, at mind numbing cost? Former Prime Minister Paul Keating was an early and insightful critic of AUKUS. Just a few weeks after it was announced, Keating addressed the National Press Club, in November last year. He began by inferring that it was because mainstream media coverage of security is so weak in Australia he felt compelled to share his perspective. Keating’s reservation was reinforced by the level of questions from the floor at the end. Keating made the then striking claim that Australia was to build nuclear submarines specifically to attack China in its waters. He observed that this had been admitted effectively by Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Arthur Sinodinos. The submarines would be designed to attack China’s nuclear missile submarines which are China’s second-strike deterrent to US nuclear attack on China.

So, Australia is being set up as a key factor in the nuclear war equation of the US and China. Broadly, Keating argued that China deserves respect. It now has a bigger economy than the US by 25% and can be expected to expand that gap in coming decades. China has shown it wants to participate in global structures and be part of reform. China has a lot to offer and is not contriving to run the world. Its security concern is to push US sea and air military forces away from its borders, noting US and other forces (including Australian) exercise in the South China Sea. The more senior of the serried professors, Paul Dibb, quickly took up the pen disparagingly against Keating, observing that Keating “gave the strong impression of being a sleepwalker”. Dibb is thereby suggesting it has long been common knowledge that Australia is preparing for war against China. If so, that is news to most Australians, including those who have a more-than-cursory interest in our security affairs.

On Thursday last week, Dibb was delivered by ABC TV into the living rooms of Australians via the 7:30 Report, unannounced and without context, just prior to Leigh Sales’ interview with Prime Minister Albanese. His hectoring message was that Defence should have first priority from the Government, to ensure that it counters an “aggressive and expansionist” China. Urgency was implied as China could exploit a “window of opportunity” with the US distracted by the Ukraine. I suspect most viewers thought that this was just more of the banality we enjoy on Thursday nights from Sammy J. But it was shabby, ABC.

Dibb’s professional pedigree lies in Cold War intelligence. It has been claimed that he enjoyed unusual access to sensitive classified material for years. In this regard Dibb should now be obsolete. These days he writes for an online ASPI platform where his paragraphs settle comfortably alongside trademarks of weapons systems purveyors. The tone is invariably unsettling and receptive to greater defence spending. Yet big media conduits such as the Press Club and ABC television, which provide him a national platform at prime time, offer no declaration of interests.

Another professor, Rory Medcalf, head of the “National Security College “ at the ANU with staff of about sixty, writes and comments regularly. His recent book “Contest for the Indo-Pacific” is engaging but the substance is a worry. In discussing Australia, Medcalf shows poor comprehension of the realities of Australia’s defence policy post ANZUS: “ Australia relies acutely on … in the ultimate crisis, the expectation under the ANZUS Treaty that overwhelming (US) force would come to its aid “. In fact Australia’s policy has been quite the reverse – to have no such expectation of US force intervening on our behalf under ANZUS . Even security hobbyists know Medcalf Is at odds with decades of Australian defence policy centred on self-reliance, deriving from the ANZUS negotiation by Spender, its ratification by Congress and subsequent affirmations. This failure is not of some slippery nuance. Ignorance of a key risk factor in our security is more than disappointing at his level. Only by getting ANZUS right can we address our security risk.

In public commentary Medcalf seems as anchored ideologically as the daily media, lining up with China as a threat to be constrained. How can Australians understand security without credible public thought leaders? Recognising the deficiency is a start. Balanced analytical commentary should aim for Australians to be confident that their governments comprehend and are dealing with the risks in ANZUS. At present few realise that any Australian government joining with the US in applying military force against China on the assumption that the US will be with us “all the way”, is foolhardy.

What an achievement it would be for a serving prime minister to inform Australians honestly of our ultimate security risk under ANZUS. Prime Minister Albanese might ponder that as he sits amongst NATO leaders in Madrid, none of whom carry similar risk to him because they share a real security treaty with the US. And perhaps the Prime Minister might realise that Australia, in being treated differently, can learn from Ukraine’s experience as a qualified friend of the US.


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