Sharp-edged but sophisticated diplomacy needs to underpin our defence strategy Part 1

The government’s recent Defence Strategic Update suggests Australia faces the greatest threat to our independence since 1942. This demands a sophisticated diplomatic strategy, the development of a sound military strategy to deter an attack by a great power and careful analysis of how to design the right force structure to deliver it. This first article of three looks at the issues around diplomacy.

On 1 July 2020, the Morrison government published a Defence Strategic Update together with a Force Structure Plan. The Update represented a substantial change on the previous approach in two main respects:

  • Although there has been much emphasis on the elimination of the assumption of 10 years’ warning time before Australia would be confronted with a significant conflict, that assumption has not been active since the last century
    • but the key point is the Minister’s statement that the “future is now”, suggesting that Australia faces a severe strategic threat and may even have entered a ‘grey zone’ between peace and war.
  • The primary focus of Australia’s defence strategy will be the Indo-Pacific theatre, employing what is essentially an anti-access, area denial (A2/AD) strategy to be enforced in the approaches to Australia to our north and west
    • but, importantly, the government has not yet returned to an emphasis on self-reliance, which for 40 years was the cornerstone of all Defence White Papers until 2016.

Although the Update proposes a major deterioration in Australia’s strategic circumstances, its grim implications appear not to have resonated to any significant degree with the community more generally. But unless you continue to believe that President Xi Jinping’s China is essentially a pacific power, it is difficult to contest the rationale underlying the government’s appreciation of the threat. Indeed, it echoes the analysis by a number of respected strategic experts, including this from Paul Dibb two years ago:

“Above all else, we must recognise that we now face the prospect—for the first time since the Second World War—of a potential major power adversary, with whom we do not share fundamental values, operating in our neighbourhood and capable of threatening us with high intensity conflict. To counter this eventuality, we must develop a stronger defence force capable of denying our approaches to a well-armed adversary.”

Over the past few years under Xi, China’s assertive intentions have become much more clear. The militarisation of the newly invested reefs and islands in the South China Sea; the massive and rapid build-up in the capability of the PLA and PLA Navy; the effective abrogation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration over Hong Kong; the bullying behaviour towards smaller States (including Australia); the increasingly threatening moves against Taiwan; the “re-education” camps for a million Uyghurs and other Muslims; the cyber attacks on Australia and other countries and threats to our export trade all suggest that China will resist any challenge to its strategic objective of being not only the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific but also, perhaps, globally.

This represents the greatest threat to Australia’s independence since 1942. But although the Morrison government has now recognised the threat, we have no idea how the government intends to respond to it. First, it requires a sophisticated but sharp-edged diplomatic strategy, directed not only at Australia’s relations with China but also with the United States and other friendly powers in the region. Second, it requires the defence strategy to be developed into a comprehensive military strategy – not the same thing at all – directed towards deterring an attack on Australia. Third, it needs to use the military strategy as the basis for the design of an appropriate force structure to address the threat in a timeframe that takes full account of the elimination of warning time. This represents a major challenge for the Defence establishment.

In terms of the diplomatic strategy, the avoidance of a military conflict is clearly the first priority. It seems irrefutable that, win or lose, a war with China would be a disaster for the  Australian community. Yet in an increasingly dangerous strategic environment, the Morrison government’s policy approach to China is difficult to understand. Why lead the way on a COVID-19 inquiry, particularly when Australia has suffered less than most other countries? To be sure, banning Huawei may be appropriate, but why get out in front of other countries on the issue? These approaches may play well to the Coalition’s hardliners and attract a pat on the head from Mike Pompeo. But are they really in the wider national interest?

Recently there have been signs from China that Australia has been punished enough and could, perhaps, be allowed out of the deep freeze. The former ambassador to Beijing, Geoff Raby, suggests recent developments “represent clear evidence that China is looking to put a floor under the continuing downward spiral in the relationship”. The government should respond positively but in a measured way to this initiative. Yet, according to Raby, when the Prime Minister was asked recently if he was looking for a circuit breaker in the relationship with China, his “response indicated that this was an entirely novel idea”.

While the avoidance of war with China is highly desirable, it is not an objective to be pursued at any cost. It should be made clear that any threat to Australia’s sovereignty and independence will not be tolerated and will be met with an appropriate response. But we should also acknowledge that Australia welcomes the peaceful growth of China, bounded, as it should be, by non-aggressive intentions towards other countries in the region. As Ministers Payne and Reynolds indicated at the recent AUSMIN meeting, Australia does not subscribe either to initiating a new Cold War or to the current American policy of containment. The mutual benefits of the economic and wider relationship between Australia and China are clear, and with goodwill on both sides could be fashioned, if not into a love affair, at least into a mutually beneficial modus vivendi.

At the same time, we should engage more closely with other major players in the Indo-Pacific, including Japan, India and Indonesia. It is difficult to see how far these relationships should go, however, and Australia will be wary of concluding military alliances with nations in very different strategic circumstances to our own. We may not, for example, want to go to war over an attack on the Senkaku Islands or a clash on the Indo-Chinese border.

The necessary diplomatic conversations with the United States may be much more difficult. We should have no expectations that a potential Biden administration will make much of a difference to American demands on Australia. For example, Professor James Curran has recorded that two years ago, a senior Biden staffer noted that “Australia is a great ally of the US everywhere in the world – except in Asia”.

But Curran also says that successive Australian governments have presided over “strategic ambiguity in our position over Taiwan” so that “either a Coalition or Labor government would find it hard to say ‘no’.” While strategic ambiguity may be a good strategy when we want to keep a potential adversary guessing, it is a lot less smart if our ally is led to believe Australia is willing to go to war in circumstances where we are not. In a crisis, events could quickly spiral out of control before we are able to resolve any ambiguity in Australia’s position. We need to make it clear to the US that we would not become involved in a war with China unless our sovereign independence is directly threatened.

We should not, for example, regard an attack on Taiwan by the PRC as a casus belli. Officially, Australia adheres to the One-China policy that does not recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state. Under the Six Assurances to Taiwan made by the Reagan Administration, the United States is not obliged to provide military aid to Taiwan were it to be attacked. If the US were to become involved, we should make it crystal clear that Australia would not provide military support. The same position would apply in a situation where a misjudgment or clash between the US Navy and the PLA Navy in the South China Sea became kinetic. Such developments would not necessarily trigger a military commitment under ANZUS, at least in black letter terms.

This may cause dismay in the US Administration but it should not. First of all, we live in the Indo-Pacific region and they do not. If everything goes pear shaped, Americans can retreat to their homeland, a long way away, whereas Australians cannot. Our economy is far more reliant on trade with China than is theirs. Were we to engage in a coalition conflict with China that we lost, our long-term strategic situation would be dire. Australians would likely suffer a severe reduction in living standards, we would feel constantly under threat and could not guarantee our independence in the longer term. We could certainly no longer rely on America for extended nuclear deterrence if, indeed, we can rely on it now.

This analysis takes account of the likelihood that America would lose a conventional war with China. Almost all recent war games suggest this would be the case, with the immensely costly American Carrier Strike Groups potentially suffering heavily from the PLA’s targeted ballistic ‘carrier killer’ missiles and hypersonic weapons, as well as from PLA Navy submarines. While the capability of the USN Submarine Force is superior to that of the PLA Navy, America currently has too few submarines. Over a number of years, war games demonstrate that America could only prevail in such a conflict if it launched a nuclear first strike on the Chinese mainland early in the piece.

Under normal circumstances, it is unlikely the Administration and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff would see this as an acceptable proposition, even if only because a number of American cities could be devastated in return. But these are unprecedented times, with a seemingly unstable President increasingly concerned about his chances of re-election. Recently he said, admittedly in regard to Iran: “If you fuck around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before.” In terms of the state of the US deterrent, he said: “Our nuclear is all tippy top now.” In President Trump’s world, it is not impossible that desperate times could call for desperate measures. It is also not clear that, under the aegis of an unstable commander-in-chief, the American governance system embodies all the safeguards necessary to prevent Armageddon.

This is all the more reason for the Prime Minister to make Australia’s position crystal clear to the US Administration.

Jon Stanford gratefully acknowledges the support of Submarines for Australia and for comments provided by members of its expert Reference Group.

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In a former life, Jon Stanford was a Division Head in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Currently, as a Director of Insight Economics, he is undertaking significant research on Australia’s future submarine project, generously supported by Gary Johnston, owner of the Submarines for Australia website.

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