The Defence Strategic Review and the challenge of synchronising with foreign policy.

Oct 9, 2022
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A reshaped foreign policy for Australia and the Defence Strategic Review are inextricably linked.

Recently I argued that the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) announced by Defence Minister Marles was “too narrow, its timeline too short and its membership hardly independent” and that a “whole of government” strategic review was urgently needed to provide a proper basis for the DSR. Regrettably, subsequent developments have only reinforced this argument as the Government faces the challenges of articulating a reshaped foreign policy and reviewing its very large Defence procurement program and appropriate force posture within the limits of a responsible budgetary strategy for the looming economic crisis. Management of the China relationship is fundamental to both.

In a recent Foreign Policy article, Margaret Simons has set out the principal elements of Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s thinking on reshaping Australian foreign policy to meet the rapidly changing global environment. Essentially, Simons posits that Wong wants Australia to be “more than a supporting player” and, drawing on her own personal experience, sees our diverse ethnic and personal histories being central to an “effective” foreign policy. Wong proposes that the regional Asia-Pacific forums play a key role in seeking a “settling point” between the US and China and that the way to deescalate is “More strategy, less politics. Talk less, do more”. Simons points out that “if Wong is successful, the question about Australia’s choice – between its ally and its trading partner – will move beyond a binary”.

Since US House Speaker Pelosi’s visit in August (and several subsequent US Congressional delegations) to which Beijing responded with military exercises and missile launches, the future of Taiwan has emerged as the most sensitive issue in the US/China relationship. These had been preceded by visits from Republican former Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of Defence Esper during which both had expressed encouragement for the Taiwan independence movement – indicating that this would likely become a serious US domestic political issue. To which repeated “gaffes” about the US response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan by President Biden, which Secretary of State Blinken and others had to correct, only served to muddy the waters. All of which was compounded by the strong bipartisan Congressional support for a Bill to amend the Taiwan Relations Act (1979) – the pivotal legislation for the US/China relationship. Presented as an “amendment” of the Act it is essentially a total rewrite of some of the key elements – including opening the way for the US to support movement towards an independent Taiwan. – unsurprisingly viewed by Beijing as an extremely blatant provocation.

In a revealing address to the Asia Society in New York around the same time, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang expressed serious concern at the deterioration of the US/China relationship caused by recent developments over Taiwan and asserted that these could lead to missteps by the US which could have disastrous consequences. While the White House declared its opposition to the draft Bill and it was not expected to pass into law, US congressional observers indicate that some of its more contentious elements could be tacked onto omnibus bills. And Taiwan will likely continue to be a major point of contention in the coming mid-term elections and beyond.

The Australian government’s response to the evolving Taiwan situation has been very carefully calibrated to avoid following down the path of the former Defence Minister Dutton who in his previous incarnation had indicated that his government would solidly back any US military action in Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion – a break with our previous policy of “strategic ambiguity”. Prime Minister Albanese responded cautiously to questions of the likely Australian response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan ‘we’re not dealing with hypotheticals’, having ‘taken the view… that it is not in the interests of peace and security to talk up those issues of potential conflict.’ He also reiterated that ‘Australia supports a one China policy, but we also support the status quo when it comes to the issue of Taiwan’. Wong and Marles followed similar lines though the comments stiffened up into calls for China to show restraint in its military actions in response to the Pelosi visit. Wong subsequently met Wang in New York for what both described as constructive early steps in what is likely to be a lengthy and complex process of rebuilding the bilateral relationship.

It has hardly been surprising that the above has not gone down well with the Canberra orthodoxy which has become fixated on locking Australia increasingly more into the US embrace and so reducing our space for independent positioning. We are indebted to Peter Jennings (former Executive Director of ASPI and an orthodoxy proponent) who represented so graphically these concerns in a recent article in The Australian. He lamented the determination of Foreign Minister Penny Wong to strengthen the role of DFAT in the development of Australian strategic thinking by deepening relationships with Southeast Asia. He termed this as “a slogan not a strategy”! And he decried Wong’s two meetings with Wang as “Rather than hoping against hope that diplomatic talking points buy more strength than American aircraft carrier groups, we need to work harder with our allies to reinforce deterrence and build our own defence capabilities”. His headline “Let’s not confuse diplomacy with strategy on China” says it all about his understanding of the international scene!!

Others in the security and defence commentariat have also rushed to lobby the DSR team – and even jump ahead of their report. This can be best illustrated by the RAAF’s discussions with the USAF in the past month:

With the USAF Secretary in Australia reportedly offering B21 long range bombers ‘if Canberra requested them’ and cooperating in a range of unmanned aircraft options.

The signature of a Joint Vision Statement in Washington with USAF which flagged increased interoperability with the objective “to generate airpower that supports mutual national security approaches … through regional engagement…shared approaches to security challenges; and credible, sustainable, and interoperable airforces across the Indo-Pacific region”.

In the first of the above, the RAAF did caveat that those matters would be subject to the outcome of the DSR , the signing of the Joint Vision statement with the USAF surely will have important implications for the DSR agenda. One can only assume that the RAAF had Ministerial cover for those commitments? In that connection it was of interest to learn this week that Defence and Army had placed on hold their advanced negotiations over a major order for a new land combat vehicle to await the DSR report.

There have also been some signs that in the current Australian environment the US is keen to toughen up the Australian commitment to the floundering attempts by the US to construct forms of containment around China. The United States Studies Centre (USSC), which receives funding from the US Government and the Defence industry has published a number of adulatory articles on the new US Ambassador, Caroline Kennedy, emphasising how well she is placed to influence both the US and Australian governments. One report ignored the emerging positions of both on Taiwan to claim that the consensus between the US and Australia about China and how to deal with it was growing. USSC has also announced a major project aimed at strengthening the AUKUS arrangements.

There have also been concerns from ASPI and others about the failure so far to set a time and location agreed on the 2022 AUSMIN talks that involve both Ministers Wong and Marles. As Jennings also noted in his article, it could well prove a bit difficult for them both to speak too authoritatively on general strategic issues in advance of the DSR – let alone to make any new commitments.

Read more articles on the Defence Strategic Review.

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