The Defence Strategic Review: Will it question the China phobia that currently holds sway?

Sep 10, 2022
Map showing China, SE Asia and Australia

Hardly a day goes by without an Australian politician, commentator, or member of the security establishment reminding us that China poses ‘a clear and present danger’. The messaging, consistent and unrelenting, provides the backdrop to the Defence Strategic Review recently announced by the Albanese Government.

The review, led by former Defence Minister Stephen Smith and former Chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston, has been asked to look at force structure, force posture and preparedness, and investment priorities in the light of a rapidly changing strategic environment.

How are we to explain this announcement? After all, it is only two years since the publication of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan. The key to answering that question lies in two interlinked addictions which Australia’s political and military elites have long cultivated: an addiction to external threats mirrored and reinforced by the addiction to imperial power.

For much of the Cold War it was communism generally, and the Soviet Union and Communist China in particular. In the post-Cold war period, especially after the events of September 11, it was Islamist terrorism. And for much of the last decade, it is once again the red dragon.

It is this latter ‘threat’ that underpins the justification for this latest review. The announcement speaks of the need “to prepare for conflict” and of “future strategic challenges” that may require a “Defence Force operational response”.

None of this is cause for surprise. Over the last several years, the security establishment has articulated with increasing frequency its alarmist view of China’s global and regional ambitions. The 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper set the stage for repeated condemnations of Chinese actions in the South China Sea, side by side with effusive support for the forward projection of US aerial and naval power in the Pacific.

In a major address delivered in Singapore in March 2017, Julie Bishop declared that China could not be trusted to resolve its disagreements in accordance with international law. A few months later, Turnbull spoke of the dangers of “a coercive China”.

In a keynote address delivered in April 2021, Prime Minister Morrison stated that a strategic competition was under way between authoritarian regimes (read Russia and China) and liberal democracies (read the United States and its allies). By now Australian ministers and senior bureaucrats were ready to beat the drums of war.

The election in May of a Labor government has brought remarkably little change. The ‘Chinese threat’ has continued to hold sway. It has been the primary driver of Penny Wong’s frenetic attempts to repair Australia’s standing in the Pacific. Albanese’s attendance at several international summits, shortly after winning the election. have conveyed the same message.

This perception, genuine or contrived, of Chinese malevolence is part of the backdrop to the Defence Strategic Review. So is Australia’s compulsion to project a forward military presence, hence the expanding role of regional military exercises. Of these, still the most important is Talisman Sabre. Alternatively led by Australia and the United States, it involves thousands of troops on land, sea and in the air and major assets, including warships, fighters, bombers, helicopters and artillery.

In July, Australia joined the United States, Japan and South Korea in Exercise Pacific Vanguard. Warships, submarines and aircraft took part in a range of exercises, including aerial warfare, live missile firings, anti-submarine warfare serials, gun firings, and advanced manoeuvres. This was the first time Pacific Vanguard had been conducted off the east coast of Australia and outside Guam.

The increasing tempo and reach of Australian participation in regional military exercises is compounded by the politically charged despatch of Australian warships and aircraft to the contested waters of the South China Sea and East China Sea.

Underpinning these military excursions has been the marked increase in Australia’s defence budget. For 2022-23 the allocation for defence (including the Australian Signals Directorate) stands at $48.6 billion, up from $21.7 billion in 2009-10. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update estimated defence spending to 2029-30 would come to $575 billion, allowing for investment in Defence capability of some $270 billion.

The projected 10-year military modernisation program envisaged a major naval shipbuilding program comprising 9 frigates, 12 submarines and 12 offshore patrol vessels; an enhanced strike and air combat capability, notably the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter; and enhanced capabilities in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, space, and cyberwarfare.

One can safely assume that the purpose of the current Defence Strategic Review is to make the case for even more ambitious and accelerated investments in military spending. Such recommendations will no doubt rest on claims of a deteriorating strategic environment. Explicitly or implicitly, China will be portrayed as the villain in the piece, a rising power whose aggressive posturing is matched by a rapidly expanding capacity to flex military muscle.

This is one reading of the situation, but not the only one, or the most plausible. The indisputable fact is that China’s capacity for military power projection pales in comparison with America’s global military reach.

China, it is true, now has the world’s second largest military budget, as part of an extensive modernisation program. Its current defence spending has risen steadily in recent years and is estimated to have reached US$230 billion in 2022. It remains nevertheless well below the $813 billion budget budget allocation for defence which the Biden Administration submitted to Congress earlier this year.

As for claims that China is about to gain a string of military bases from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, little of this has come to pass. As of now China has just one military base on foreign soil, in Djibouti which also hosts US, French and Japanese bases.

The Morrison and Albanese governments have both taken exception to the China-Solomons Security Pact, on the grounds that it would pave the way for a Chinese military base less than 2000 km from Australia’s coastline. Repeated assurances by Prime Minister Sogavare that the Solomons had no intention of allowing a Chinese naval base seemed to carry no weight.

There is little likelihood that in coming years we shall see China acquiring a string of overseas military bases. The more likely outcome is that China will gain access to port facilities in various host countries that benefit from large infrastructure investments, notably those linked to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

None of this approaches America’s overwhelming military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Its alliances with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, and Australia are complemented by extensive security arrangements with Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The forces of these countries are now closely enmeshed with the US military, having adopted common weapons, strategic doctrines, and training programs.

The Pentagon currently has some 25,000 troops stationed in South Korea and close to 54,000 military personnel and some 8,000 Department of Defence civilian employees in Japan, for which the Japanese Government provides some $2 billion per year to offset the cost of these deployments. Some 5,000 US troops are permanently stationed in Guam, with the Andersen base home to B-1 bombers and a squadron of F-16 fighters.

In recent years China has built artificial islands around several reefs in the disputed Spratlys over which it claims territorial sovereignty. The United States has responded with Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, with the clear aim of maximising its own naval presence, a position enthusiastically supported by Australian governments.

It is also worth noting that since 1949 China has engaged in few combat operations outside its borders. The most significant of these was the push back against US and UN forces in the Korean war (1950-53), the brief war against India in 1962, and another brief war against Vietnam in 1979. It is now well over forty years since China has been at war.

By contrast, the United States has repeatedly embarked on military interventions across the globe. In the course of the 20th century, it has participated in 38 armed conflicts, or one every three years, and since 2000 it has engaged in at least 11 wars, the equivalent of one every two years.

Australia felt obliged to participate in several of these wars, primarily to demonstrate its commitment to the US alliance, and to the preservation of a regional and global order in which the United States retains military supremacy.

In the present context, this approach has meant a defence posture closely aligned with US strategic plans and priorities, the highest possible levels of interoperability with the US military, intimate links with US intelligence operations, and heavy reliance on the acquisition of expensive US military hardware.

The creation of AUKUS, a trilateral security pact linking Australia, the UK and the US, announced last September, is but the latest manifestation of Australia’s longstanding alignment with the United States. Though equipping Australia with a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines is its initial brief, its underlying purpose is to ensure the military balance across Asia and the Pacific remains overwhelmingly in favour of the United States.

What are we to make of all this? Will Australia’s preoccupation with the China threat and its deepening integration into the US strategic-industrial complex deliver security? What will Australia’s forays into the politics of confrontation achieve? Will China feel intimidated by these efforts? Not likely.

Will Xi Jinping or any future Chinese leader abandon the commitment to reunification with Taiwan? Will China refrain from using force should Taiwan declare its independence? Will it be any less assertive in strengthening its presence in the South China Sea? Will it retreat from developing its Belt and Road Initiative into a vast economic and geopolitical Eurasian sphere of influence? Not likely.

The current drift in Australia’s defence posture, which the Review risks accentuating, could well amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy. In all likelihood China will feel emboldened by an emerging Cold War to redouble the growth of its conventional and nuclear forces.

Might we need a review of a different kind? A review which explores new directions – away from military and intelligence entanglements with an imperial power now in decline and towards the peaceful settlement of disputes, not least with regard to Taiwan and the South China Sea.

There is a case to be made for a wide-ranging review of the mounting threats to human security, notably the existential threats posed by climate change and nuclear arsenals, but also the threats posed by unresolved conflicts, unprecedented levels of global forced displacement, and present and future pandemics.

Such a review may well conclude that defence and security agencies have an important role in addressing these multiple challenges. But the role would depart in radical ways, in conception, execution and resourcing, from the current official orthodoxy.

Importantly, such a review would consider the urgently needed funding for and investment of time and energy in a range of endeavours that are critical to Australia’s security. These include nuclear disarmament, signing and ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of nuclear weapons, peacekeeping, peace building, mediation, multilateral diplomacy as well as aid and humanitarian programs, all of which have been so long and so flagrantly neglected.

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