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June 01st 2012 print

Harry Gelber

Australia’s Geo-Political Strategy and the Defence Budget

Australia’s geopolitical and geo-strategic position appears to be entering its second period of sea-change since the Second World War. Few of the policy issues facing Australia are more important, yet have received less public attention. Even the government seems only half aware of the looming changes, though it has commissioned a report on Australia’s strategic position, under the guidance of two former Secretaries of the Department of Defence, now scheduled to appear in 2013.

The background to the broad foreign policy changes implied by these reconsiderations is well known. For the first 150 years after white settlement, Australians were happy to be citizens in good standing of the British Empire. The decade of the 1950s, even more than the Second World War itself, brought sweeping changes in three directions. One was a declining reliance on Britain. That had begun with the wartime disaster of the fall of Singapore and culminated in the political, economic and psychological shock of seeing the progressive collapse of the empire and, shortly afterwards, Britain’s effort to join the European Common Market. A second was the decision to speed up population increase by altering the direction, volume and management of immigration policy. The third was the decision (foreshadowed as early as the first decade of the century) to link Australia’s security more firmly to alliance with the United States. Some of the most important of those links, originating in wartime co-operation, continued and strengthened through the postwar growth of intelligence and security arrangements.

The three or four decades that followed brought increasing complexities without major changes of direction. They also brought loud, and at times acrimonious, debates about emphasis and focus, in public, official—especially political—opinion. These major foci, never mutually exclusive, were essentially four. One was (and has remained) the idea that the chief pillar of Australian foreign and security policy must remain the United States alliance, whatever minor divergences there might be on some particulars. A second was to regard trade and finance as the heart and soul of foreign policy. The third was that policy should give primacy to Australia’s relations in and with South-East and East Asia (currently reinforced by the invention of that mythical beast, the “Asian Century”). Finally, and linked to the others, there is an indistinct but powerful search for “independence”, coupled with a search for regional and even global influence by joining, or creating, new linkages and multi-national groupings within which Australian interests can be promoted. The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, created in 1989, is one obvious example.

Yet changes now under way in world politics will require more than fresh emphases among established priorities. These changes have to do with the very nature of international power. In part these are illustrated by the American commentator Fareed Zakaria. The first sentence of his book The Post-American World([1]) says, “This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else.” It is widely agreed that this consists, in large part, of the shift of wealth and power towards the Pacific and East Asia. Or, as Professor Joseph Nye([2]) has argued, rather more subtly, power can nowadays be thought of as a three-dimensional chess game. On the top board, US military power remains unmatched. On the middle board, the USA, Japan, India, China, Europe and others have competed for some years. But the bottom chessboard is a confusion of non-state actors from terrorists to bankers shifting funds by e-mail, to hackers, and to NGOs of every kind.

Together with that comes the huge importance of new technologies of communication and management, which wholly change the way in which states can influence and control their own populations while managing opinion and exercising “soft power” beyond their borders. They also greatly change the nature of military, quasi-military and economic power. Emphasis among advanced states has clearly shifted to direct and indirect financial and resource pressures. Together with that, it seems that the days of very large armies, navies and air forces have passed. In their place come smaller, more highly trained and expensively equipped forces, not to mention the use of cyber, psychological, chemical and space warfare, as well as “anti-terrorism” measures.

Beyond that, there is the proliferation of new international and trans-national groupings of greatly varying reach and effectiveness. They offer to governments, Australia’s, a variety of possibilities for “forum shopping”; that is, choice among the international networks and forums in which to exercise influence and use the power of persuasion. In the words of Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton, recently Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department: “the power that flows from this kind of connectivity is not the power to impose outcomes. Networks are not directed and controlled as much as they are managed and orchestrated.”

This changing scene includes a number of new and even more far-reaching phenomena. One is the issue of “global governance”, heavily backed by the Left in the developed world, as well as by states wanting to clothe their wishes and policies in the garments of global interests and morality. Pride of place is often given to the United Nations and its Security Council, sometimes viewed as a world parliament and a world law-giving authority respectively. Other forums affect the fields of economics, finance and trade where the dominant rhetoric has to do with “transparency” and “free trade”. Similar outcomes are promoted by a newly forceful inter-governmentalism.

Anne-Marie Slaughter has argued that there already exists a considerable measure of global governance, operating through a global web of “government networks”, in which government officials as well as regulators, and international and national judges exchange information and co-ordinate activity across borders([3]). This has greatly increased the distance between bureaucratic management and, in most places most of the time, any kind of parliamentary oversight. Nor is this in any way confined to politics or strategy. The growth of “state capitalism” points in the same direction; and joint management, by the central banks of the advanced countries, of the complex relations between national fiscal and monetary policies, including policies on budget deficits and quantitative easing, are cases in point([4]).

Intriguing as these ideas may be, caution is in order. The world has never looked more multi-polar. In many areas, not least in the Islamic countries, nationalism and religious separatism seem to be on the rise. The recent histories of the EU or the World Trade Organisation also do not suggest that global governance is all that is happening. Indeed, the generally accepted nostrums of “globalisation” have to be heavily qualified. They have been most visibly active in finance and trade. But Western intellectuals have also developed, in the name of morality, a “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)”: not just countries but groups within countries deemed to require outside protection. Unsurprisingly, where that has led to real interventions these have tended to be directly or indirectly related to the national interests of the protector. One result has been the growing resistance of countries like Russia and China to creating precedents that might lead to foreign interference in their own internal affairs. There is also the damage that unrestricted globalisation can do to the populations of many smaller states or to the economic importance of long-established ties of culture, history, customs and language.

The American journalist and author Thomas Friedman was always simplistic to argue that “The world is flat”([5]). If the financial crisis in the Euro-zone has shown anything, it has proved that countries with different habits, currencies and economic structures cannot live with one-size-fits-all currency and central banking arrangements as long as they retain separate laws, politics and democratic structures. (Hence Angela Merkel’s growing promotion of “political union” for the EU.) Great firms have long known that one cannot do business in Latvia as one does in Spain, or in China as one does in Italy. Language, social and political traditions, familiarity and family connections—for example within the 70-million-strong community of “Overseas Chinese”—matter hugely.

The Economist headed an early 2012 article, “Businesspeople need to reckon with the Anglosphere, the Sinosphere and the Indosphere”.([6]) It quotes research showing that countries that once shared imperial ties trade 188 per cent more than countries that do not. In some ways this parallels political (and anti-immigration) sentiment in a period where Tibetans and Uyghurs seek to assert their social and cultural individualities against China, as do the Basques, even now, against Spain, Chechens against Russia and even Scots against England, not to mention French and Italian resentment of “excessive” Muslim immigration, or Australian worries about unregulated “boat people”.

Nowhere will these developments bring greater or more dramatic changes than in the political, economic and military positions of the countries of Asia and the Pacific regions, including Australia. Yet such public discussion as has taken place to date seems limited. In Australian society at large—as distinct from segments of the public service or multi-national firms like BHP Billiton or Westpac—the true nature of many of the new international and global pressures leading to such changes is quite widely misunderstood. Even in official and academic circles it is often taken as read that US power and reliability are both declining, certainly in relative terms, perhaps more. It is also widely thought that “China’s rise” represents a threat to the position of the USA, whose position as the sole superpower is in any case weakening.

None of this is to deny the obvious: that in the Asia-Pacific region the two largest and most influential players are the USA and China. A word about each is in order.

As Percy Cradock, a former British ambassador([7]), put it. China is “an acquired taste, much of it bitter”. Nevertheless, the scale and global importance of its economic growth are unquestioned. That growth, from a very low starting point, has now lasted some thirty years and produced very large gross GDP numbers, though the per capita GDP is still quite low. The drive to increase and spread wealth is self-evident. Still less is there any doubt about the importance of Chinese trade and investment in places like the USA, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. China’s massive purchases of iron ore and energy have also played a very important role in allowing the Australian economy to emerge from the global financial crisis in good shape. But there are also massive difficulties.

China is engaged in a fundamental shift from an economy based on cheap manufactured exports and the growth of foreign currency reserves to one based on domestic consumption, infrastructure spending and innovation. This implies managing massive economic and associated social changes; and that in an era when the population increasingly resents the very great disparities of wealth it can see every day on television. Furthermore, the governing 80-million-strong Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a sweeping generational change of its top leadership. This will include not only the President and Prime Minister but probably up to seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s ultimate governing authority. The outcome of these changes is largely unpredictable and the scandal surrounding Mr Bo Xilai (the Party boss of Chongqing and former Minister of Commerce), strongly suggests that things are not going as smoothly as the top leadership might have wished. Even so, the new leading group is likely to include several “princelings”—great-nephews or grandsons of high Party officials. It may be that such privileged younger men will be more assertive than their elders, not only at home but also abroad.

There will be other difficulties. The Party remains jittery about the possibility that the “Jasmine revolution” in the Middle East might stimulate the spread of similar ideas at home. Towns and villages are already pressing for more self-determination, though that may not lead to freedom from Party control. Every year China sees tens of thousands of local demonstrations against the thuggish behaviour of local Party chiefs, for instance in seizing land for personal profit. But systemic change? As Yukon Huang puts it: “In China today … local problems beget local reform.”([8])

There are material problems, too. The incoming leadership will need to deal with soil and water pollution in many areas, not to mention the air pollution in major cities. There are grave water shortages, especially in North China. The country has shortages of agricultural land as well and, with its massive movements of people into cities, increasing reliance on food supplies from overseas. Moreover, the population is ageing, with fewer young men and women to look after the old. Meanwhile, economic and military expansion, and transport, require technologies and skills that China does not yet have and the reform of age-old methods of education. It is hardly surprising that some 125,000 Chinese students attend US universities every year; though the political ideas with which they return home might be less welcome.

There may be other difficulties, no less powerful for being imponderable. Much if not most of China’s younger generation has grown up with the firm conviction that China was victimised for a century before 1949 because it was weak. In particular it was exploited, economically and otherwise, by imperialist and rapacious Westerners. The fact that a good deal of this story is pure invention changes nothing. The deep resentments and beliefs are facts of contemporary international life and, since they also tend to reinforce nationalist views, are likely to affect relations with outsiders for years.

Yet plans for China’s growth will mean continuing, heavy reliance on foreign investments, especially of technology. They will also require imports of energy and raw materials, especially over lines of communication across the Indian Ocean, an area of growing competition among major powers and whose chief guardian for the time being remains the US Navy. Part of the Chinese reaction has been the development of the “String of Pearls” on the North shores of the Indian Ocean: port construction in Burma, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Gwadar in western Pakistan. This is clearly intended to diversify China’s access routes for food and energy from the Middle East and Africa, and get away from reliance on the narrow and politically vulnerable Straits of Malacca, and other choke-points. It may well also lead to facilities for the Chinese navy in the almost inevitable future competition with the Indian and Pakistan navies, not to mention the US and Japanese fleets.

The Chinese maintain territorial claims to an entire province on India’s northern border, Arunachal Pradesh, which they call “South Tibet”. They have laid claim to large parts of the South China Sea and the “East China Sea”. It is not unreasonable for China to seek control of waters that not only wash its own shores but also lead to China’s major ports and naval bases, such as that on Hainan. But the South China Sea claims overlap with claims by Vietnam, the Philippines and others, while the East China Sea claims overlap with the views and interests of Japan and South Korea. It is true, as Geremie Barmé of the Australian National University has pointed out, that China’s more assertive rhetoric on these topics almost certainly has a good deal to do with a jostling for position by senior Party and PLA figures in the run-up to the impending leadership changes, but that does not resolve the difficulties for foreign relations.

In addition, China controls the sources of all the major river systems of South and South-East Asia, from the Ganges and the Brahmaputra to the Irrawaddy and the Mekong. It is trying to build dams on all of them (although Burma has stopped dam construction on the Irrawaddy) but their energy product will go to China and the dams will interfere with the water flow, and hence food production downstream, with predictable effects on cross-border tensions. China has done itself no favours by allowing the combination of material pressures and its own rhetoric to prompt most of its neighbours to lean towards the USA. Which has further fuelled Chinese complaints that America is “surrounding” and “containing” China and trying to limit its growth and rise.

Given these various problems (including the quite startling lack of allies—none, with the possible exception of North Korea which is almost wholly dependent on Chinese support, including food) it is not surprising that China should wish to expand its military power. Beijing is bound to seek a greater role in protecting its seaborne supply lines to the Middle East and beyond. It has already sent frigate-class ships on friendship visits to the Persian Gulf and on escort duties for merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden. Its power-projection capabilities beyond China’s borders remain very limited, but other developments may be more alarming, not only to neighbours. Sharp increases in China’s military budget show no sign of levelling off. Some of the innovations, like stealth jet fighters and sharp increases in the size and power of the submarine fleet, including the development of anti-ship cruise missiles, seem designed to cope with US air and naval superiority, perhaps especially the US carrier fleet.

That has been a major reason for the shift in US strategic focus to the Pacific, whether in the function of alliances or the deployment of new and ultra-modern weaponry. But American policies seem to have been even more dictated by structural changes in the international system, driven by new technologies and global economic developments, than by direct reactions to China. There is the US recession since 2008, which has undermined America’s ability and willingness to spend money abroad. There is public and congressional impatience with costly and largely fruitless campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The US political class has accepted that America must stop trying to be a global policeman and that “nation-building” in other continents is both dangerous and very expensive. That does not mean global inaction. The USA can and will be the “first among equals” in a global group of major states with widely varying interests. It will also return to the position with which it has long felt most comfortable: the leadership of its alliances. After all, dealing with different regional or security or resource problems will require different groupings. Furthermore, the USA does not seem to think that old-fashioned warfare by mass armies, navies or air forces is very likely. So Washington appears not to foresee a need to fight more than one or maybe one-and-a-half smallish wars simultaneously. In returning to more limited deployments of US power, the Americans will also look to more serious allied contributions and may be less willing than in the past to pull everyone’s else’s chestnuts out of the fire.

Evidently, too, much more can now be done with smaller, more highly trained special and “smart” forces, not to mention new and “asymmetric” means of warfare such as cyber war or drone aircraft. There are the successful examples of the American and Western interventions (with aircraft and special forces) in many aspects of the “Arab Spring” including Libya and Yemen, or the execution of Osama bin Laden or active non-military support for the opposition in Iran. More generally, there is a growing recognition of how much can be done with economic and scientific sanctions and the control of trans-border banking activities, most of which do not involve any risk of human casualties which might cause media excitement and political difficulties at home.

There is also the economic and technical background. Commentators have argued that China’s gross GDP is likely to overtake that of the USA within the next few decades, certainly in purchasing power parity, perhaps more. But if or when that happens—and even leaving aside questions about the longevity of the Chinese boom, let alone the credibility of many Chinese statistics—such gross figures say very little about the composition of either country’s GDP. Yet that may be increasingly important. Nor do the gross GDP figures say anything about the overall success of the economy at home or its impact on the world at large.

It is true that the USA was never likely to abandon its dominant position in the Pacific region lightly. President Obama explained on November 17, 2011, in Canberra and on January 5, 2012, in Washington, that the USA is “pivoting” its foreign and strategic policies towards the Pacific and that China has been the main reason for the “pivot”. At one point there were even suggestions that China was one of two looming military threats (the other being Iran.) It is also true that China’s military and naval build-up provokes a degree of military rivalry with the USA and mutual military suspicions, that both Washington and Beijing would do well to prevent that from leading to major geo-political stresses. The USA also continues to help upgrade Taiwan’s defences. The Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, reacted to some alarming-sounding Chinese claims in the South China Sea by explaining in 2011 that the USA had a strong interest in freedom of navigation in that region; while the US Navy sent one of its huge carriers on a goodwill visit to Vietnam and has taken part in joint US-Vietnamese naval drills this year.

Beijing fears and resents closer US links with India, not to mention with most South-East Asian countries; and resents even more American offers to “mediate” in the disputes over the South China Sea. At the same time, though, President Obama has tried hard to defuse China’s concerns about the new American posture and the Pentagon’s ten-year budget has been cut by almost $500 billion. Nothing that has yet been done amounts to genuine or active US “containment”; and the Chinese have responded with restraint on a number of issues where serious American interests were involved. The Chinese Defence Minister, General Liang Guanglie, arrived in San Francisco in early May and declared: “China and the USA are not competing rivals in a zero-sum game, but partners with mutual benefits, whose common interests far outweigh their differences.”

Altogether, broader Sino-American relations are far from seriously hostile. Each remains among the most important investors and trading and financial partners of the other. America has often stressed that it has no interest in halting or even containing China’s economic and political rise. America and China even have a number of important common strategic interests. One is the containment of Islamic extremism in and around Afghanistan (which borders on Xinjiang province with its largely Islamic population). Another, together with South Korea and Japan, is in maintaining a peaceful status quo in what remains arguably the most dangerous flashpoint in the entire Pacific: Korea. Most of the plausible outcomes of any weakening or collapse of North Korea’s brittle regime would produce a united Korea in possession of the nuclear facilities and assets now in the North. There would undoubtedly be huge economic burdens for what is now the South (as well as for a China compelled to deal with cross-border refugees). All that would compel far-reaching reassessments both by China and by a Tokyo that has traditionally regarded Korea as a “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan”. Other mutual interests are in trade talks, including China’s membership of the new Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In such a context, some elements of the US policy revision in the Asia-Pacific region strikingly echo the basic principles of Richard Nixon’s “Nixon doctrine” of July 1969: withdrawal from most of the Asian mainland but increased reliance on US sea and air (and nowadays presumably space and cyber) power. Together with that, other elements of the US realignment even more strikingly imitate what China calls its “String of Pearls” policy in the northern Indian Ocean. The USA has largely withdrawn from in-shore Chinese waters and is pulling its bases somewhat further back from the Asian mainland, though there will also be smaller forward deployments, for instance of special forces or continued support for allies.

But it is of particular interest that the USA is creating what can only be called its own “string of pearls”. That includes a variety of naval, air and other facilities from Japan to Okinawa, along the Marianas to Guam (possibly with an outlier in the Philippines), linked to new access to facilities in northern Australia for US troops and aircraft and very probably port and support facilities in Western Australia. That will also secure access, perhaps via the Cocos Islands, to the Chagos archipelago, with Diego Garcia as a great base and forward-operating hub. Such a string will give the US not only a reliable base for naval superiority at the centre of the Indian Ocean but easier access to allies in Western and Southern Asia. It will also strengthen US access, via Diego Garcia, to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, together with a secure airbase for any future intervention in Central Asia. It will also place small bodies of US troops, such as the US marines at Darwin, within easy reach of most potential trouble-spots in archipelagic South-East Asia. 

How has Australia so far responded to the changed geo-strategic situation implied by the US “pivot”? Slowly and inadequately. For the first 150 years of modern Australia’s existence it was protected not just by Britain’s Royal Navy but also by the “tyranny of distance”([9]). The first strategic sea-change did not come until after the Second World War, in the decade or so beginning with the 1951 signature of the ANZUS treaty with the USA and, even earlier, the postwar intelligence arrangements of 1947–48. As Professor Desmond Ball of the Australian National University pointed out many years ago, these links stemmed from the inter-allied intelligence arrangements of the Second World War, confirmed by the UK–USA agreements of 1947. They created a special group of English-speaking countries which, between them, could cover most of every continent. So far as one can tell, this group—with the eventual exception of South Africa—has continued to develop intelligence activities and links of the first importance for all its members. From an Australian point of view there has, for many years, been not the slightest possibility that any government could contemplate the severance of these and subsequent links.

The second geo-strategic sea-change, which has now begun, makes matters more complicated. This time, change is driven not just by geography but also by the novel technologies of communication and the growing complexities of global affairs. Economic and political links with the USA, Britain and the Eurozone have become more complicated and more important, though perhaps less urgent for an Australian public consciousness whose focus has switched to India, and most especially to China. Indeed, in addition to Australia’s enormous sales of minerals and energy, financial and investment links with China have also greatly expanded. More Australians than ever before are working in China or on China-related business and other connections. China figures prominently in Australian newspapers and on television; and significant numbers of Australian school-children are learning Mandarin. None of which has stopped federal ministers from criticising China’s human rights record or the government from limiting China’s purchases of Australian companies and resources, including land.

Whether that re-balancing of Australia’s public and political focus is enough is questionable. It is true that South-East and especially East Asia are of greater and especially more immediate importance than was the case some years ago. But it would be unwise to underestimate the importance and direction of the economic recovery and technical ascendancy of the United States. American exports are surging. Vast reserves of shale gas alone are likely to change the patterns of US trade substantially, including US trade with China. Nor can Australia be relaxed about Eurozone politics or finance, Britain and the problems of NATO, whether in Afghanistan or beyond.

None of that is to challenge the obvious point that many of Australia’s foreign affairs issues do not significantly involve either China or the USA. Indeed, much of the energy of foreign relations officials and commentators has continued to focus on Australia’s role in more nearby South-East Asia. Public and media discussion of foreign relations continues to rely heavily on matters of economics and trade. Professional and specialist discussion of particular relationships—such as Australia’s with, say, Malaysia or Papua New Guinea, not to mention the great importance of Indonesia—are usually sensible and calm, though notions about future planning can all too easily descend into cataracts of abstract nouns like values, democracy or human rights.

Nor is Australia solely a consumer of other people’s views and services. Australia has its own diplomatic, political information and intelligence systems covering the south-west Pacific islands and parts of South-East Asia. Australia and New Zealand can be expected by their allies to be able and willing to deal without outside help with matters concerning, say, Samoa or Papua New Guinea or other south-west Pacific island states. Existing arrangements also go well beyond intelligence matters into the general security structures of the region. Australia has long been a member of the five-power defence arrangements with Singapore and Malaysia; RAAF aircraft have been patrolling the Malacca Straits for decades; and Australia now has some dozen or so anti-terrorist agreements with other states in the South-East Asian archipelago.

As far as the geo-strategic and defence situation is concerned—as distinct from the more general and multi-faceted foreign relations field—the most up-to-date statements by the Australian government seem to be six.

One is the Defence White Paper of 2009; the second an impressive speech by the (then) Acting Minister of Defence, Greg Combet, dealing with the technicalities, including industrial implications, of Australia’s proposed new submarine strike force([10]); the third is the announcement in mid-2011 that the government had commissioned the report on Australia’s strategic position that was due to report in 2014 (now 2013). In the meantime, a preliminary geo-strategic view is being prepared by a committee headed by Ken Henry, the Prime Minister’s personal adviser, and is expected to report shortly.

The fourth was the joint announcement by President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard in late 2011 that up to 2500 US marines (and perhaps, it is said, some Japanese marines as well) would be rotated through Darwin. The fifth were statements by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, in March this year dealing with the arrival of the first detachment of those US marines in Darwin at the start of April and the prospect that US naval and air forces might have access to West Australian facilities. And, lastly, new budgetary and force development plans were announced at the start of May.

At the heart of the new developments for the defence force, intended to cater for the period up to and even beyond 2030, are two major innovations. One is to move the focus and deployment of the ADF from the south of the continent much further north and west, with special attention to the Indian Ocean. The other is to create, for the fist time, “strategic strike” systems with “future combat ships” (not clearly specified but likely to be in the destroyer or frigate classes, at least in the first instance) but above all, a new class of a dozen submarines to replace the Collins-class boats now in service. This strategic strike force is to be equipped with precision strike land-attack cruise missiles. The new boats are to be Australia’s largest-ever single defence project. We are also told that they are to be “assembled” in Australia.

Naturally, these new forces will not stand by themselves. There will be new air warfare destroyers with very long range anti-aircraft (and potentially other?) missiles, two dozen new anti-submarine helicopters and some twenty “multi-purpose” ships for various tasks. Air combat capabilities are also to be strengthened with the acquisition of joint strike fighters, described by the White Paper as the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world. There will also be some new airborne warning and control aircraft, new air refuelling planes, and seven high-altitude and long-endurance drones for more distant surveillance purposes (possibly, it now seems, including ocean surveillance from a new Cocos Island base). As for the army it, like the US one, will concentrate more strongly on small, highly educated and trained groups of special forces. They will be backed by three combat brigades of some 4000 soldiers each, as well as by new helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles—presumably remotely operated drones for battlefield surveillance. They, in turn, will be backed by larger reserve units.

Altogether, the various announcements make it reasonably clear that Australia is involved in a period of major strategic and political transformations that will take many years, even decades, to come fully to fruition. It is also widely recognised that these transformations owe much less to Australian decisions or even wishes than to regional and global developments.

Beyond that, the picture is clouded. The 2009 White Paper notes, fairly enough, that breakdowns in the international system might occur unexpectedly. It then gives first priority to the protection of Australia itself, leaving other contingencies as further distant. That returns Australia, not for the first time, from some version of “forward defence” to overall priority for the defence of continental Australia. It again gives pride of place to the US alliance and the close co-operation it ensures in many areas including “intelligence sharing, logistics and access to state-of-the-art military technology” as well as the “ability to operate seamlessly with one another anywhere in the world”. Other interests are defined in fairly obvious but general terms, including building closer ties with India, enhancing the defence relationship with Japan and so on.

Early indications suggest two things; first, that the 2013/14 review will not be a mere echo of the politics of the 2009 paper, though its basic principles will probably remain. The government has repeatedly reaffirmed the centrality of the US alliance, for instance in the US-Australian ministerial consultations of November 2010, September 2011 and again in 2012. The 2013/14 geo-strategic reassessment is meant to “complement the work currently under way with the United States on the ongoing United States Global Force Posture review by the joint Australian-United States working group”([11]). The trend was further confirmed in November 2011 when a “Ministerial Consultation” agreed to work “collaboratively” on force postures in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is also difficult to believe that the US presence at Australian facilities so far announced will remain temporary or small. Even if the US marines at Darwin are to do no more than serious training, they will need not just logistical, supply and medical support, but helicopter and tactical air backing. US Navy ships will also need more from Australian harbours than shore leave for their crews. The announced requirement of interoperability between Australian forces and not just the US but NATO, seems even more certain to affect not just Defence procurement decisions but the training of personnel in several arms of service.

Second, however, the 2009 force structure plans are highly unlikely to be carried out as originally planned because of rising costs, time delays, changing technologies and, sadly, political confusion in Canberra. For one thing, the government will try hard to steer clear of any nuclear-propelled design (such as the new American Virginia-class boats), partly because of the limitations of Australia’s technical and industrial base and partly so as not to offend strong domestic anti-nuclear prejudices. That leaves the options of buying ready-made boats in Europe or designing new boats from scratch at home. An impressive essay from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has suggested that technical difficulties and delays in governmental decision-making have already made it likely that by the later 2020s the country may find itself without any seaworthy submarine force whatever([12]).

Matters were made much worse by the government announcements at the beginning of May 2012 including the budget of May 8 which, in classical pre-election fashion, transferred resources from defence to social policy and to improving public finances. One victim is Defence which, instead of the expected increase of some $3 billion, is now due for cuts of around $5 billion. Most of the 2009 defence budgetary targets are now waste paper, notwithstanding an increasingly uncertain security environment. Previously agreed acquisition programs will have to be cancelled, cut down or postponed. The looming submarine gap once the outdated Collins-class boats become unusable—and with that the feasibility of the “strategic strike” program—are only the most important result. There will be fewer joint strike fighter aircraft than originally promised, and other elements will be subject to yet more “reviews” with unknown time-lines and uncertain outcomes.

Meanwhile, given the far-reaching implications not just of the proposed force restructure but of its political and foreign affairs implications, it is not surprising that there has been a good deal of public and specialist debate. Two concerns have been strongly expressed, even though some of the supporting arguments are re-runs of ones heard in the 1960s and early 1970s, in the controversies over the Vietnam War and the North West Cape communication station. One is the fear that Australia might yet be faced with uncomfortable “choices” between its ally, the USA, and its trade partner, China. The other is the fear that Australia is becoming too “subservient” to America. One or both of those points have been forcefully made by the former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser and by Professor (formerly Lieutenant General) Peter Leahy of the University of Canberra, writing with all the authority of a former Head of the Australian Army.([13]) Yet it is hard to see this as more than an entirely understandable, if indistinct, groping for “independence” rather than as a serious contribution to policy discussion. For while it is true that China’s rise inevitably brings with it competition with the USA in many areas, a serious “stand alone” policy for Australia has never been an option. Of course even close and trusted allies cannot take one another for granted; and differences are bound to arise from time to time. But no recent or prospective government has shown the slightest desire to cut the country loose from the close reliance on the personal and social, political, economic, strategic and intelligence links with the USA.

In any case, the view about Australia’s “choices” rests on some serious errors. It seriously overestimates the speed of China’s “rise”, and mistakes its character as well as the difficulties it creates for China itself. It misunderstands the reasons for, and nature of, US military retrenchments and the changed nature of intelligence and military power in recent times. It certainly underestimates the utility of non-military forms of power and its exercise. What is more, it is at odds with powerful and novel views of Australia’s wider role in the new regional and global situation. In the 2009 Defence White Paper, and since, Australia has started to claim not just a key role in the US “string of pearls” but a capacity to dominate militarily, in the words of former Defence Minister Kim Beazley, “the southern tier of the … global political system” and the approaches to the Straits of Malacca([14]).

If, as the American scholar Robert Kaplan has argued([15]), the Indian Ocean takes centre stage in world politics this century; and if, as Beazley also argues, the principal fault-line will be between Islam and the rest, then Australia, as the close neighbour of the world’s most populous Islamic state, Indonesia, also moves quite close to centre stage. But caution is required. Drawing patterns in global politics can be an interesting exercise. But one of the salient characteristics of the contemporary situation is surely volatility. Dr Rod Lyon of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has it right when he describes the current pattern, rather delightfully, as less a mathematical construct than “a ‘mobile’ of dolphins”([16]), perhaps leading to a “complex, multipolar regional power balance”. In any case, Australia’s real options seem sure to be constrained by its political, economic, technical and skills limitations.

What seems certain is that Dr Lyon’s “dolphins” will continue to play in their unpredictable patterns, though perhaps in less peaceable ways than dolphins usually do. But Australia has surely begun to move decisively away from the era of the “tyranny of distance” to, potentially, a highly influential and strategically triple position. It is a move largely dictated by the new verities that technology has in imposed on geography, rather than by conscious decisions from any recent Australian government.

The first novel role is as the southern anchor of that new US “string of pearls” forming a southern rim from the western Pacific via Japan down to Guam, Australia, and the Chagos archipelago to the Middle East. It will be an anchor that poses no threat to any of the major or middle powers of Eastern, Southern or South-East Asia; but may establish fresh links, via the western Indian Ocean and the Middle East, with important British and European interests east of the Mediterranean. The second is that, in a period when South-East Asian affairs, including the region’s relations with China, may become somewhat more fraught, and even the major transit routes of the Malacca and Lombok Straits might get into political difficulties, Australia offers a huge, politically stable and reliable, as well as technically capable, bridge between the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Third, Australia is likely to become a secure base for its own and its allies’ economic and security interests in the entire eastern Indian Ocean and beyond.

The achievement of these extended roles will now take much longer than expected or necessary. In the short term, the 2012 budget will compel painful cuts in system acquisitions, probably together with major delays in re-focusing the ADF to the north and west and creating the necessary industrial, residential and on-shore facilities there. The next government, of whichever party, will face painful decisions in trying to fix the gaps and fulfil minimal alliance commitments. In the longer term, however, and whatever the domestic political pressures, Australia will be unable to escape the dictates of the new strategic geography. It is to these that Australia’s more parochial domestic policies will have to adjust. They cannot fail to bring new possibilities for advancing Australia’s position and influence, as well as security and welfare. Whether Australia takes full advantage of these opportunities, and deals well with the difficulties, even dangers, that they may sometimes present, remains to be seen.

Harry Gelber is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and honorary research associate in the School of Government, University of Tasmania. His most recent book is The Dragon and the Foreign Devils (Bloomsbury). An earlier version of this article was a submission to the Prime Minister’s Henry Committee; a footnoted version appears on Quadrant Online



[1] Zakaria, The Post-American World, New York W.W.Norton, 2011.

[2] Of Harvard and a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

[3] Slaughter, A New World Order, Princeton, Princeton University Press,2005

[4] Gavyn Davies in the Financial Times of 19 February 2012. He discusses joint management by the central banks of Britain, the Eurozone, Japan and the USA.

[5] Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, New York, Farrar, Strauss &Giroux, 2005.

[6] The Economist, 28 January 2012, p 60.

[7] Sir Percy Cradock was ambassador in Beijing, later foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a lifelong China scholar.

[8] Yukon Huang, The Challenge for China’s New Leaders, Foreign Affairs, 9 March 2012

[9] The title of Professor Geoffrey Blainey’s most famous book: The Tyranny of Distance; How Distance shaped Australia’s History (first published 1966) (Rev. edn.), Melbourne, Sun Books, 1982.) 

[10] “The Challenge of the Future Submarine”, address to the Sydney Institute, 4 November 2009.

[11] Press release of 22 June 2011 by the Minister for Defence, Mr Stephen Smith, p 3.

[12] Andrew Davies and Mark Thomson, Mind the Gap, ASPI, Canberra, 19 April 2012.

[13] Fraser in Sydney Morning Herald 24.4.12; Leahy in The Australian 12.4.12, p.12. Similar views have been published, with varying degrees of authority and emphasis, by a number of people. On “submissiveness”, see particularly Professor Paul Dibb and Dr Richard Brabin-Smith, “We need submarines, not Subservience to the US”. The Australian, 19.1.12, p 10.

[14] ABC Discussion on Radio National “Geopolitical power in the Indian Ocean” 16 Jan 2010, p 3

[15] See Robert Kaplan, Center Stage for the 21st Century, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2009 and The Geography of Chinese Power, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010.

[16] Lyon, The Global Strategic Environment and Australia’s Options, p. 3 (Presentation to the Royal United Services Institute of Victoria 24 Feb 2011; RUSI of Australia Website)