After, by his own account, pondering defence acquisitions, strategic policy and force structure for thirty-five years, Hugh White has written a book, called How to Defend Australia. In an author’s note at the beginning of this book, he states that he began as a defence reporter in the press gallery in Canberra in 1984 and has been exploring ever since the tangled questions bound together in this field. He has written this book, he says, in the belief that we need greater clarity than we normally get in the “bland generalisations and supple evasions” that issue from government.
We can and must, he urges, set the matter out more clearly and logically than is customarily done, in order to avoid making “untested or unconscious assumptions” or reaching “unwarranted conclusions”. Such clarity, he declares, is especially important today, “because our strategic circumstances are changing very fast and quite fundamentally” and the changes that are under way “completely overturn the comfortable assumptions that have underpinned our approach to defence for decades”.
These are unimpeachable points from which to open an inquiry into Australian strategic policy. And his qualifier concerning the conclusions he has reached is both attractively modest and most appropriate:
As this book makes clear, I am not sure myself what the right answers to all these questions are for Australia at this point in its history, but I am certain that we shall not get the right answers unless we explore and debate the issues much more rigorously than we have been doing in recent years. I hope this book helps to inform and encourage that debate.
The book certainly should encourage debate. For the assumptions White makes, the reasoning he does and the prescriptions he offers are all alike in need of fundamental correction. His book is laid out with admirable transparency and covers a great deal of ground, which should make it easier for others to engage in the debate in a systematic manner. His argument, alas, leaves a great deal to be desired. Rigorous debate is, therefore, more sorely needed than before.
That this should be so after White’s lengthy career in national security affairs and with the luxury of many years now in an academic post dedicated to just such thinking is puzzling. He has worked as a defence journalist, an intelligence analyst, a defence official and an academic. He was the chief author of the 2000 defence white paper. He has been Deputy Secretary of Defence for Strategy. He was the inaugural director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a director of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU. He has since had years to devote himself to the thinking that has gone into this book—the apparent culmination of his career. It is disappointing to think that this is all he can offer us after so long a preparation.
What is almost as dismaying is that so many apparent readers of the draft of the book who should have been more discerning in their observations have praised it very highly. Gareth Evans, Chris Barrie, Robert O’Neill, Kim Beazley, Alan Gyngell, Karen Middleton and Michael Wesley are all quoted in the blurb as praising the book in various ways. One assumes they actually read it. Beazley is quoted as stating that it “requires close reading”. That much is true. But if one gives it such a close reading, its flaws become disturbingly apparent. Gareth Evans states that it is “comprehensive and compelling”. It is neither. Rather, it is a strategically and logically superficial piece of argument, based on a small number of largely unexamined premises, dubious assumptions and poorly drawn inferences.
The book opens with a striking statement that, in the era of Donald Trump, many in this country will find quite plausible:
For a long time, all the big decisions about Australia’s defence have been based on two assumptions. First, that there is little if any chance that Australia would face a military threat from any major power, because America, as the dominant country in Asia, would prevent that kind of threat from emerging. Second, if for some reason a major power did threaten us, America would come to our defence … Until now all this made good sense … But things have changed …
How and to what extent have things changed? White’s summation is that America has stumbled and become more isolationist; China has become not only wealthier and more powerful by leaps and bounds, but has also made clear that it seeks hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, or at the very least parity with the United States; and both India and Indonesia are set, White believes, to become much wealthier and more powerful in the next few decades.
He bases this assessment almost exclusively on Australian Treasury forecasts of gross economic output in the four countries, compared with our own, over the coming decade or so. For instance, he informs us, regarding China, that the Treasury estimated in 2017 that by 2030 China’s gross domestic product will be US$42.4 trillion and America’s will be US$24 trillion. This emergent China “is very serious indeed about resuming what it sees as its rightful place as East Asia’s leading power”. It will not, however, “become predominant beyond East Asia and the Western Pacific, because it will be resisted by India, Russia and Europe as well as America”.
This means that America will have neither the motive nor the means to resist Chinese dominance in East Asia, which means it would be unlikely to intervene on our behalf. Let’s call all this the Ominous Premise. It’s a compound premise, of course, but at its core is the claim that China will become dominant in our neighbourhood and America will pull back. It is on this Ominous Premise that White builds the rest of his argument.
Whereas there have, for at least half a century, been those in this country who worried that we would be abandoned by our great and powerful allies in a possible confrontation with Indonesia or China, White says that the time has come when we must assume that this is now more likely than ever before and indeed more likely than not. From which he infers that we need to radically reconfigure our strategic policy and force structure to enable us to defend ourselves on our own against military invasion by China, or theoretically by Indonesia or even India. We shall call this the Long Inference, because, although he doesn’t appear to realise this, he is drawing a very long bow indeed here.
He spends the first half of his book—Part One: Thinking about War and Part Two: Defining the Task—in spelling out the Ominous Premise and the Long Inference. Having satisfied himself that the Ominous Premise is incontestable and that the Long Inference is strongly warranted, he then proceeds to point out how difficult it would be for us to defend this continent against an attempt by China (or a future Indonesia or India) to conquer it. He goes on in Part Three: Designing the Force, to argue that we have made a series of errors in force structure development since his 2000 white paper and that we will now have to drastically reconfigure the ADF, if we are to have any hope of meeting the challenge he foresees. But even if one granted both his Ominous Premise and his Long Inference, his force structure recommendations would remain highly dubious.
His set of recommendations will not altogether surprise anyone who has followed his writing over the past twenty years or so. He doesn’t believe we should have serious expeditionary forces—that is, a hardened and networked army—or a substantial amphibious capability; or robust naval surface combatants. He thinks we should have a light constabulary army for basic peacekeeping operations in the South Pacific. We should scrap our surface ships and instead have a navy almost entirely based on submarines, backed up by an air force twice as large as currently projected. He calls for not twelve new long-range submarines but three dozen; and for not 100 but 200 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. For good measure, he then speculates that we might need to acquire an independent nuclear arsenal.
This is all so confused it’s hard to know where to start. At least he has moved on from an earlier argument that we should acquire lots of small submarines to be positioned close to our coasts instead of a dozen state-of-the-art long-range submarines to replace the Collins-class boats. That suggestion simply showed that he had no understanding of what submarines are for or how to use them to greatest effect against a predatory enemy. Now he appears to understand the basic case for having long-range submarines, but thinks that a lot of them will be necessary for the scenario he postulates—invasion in force by a major power such as China.
In Part Four: Making it Happen, he then does a curious thing: he postulates that making all these adjustments will be enormously expensive. So much so that we might choose not to bother trying to defend ourselves:
The opportunity costs of diverting that much money, year after year, from productive investment or more inherently worthwhile consumption are very great … All this raises the question of whether it could ever be possible politically to sell such an increase in defence spending to the Australian public. It will not be, unless the majority of voters are persuaded that they would rather spend that money on defence than live with the consequences of not doing so. That’s the choice we all face.
When White was writing these lines, it seems highly likely that he assumed his book would come off the press shortly after the election of a Shorten-led ALP government. It was very clear during the prolonged election campaign where ALP priorities lay. White must have known this. Was he spelling out for the benefit of a Shorten government the case for not taking the force structure path laid out in his book, but rather acquiescing in a Chinese-led regional order—as various other public figures have echoed Stephen Fitzgerald in doing?
It would seem implausible to imagine an Albanese-led ALP embracing the vast increase in defence spending that White sets out. Even Scott Morrison would surely assess the hypothetical levels of expenditure as politically too challenging. But to deduce from this, as White does, that we will remain for all practical purposes defenceless is quite unwarranted. What the situation does, rather, is pull us back to re-examining his argument regarding both our emerging strategic environment and the force structure he advocates. That is where the rigorous debate he calls for must be had; not over how to build the force structure he urges at the cost he stipulates. Let us, therefore, retrace our steps and look more closely at the underpinnings of his argument and all that he overlooks or fails to critically reflect upon.
The Ominous Premise
To begin with, let’s look at the underpinnings of the Ominous Premise. What are the grounds for assuming, as White does, that the recent rapid growth of China’s economy and its great power aspirations are directly threatening to Australia? After all, China’s growth has been unambiguously good for Australia. We have profited handsomely from its huge appetite for what we have to offer and from Chinese immigration, all things considered. We have, for good reasons, welcomed China’s economic reforms and its integration into the global trade and investment system. That system was, of course, largely constructed under American auspices at Bretton Woods and adapted thereafter as the liberal international order grew and grew spectacularly after 1945 and even more after the end of the Cold War. Why exactly does White fear that a wealthy and powerful China would attempt to invade Australia?
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he believes this on the basis of a very simplistic kind of abstract realism, which sees states as more or less identical in their characteristics and as seeking to maximise their power, so that wealth and power beget ambition. Of course, there is some credibility to this notion, but it’s easily over-stretched. Great powers do, to be sure, have a tendency to seek to secure their borderlands and trade routes, to develop an overweening sense of their own virtues and importance and, in certain circumstances, to seek to acquire foreign bases or even new territories. The problem White has is that he moves from this very basic and broad assumption to the notion that one of the great Asian powers—chiefly China—might seek to actually invade and take over Australia and that, if it did, we would be left alone to defend ourselves. Let’s address these assumptions one at a time.
It is no secret that China has been spending enormous amounts modernising its military forces across the full spectrum of twenty-first-century capabilities. This is what makes it laughable that Beijing takes exception to any other country in the region seeking to upgrade its own forces in response. Nor is it any secret that China seeks hegemony in Asia and the Western Pacific. To be precise, it has the clear strategic intention of displacing the United States from the position of strategic primacy it has held in Asia and the Indo-Pacific since the defeat of Japan in 1945. White has argued for many years now that we should encourage America to accept this Chinese ambition rather than contest it and to pull back from its forward positions in East and South-East Asia. He has also argued that this means we will need to accommodate China ourselves, while developing a naval strategy of sea denial to replace the more expeditionary strategy we have maintained while America was in the ascendant.
But this is where White’s problems begin. He seems little interested in looking more closely at a number of crucial aspects of the picture he sketches out. Other than sweeping Treasury extrapolations of Chinese growth, he shows no interest in the structure or prospects of the Chinese economy. He exhibits no interest, either, in the character of and dilemmas confronting the Communist Party regime under Xi Jinping. He nowhere addresses the fact that China has no real friends and that its evident ambitions are leading most countries in the region to look to Washington, not to Beijing. He doesn’t examine China’s military capabilities or possible weaknesses in any one of several different conflict scenarios. He doesn’t examine the nature of the American entrenchment in East Asia or the naval power it has in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. He nowhere considers the range of possible responses to China’s rise, especially if it takes the next steps to seeking hegemony.
This is a long list of omissions, given his concern about the rise of China. He may plead that one cannot cover everything in a single book, but by omitting these and many other considerations he has failed to advance the kind of rigorous argument he says we need. To begin with, he would have done well to ask whether the GDP extrapolation he depends upon is as robust as he plainly thinks it is. He might have taken a close look at the work of Minxin Pei on crony capitalism and corruption in China. He might have read Dinny McMahon on China’s massive debt problems and flawed banking system. Even now he might benefit from reading George Magnus on the game of jeopardy Xi Jinping is playing. Perhaps the most straightforward introduction to the subject is Bill Overholt’s tour de force of last year, China’s Crisis of Success. Overholt is a long-time merchant banker, political risk analyst and champion of the East Asia model being the basis of China’s growth. He now argues trenchantly that the Communist Party under Xi is heading down exactly the wrong path and might well trigger a systemic crisis in China in the near future.
But the question of the sustainability of China’s mercantilist and state-dominated economic model through the 2020s is only the start. What White fails to so much as inquire into is how China will get from its current position of laboriously and expensively attained middle-income status to the super-power status it covets by undermining the liberal international order that made all this feasible and using military power against its neighbours. This is crucial. There are numerous scenarios that ought be put under the microscope here. White doesn’t so much as raise any of them. Well shy of any invasion of Australia (and we’ll come to that shortly), it would have been helpful had he at least attempted to spell out what would occur should China finally resort to force to compel Taiwanese acceptance of rule from Beijing, for instance; or should it seize the Senkaku Islands from Japan; or should it use force against Vietnam in the South China Sea. Does he seriously believe that China would, in any foreseeable time frame, simply have its way and face no repercussions for its actions? Even Duterte’s Philippines is now drawing upon American and other foreign aid to refurbish Subic Bay as a naval base precisely in order to hedge against Chinese aggression.
White fails to reflect on the fact that while China’s naval power may be a great deal more substantial than it was twenty or thirty years ago, it is still massively outweighed by that of the US and its allies—not least that of Japan. Moreover, the US navy has been continuously engaged in action, including war, for many years. China has not fought a naval war of any consequence since 1895, when it was routed by the Japanese and lost Taiwan in consequence. What makes Hugh White believe that its naval forces could take on those of the US and Japan and prevail? It is now some fifteen years since he predicted that, within the following few years, China might inflict a defeat on the US or Japanese navies in the East or South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. It hasn’t happened. It would be useful to explore such scenarios. He doesn’t do so in his book.
The May-June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs was devoted to the question of the United States “searching for a strategy” in the wake of both the expensive mistakes in the Middle East and Central Asia and the political turbulence accompanying the Trump presidency. Perhaps the most thoughtful and pertinent was an essay by Stephen Walt titled “The End of Hubris”, in which the Harvard professor argued that the unipolar moment had been squandered and America must now take thought for how to reframe its foreign policy goals and military strategy. It’s a sensible piece of work. White should read it. Walt scathingly describes Donald Trump as “an incompetent vulgarian”, but declares that the rhetoric of retrenching and rebalancing is consistent with what the American people clearly want and what the country needs to do. What he does not do is suggest that America abandon its allies or capitulate to Chinese hubris. Rather, it should “return to its traditional approach of offshore balancing”.
There is a lot of work to do in this regard, make no mistake. But once Trump either sobers up a little or is replaced by a more balanced and judicious president, this is precisely the role that America is best placed to play. Our thinking should be directed at shaping our own forces to play an adroit and flexible role on such terms. White does not so much as contemplate such a possibility. America’s European and Asian allies, as well as many countries in Africa and the Western hemisphere, will be more than ready to work with it in this strategic role and China will have its work cut out for it attempting to prevail against such a strategy. In fact, this is more or less what has started to happen in this country’s strategic thinking and in our dialogue with the United States. White calls for rigorous debate, but he signally fails to address the way this dialogue is being conducted and what options such a scenario provides for us.
The whole deeply alarmist and abstract approach White takes depicts Australia as feckless and isolated. But in reality it is better placed than almost any other state in the region, given its geography, political system, prosperity and linguistic and cultural affinities with the United States, to work intelligently with Washington in this regard. What White entirely fails to grasp, or at least consider, is that our long alliance relationship with the United States, our deep cultural and political affinities with it, our military and intelligence inter-operabilities that have long been institutionalised through the Five Eyes and ANZUS alliances, our enormous geographic advantages at the base of the Indo-Pacific super-region and beneath the vast archipelagic screen of Indonesia and Melanesia—even our deep complementarities with China’s economy—all point to this as our natural strategy. Only a singularly harebrained and panic-stricken strategic vision would have us opt for going it alone, arming ourselves to the teeth and preparing for a Chinese invasion. Yet that is what White declares to be our only option short of unarmed neutrality.
The Long Inference
This brings us to the matter of what I have dubbed White’s Long Inference. Even assuming that China’s economy continues to grow and that the failures of institutional reform within it do not hobble it; even assuming that it has significant success in asserting primacy in South-East Asia and even East Asia (where South Korea and Japan pose far more robust opposition to its pretensions than any state in South-East Asia), the notion that Australia must prepare itself to face a direct large-scale Chinese invasion on its own is simply preposterous.
White likes to project himself as a “realist” in strategic affairs, but no serious realist would advance this hollow argument. Just to the extent that China seeks to impose itself by means of coercive, to say nothing of military power, others will coalesce against it. If, as White himself claims, India and Indonesia are likely to grow massively in wealth and power in the next couple of decades, what makes him think that they would stand aside and acquiesce in a Chinese attempt to conquer this island continent with its vast natural resources, its democratic system of government and its extraordinary strategic geography at the base of the Indo-Pacific?
What makes him think that Japan would do so? That the United States would do so? Why does he not, rather, foresee that China cannot conceivably invade Australia, or even prepare or threaten to do so without rousing the civilised world against it? Not because the other powers have an affectionate regard for us, though we have many more genuine friends than Beijing does; but because in order to undertake such an invasion China would have first to upset the entire balance of power and all security expectations right across Asia and the Pacific. Does White seriously believe that that is in prospect? His language and recommendations suggest that in fact he does.
He suggests that we might need three dozen submarines and 200 F-35s to fend off such an invasion. But this is fatuous. Given his implicit assumption that we would be entirely on our own, with the corollary that China has positioned and prepared itself to take on just such a force, why does he think we would be able to fend it off at all? He speculates that we may need nuclear weapons, but he doesn’t explore how our notional arsenal would be used; nor why the United States would stand aside, rather than make plain to China that, however much authority it had garnered in East and South-East Asia, invasion of Australia would not be accepted and could trigger a major war.
Rather strangely, it should be added, while he writes of nuclear weapons, White fails to address the matter of twenty-first-century technologies, as distinct from Cold War ones such as atomic bombs and ballistic missiles. He needs to read a bit of Peter Warren Singer, David Sanger and Sean McFate on emerging technologies and their implications for both great power strategy and asymmetric warfare. He needs to think a lot harder about alliance relations, coalition building, information warfare, diplomatic skills and Chinese vulnerabilities. He is altogether too much in awe of the puffed-up Middle Kingdom and its Party Dream. There is enormous scope for us to think better and manoeuvre intelligently in the emerging strategic environment, but building the force structure he urges (at the cost he confesses) in order to stand alone against any one of three behemoths is not among the things we should seriously consider—to say nothing of believing it our only option and then, as he suggests right at the tail end of his book, deciding to just give the game away and live with the consequences—which means appease China and submit to its putative suzerainty.
Reframing the problem
The whole scenario White uses as the basis for his fantastic proposal for wholesale restructuring of our armed forces is so unhinged from reality that we plainly need to plan and prepare for other contingencies entirely—and with clear heads. We should be making plain to China and to our neighbours that while we welcome China’s increased prosperity and are keen to trade under liberal rules, we will not be kowtowing to Beijing. We will be working energetically, chiefly by diplomatic means, to rally our Asian and international partners and allies around a common vision of a liberal trading order and a regime of collective security. We should be looking at how our armed forces can play constructive and niche roles in various possible coalitions designed chiefly to deter aggression.
We should be seeking to master asymmetric technologies, pilotless aircraft, information warfare and the creation of resilient infrastructure and institutions, in order to buttress our defences against the threats we and our allies manifestly face. We should be engaging—as Scott Morrison appears to be doing—in energetic efforts to talk with the Americans about the strategic environment and how better to protect and revitalise the liberal international order against the dangers posed by the new authoritarians and other hostile forces.
What we should not be doing is precisely what Hugh White urges: assuming that we are on our own, preparing a fortress Australia and despairing of our capacity to protect our shores against a serious invasion by a major Asian power. Such a course of action would be the worst one open to us and would not only play to our deepest and least constructive national neuroses, but would either leave us with a defence force that was seriously unfitted to our actual, quotidian needs or no real defence force at all, because we had chosen to spend our treasure on “butter” rather than guns. Hugh White’s book is called How to Defend Australia, but his prescription is precisely how not to do so.
Paul Monk was the head of the China Desk at the Defence Intelligence Organisation in 1994-95 and a consultant in applied cognitive science between 2000 and 2017. He is the author of ten books, including Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005) and Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018).