The US world order is a suit that no longer fits.
—Fu Ying, Chair, Chinese National People’s Congress, Foreign Affairs Committee, 2016
Over the next decade two challenges face Australia which, in combination, seem likely to transform our strategic fortunes for the worse. The first challenge is the need to confront the reality that the great project of Western liberal globalism conceived in the 1990s is slipping into the pages of history. The second challenge is the return of great power competition, most particularly in the form of the rise of a revisionist China that is determined to assume global superpower status and to become the hegemon of Asia. China’s geopolitical ambitions mean that the 2020s and beyond will be marked by a Sino-American struggle for mastery of Asia in which Australia will be directly and fatefully involved.
Outside of expert circles, few Australians seem to grasp the implications of these major strategic changes. It is the purpose of this article to explain the dynamics of a gathering storm in Asia and to make the case for a national rejuvenation in thinking about defence and national security strategy.
The end of liberal globalism
For the past quarter of a century, Australia has been a major beneficiary of the West’s global triumph in the Cold War. This era coincides with the most dramatic growth in Australian prosperity since the boom of the second half of the nineteenth century. The Australian economy tripled in size, and per capita GDP grew by 182 per cent, between the early 1990s and the second decade of the new millennium. Yet, as we enter the 2020s, the age of liberal globalism is disappearing—as documented by a group of Anglo-American scholars and commentators as politically diverse as John J. Mearsheimer, Bill Emmott, Steven D. King, Patrick Deneen and Michael Burleigh. The reasons are not hard to detect. Put simply, the liberal global order is ebbing away because of a self-induced crisis of legitimacy. Liberal globalism has become a system that privileges transnational elites over national voters; seeks to preference the rules of international institutions over domestic democratic legislation; promotes universalism over patriotism; and has pursued open borders rather than controlled immigration, so creating new forms of populist nationalism. As Patrick Deneen writes in Why Liberalism Failed (2018), the global liberal project has promoted a form of elitist progressive politics that has accelerated economic inequality and fragmented the civic and spiritual bonds that underpin cultural life in democratic nations. There has been a backlash from ordinary voters and the Western public has discovered a fundamental truth: it is easier to change elites than it is for the elites to change the public.
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Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union and Donald Trump’s America First policy are merely the early results of an emerging array of new democratic political forces driven by a renewed sense of nationalism and cultural conservatism. By the early 2030s it is possible that the rump of liberal globalism may still operate with its assorted transnational elites meeting annually in a glare of electronic publicity at Davos. Yet such gatherings will increasingly resemble the irrelevant universalism of the late Holy Roman Empire and be confined to symbolic gestures on climate change, arms control and economic inequality.
The real drama in world affairs will emanate from the strategic competition developing between the United States and China. Herein lies the second great challenge facing Australia. Sino-American rivalry is related to the first challenge because liberal globalism has unwittingly helped to sow the seeds of its own destruction by fostering the economic rise of an illiberal and revisionist Chinese colossus whose vision of the world is inimical to democratic norms and values. As Michael Burleigh notes in The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: A History of Now (2018), “the West is fading [perhaps] not as a civilization or powerful assembly of economies, but as a major geopolitical driving force in the world”. Similarly, the Economist gloomily noted in March 2018 that the West has “got China wrong” by believing that globalisation would produce a liberalised Beijing. “From cabinets to boardrooms to book-lined studies,” the magazine reported, “voices which once argued that a growing middle class would drive China towards Western values have fallen silent.”
For anyone who has studied Chinese history, such an outcome is no surprise. It was always hubris for Western policy-makers and intellectuals to think that a resurgent China would be content to be integrated into an American-led international system that it had no part in shaping. Such an order is associated by Beijing with the “century of shame and humiliation” at the hands of Western powers—from the First Opium War of the 1840s to the Chinese Civil War of the 1940s. For Xi Jinping’s China, the new dynamic in world affairs is no longer an uncontested Western liberal globalism but a bipolar world dominated by a Sino-American strategic competition alongside regional power blocs involving like-minded authoritarian states such as Russia and Iran.
If the above diagnosis is correct, then Australia faces a new and dangerous geopolitical situation that will challenge our statecraft severely. While it is impossible to predict events, we can speculate on an array of possibilities by examining the interplay between circumstance, choice and contingency in Australian strategic affairs. Circumstance represents what is unlikely to change about Australia’s geographical-historical situation. Choice is about Australia’s human agency and involves how the country decides to fashion its strategic options. Contingency involves the capacity to develop a comprehensive national statecraft to meet changes emanating from the unpredictable current of history.
Circumstance: The implications of Australia’s liminal strategic status
What is the character of Australia’s geographical and historical circumstance—the permanent realities that we are unable or unlikely to change? The central reality of Australia’s existence is its geopolitical status as a liminal or “in-between” state—suspended like a magnet between a world of Asian geography and a world of European history. As an Eastern island-continent we are geographically tied to an offshore Asian-Oceanic region—particularly in economics over the past half-century. Yet historically Australia remains outside its Asian location as a cultural outpost of Europe. As Charles La Trobe, first Superintendent of Port Arthur, noted in 1840, Australia was 16,000 miles from the centre of Western civilisation: “I have called our present position Exile, and so it is, to all intents and purposes.” Despite a growing cosmopolitanism in our demography, Australia is unlikely to break an exile’s love of a Western identity. We remain a country with La Trobe’s devotion to British liberal democratic history—a polity possessed of strong Anglo-Celtic civilisational values—with laws and institutions inherited from the Enlightenment.
Australia’s liminal suspension between Asian geography and European history has, for the most part, been ameliorated by the strategic dominance of the West stemming from a combination of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Since 1788, Australia’s security and peaceful constitutional development have been guaranteed by the external might of our two great cultural benefactors, Britain and the United States. Anglo-American maritime supremacy has given Australia a security blanket for over two centuries. The historical sequence of Pax Britannica followed by Pax Americana has permitted Australia to focus inwards on its socio-economic development without any need to independently confront the strategic requirements of liminal geopolitical status.
Australians have been able to master a vast continent free of foreign invasion and to define their martial history as the heirs of squatters, stockmen and shearers. It is from a popular army tradition—one rendered possible by the guardianship of global navies—that Australia’s default strategy for over a century has sprung. Australia’s approach to its defence is embodied in the ethos of a volunteer soldier who temporarily serves in uniform to help uphold a global order that is favourable to the nation. For many contemporary Australians, the defence of the country is enshrined in a philosophy of individual military voluntarism rather than by any belief in a conscripted nation-in-arms. The contemporary Australian Defence Force continues this tradition in the twenty-first century by being organised as a small fraternity of long-service professionals. Given Anglo-American naval power, it has always been our soldiers who have been most prized by London and Washington. From Amiens to Afghanistan, land forces have been the most important instrument of Australian statecraft for upholding a dominant liberal international order against successive enemies—ranging from Germany and Japan in the two world wars through the communist challenge of the Cold War to more recent movements of Islamic radicalism.
As the world’s strategic centre of gravity moves from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific and closes in on Australia’s immediate geographical region, we are facing the end of an historical epoch. The “end of history” as a liberal-democratic utopia has become the “history of an end”, the very reverse of Francis Fukuyama’s famous prophecy in 1989 that we had reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. When Fukuyama made his announcement, Soviet communism was crumbling and American power, Western capitalism and liberal democracy reigned supreme. The West had not reckoned on the chameleon-like ability of the Chinese Communist Party to use capitalism as an instrument to reinvent its monolithic rule. At the end of the Cold War, the Chinese economy was the size of Italy’s; thirty years later it is twenty-four times the size of Italy’s. The Chinese economic miracle owes little to the adoption of liberalism but much to a vigorous form of state capitalism. President Xi Jinping’s self-proclaimed “China Dream” of Middle Kingdom greatness is the polar opposite of a world governed by American unipolarity and liberal ideology. The China Dream celebrates China’s national rejuvenation, its regional ambition to dominate Asia and its expanding world influence. It is a vision with the declared aim of overthrowing what Beijing describes as America’s “hegemonic Yalta system”.
China and the United States are entering the early stages of a long-term competition for strategic supremacy. Chinese strategist Liu Mingfu’s 2015 book, The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era, lays out an agenda by which Xi’s China will seek to displace the United States in world affairs. In the preface to Liu’s book, General Liu Yazhou of the People’s Liberation Army describes the Sino-Chinese competition of the twenty-first century in terms that leave little room for misunderstanding:
The competition between China and the United States in the 21st century represents a new era in human history. America—tough but young—and China—a strong and ancient nation—separated by the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean are playing the largest game of global power in human history … Their competition will be a power game unlike any the world has ever seen.
China is mustering all the instruments of what it calls its “comprehensive national power” to achieve decisive advantage in key areas of power stretching from economics through espionage and military modernisation to artificial intelligence and robotics. In May 2019, Yan Xuetong, a leading Chinese foreign policy guru and a self-confessed “neo-communist” intellectual—the theorist who helped to replace Deng Xiaoping’s policy of Peaceful Rise with Xi Jinping’s assertive China Dream—published Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers. In this important work, Yan describes a power transformation away from a liberal globalist world towards a new Sino-American “bipolar configuration” centred initially on a struggle for supremacy in Asia. Yan believes the crisis of Western liberal democracy is both philosophical and functional—stemming from a systemic failure of effective governance as symbolised by the global financial crisis of 2008. The liberal democratic malaise originates at its philosophical source in that it is more about Europe’s spiritual loss of civilisational confidence, rather than being simply the outgrowth of the domestic travails of American society and politics. Yan writes, “the engine driving the present shift of the geopolitical center [to Asia] is the combination of China’s rise and Europe’s decline, rather than America’s relative decline”. By 2030, the American-dominated unipolar configuration of the post-Cold War era is likely to fully transition to a bipolar one between China and the United States. Yan sets out the parameters of the contest to come:
China and the United States have more strategic interests in East Asia than in any other region, including Europe. China cannot achieve the goal of national rejuvenation unless it becomes the dominant power in East Asia. Likewise, the United States cannot maintain its world-leading status if it loses its dominant influence in this region.
For all the media-driven scorn that is often heaped on the Trump administration, the Americans grasp the magnitude of this challenge and have taken up the gauntlet. The December 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America states that “China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region [and] expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model in its favour”. It goes on to acknowledge that “a geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order” has arrived in an Asia which is now the most economically dynamic part of the world. Vice-President Mike Pence was more blunt in October 2018 when he warned, in a speech to the Hudson Institute, that “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific and attempt to prevent us from coming to the aid of our allies”. In a highly symbolic move in March 2019, the Committee on the Present Danger, a Cold War pressure group first formed in the 1950s to warn of the Soviet peril to America, was re-established in Washington with a focus on the danger of a resurgent China. The Trump Pentagon’s June 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships and Promoting a Networked Region, reinforces America’s belief that the Indo-Pacific area is “the single most consequential region for America’s [strategic] future”. The document pledges a continued American commitment to upholding a free and open region against a China that “seeks regional hegemony in the near-term and ultimately global pre-eminence in the long-term”.
These American declarations may be reassuring to Australians but there is a deeper need for the nation to fully understand the anatomy of the evolving Sino-American struggle. Unlike the ideological Soviet-American struggle of the Cold War, the new Sino-American struggle is commencing as a contest between two economically interwoven adversaries in an interconnected but politically divided world. Again, Yan Xuetong is instructive in outlining a Chinese perspective on strategic competition with America. In his writings, particularly his 2011 study, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, he ponders the intersection of Chinese philosophy, strategy and international relations in mapping a way forward for China’s future that avoids a Soviet-style collapse or a Japanese-style economic stagnation. Extending his thinking to strategic competition in his 2019 book Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan distinguishes carefully between the concepts of “cold war” versus “bipolar configuration” on the one hand, and “globalisation” versus “bilateral [economic] interdependence” on the other hand. A cold war, Yan notes, is primarily an ideological contest with military confrontation and proxy conflicts as the main instruments of rivalry. In contrast, a bipolar configuration is more about a struggle involving the full range of respective arsenals of national power and can exist in three different dimensions: war, cold war and peace. Yan notes that the looming Sino-American competition is less about the forces of a fading liberal globalisation than about the economics of bilateral interdependence. It is the latter that will condition the way Sino-American rivalry will ebb and flow across the spectrum of competition over the next twenty years.
In a New Yorker interview in January this year, Yan compares the character of the coming struggle between Washington and Beijing to “two egg yolks” busily frying in the same pan and competing for the white edge that is the rest of Asia and beyond. In terms of historical analogy, the emerging Sino-American competition more closely resembles the entwined Anglo-German rivalry between 1890 and 1914 than the Soviet-American struggle between 1947 and 1991. The main feature of a bipolar configuration is likely to be a fierce rivalry across all national power dimensions—but a rivalry that also seeks to avoid the deadly miscalculations that spiralled into European military confrontation in 1914.
With this analogy in mind, the Chinese scholar Xu Qiyu, deputy director of strategic studies in the National Defence University in Beijing, penned a cautionary 2017 book, Fragile Rise: Grand Strategy and the Fate of Imperial Germany, 1871–1914. Despite its title, this is a study which is as much about China in Asia as it is about Germany in Europe. Xu ponders the intricacies of an Anglo-German rivalry that led to British diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe’s famous conclusion in 1907 on German ambition: “A vigorous nation [like Germany] cannot allow its growth to be hampered by blind adherence to the status quo”. Similarly, for Chinese intellectuals such as Xu and Yan, the Sino-American status quo in Asia clearly cannot endure, but a 1914 cataclysm must at all costs be avoided. A reviving China must not suffer the fate of imperial Germany in 1918.
For Xu and Yan, the Sino-American struggle will be won and lost less by war than by which superpower can exercise the most effective form of governance in the twenty-first century. A new Chinese order, a “China model” of vertical meritocracy with superior leadership and based on what Yan calls “humane authority, sovereign state equality, and non-hegemony”, will increasingly outperform Western democracy as the world’s most attractive political system. From Beijing’s perspective, as a new global configuration of “one world, two systems” evolves in the 2020s and 2030s, the “Yalta hegemonic world order” is likely to stagnate and die and be replaced in mid-century by a new Chinese-led global system with the Orwellian name “The Community of Common Destiny for Mankind”. In Gramscian style, as the old American liberal world dies and the new Chinese system struggles to be born, Yan Xuetong predicts a future of interim global turbulence. Between 2020 and 2050, we may witness a world in which political unilateralism triumphs over multilateralism and in which assertive forms of regionalism develop, with intensified security conflicts occurring in the Middle East, Eurasia, Africa and perhaps in South Asia. This Chinese view of a global power redistribution by 2050 is a far cry from the high noon of Western liberal euphoria that greeted the American unipolar moment at the onset of the new millennium.
Choice: Australia’s strategic options
What choices are available for Australian statecraft as global liberalism is replaced by a bipolar configuration in a contested Indo-Pacific region? How can we best manage our strategic liminality under conditions in which our economic prosperity, tied to trade with China, and our security requirements, tied to American military predominance, seemingly tear us in opposite directions? These are the questions of our time, and about which there is no consensus, and far too little informed public debate.
First, let us dispose of the myth of any absolutist “choice” between America and China. Australia made a fundamental choice in 1951 with the blend of Western values and interests inherent in the Australian-American alliance and we should remember its context, which remains even more relevant today. The original Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) treaty was born amidst hostile Chinese communist actions in Asia. The treaty was negotiated only two years after Mao Zedong’s victorious revolution of 1949 and in the middle of the Korean War in which Australian diggers fought the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army in two fierce battles at Kapyong and Maryang San. Indeed, the September 1951 ANZUS treaty was signed between the military encounters at Kapyong in April and Maryang San in October. What differentiates the China of the early 1950s from that of the early 2020s is not any change in the political character of its Leninist regime under “Xi Jinping Thought” but the sheer magnitude of the national power that Beijing can now generate after forty years of state-powered economic growth.
The China of 2020 is a nation which has renewed its old geopolitical ambition to master Asia. Australian security practitioners need to note Xi Jinping’s message of opposition to the American presence in the Indo-Pacific on the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic on October 1, 2019. The Chinese leader stated, “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia”. This is a recipe for a Chinese regional supremacy that hardly appeals to Australia, and still less, to Japan and South Korea or to India, Taiwan and several Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) members, particularly Indonesia and Singapore. China’s new assertiveness is symbolised by the militarisation of the South China Sea; the global Belt and Road Initiative’s “debt trap” diplomacy; and the Central Foreign Propaganda Office’s employment of a “Three Warfares” Maoist-style political campaign—in effect, “influence operations”—involving manipulation of psychology, public opinion and legal processes against individuals and institutions in economically-dependent foreign countries such as Australia.
Given the above factors, and despite Australia’s unhealthy economic dependence on China, it is a good bet that the average Australian still feels more cultural affinity with America—and is still likely to prefer McDonald’s, Keanu Reeves and the Gettysburg Address to green tea, Jackie Chan and Confucian aphorisms. For all the popular speculation in Australia that Donald Trump is the president who will lead an American retreat from Asia, there is little hard evidence that this is occurring, or is likely to occur, over the next two decades. America First does not mean America Alone. Trump, for all his coarseness in style and transactional belligerence, is not a twenty-first-century version of Charles Lindbergh calling for isolationism. As the historians Charles Laderman and Brendan Simms in their perceptive study Donald Trump: The Making of a World View (2018) have noted, the Trump presidency is the culmination of the “de-Europeanisation of the American mind” that began at the end of the Cold War but which accelerated after 2003 in the face of the dispute between America and Western Europe over the Iraq War. While Trump is at once the “silverback gorilla, the peacock narcissist, [and] the alpha male” in American politics, the authors emphasise that the key to understanding the mercurial president is his quest for the restoration of US national “greatness”. It is a greatness that he sees as having been lost through a combination of unfair global trading rules and futile engagement in “forever wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan.
National economic revitalisation and a more discriminate use of force are therefore central to Trump’s quest to restore America’s fortunes. Such imperatives involve a tougher stance on trade relations with China as a prelude to reversing the erosion of America’s manufacturing base and improving the nation’s industrial capacity for a new era of bipolar strategic competition. At the same time, the American military arsenal, from nuclear weapons through to new space and cyber capabilities, is being modernised. Moreover, Trump’s transactional approach towards the value of alliances is primarily about the need to establish proper Western burden-sharing by underperforming but wealthy allies, such as Germany. The continued importance of alliances to the United States is underscored by the Trump administration’s 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report which states: “US engagement in the Indo-Pacific is rooted in our long-standing security alliances—the bedrock on which our strategy rests. Mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships are crucial.” The document specifically upholds the enduring value of the Australian-American Alliance as a means “to ensure the security of the Indo-Pacific region into the future”.
While such a reaffirmation of America’s strategic embrace is welcome news, Australia must not rest comfortably in the alliance as it has done so often in the past. Instead, the country must pursue a far more self-reliant and comprehensive form of statecraft, one that is flexible and subtle enough to juggle the tensions, contradictions and paradoxes arising from strategic liminality. In an era of geopolitical contest, Australia needs to fully confront the task of balancing Asian economic interests with the values inherent in an American security treaty.
There are two principal challenges in choosing to undertake this vital task. The first challenge is Australia’s indifferent attitude towards understanding Asia in general and China in particular. Despite much popular commentary, Australia lacks a deep and sophisticated intellectual debate on the nature of China’s strategic ambitions. Apart from a handful of China specialists, few Australian policy-makers or strategic analysts appear to be familiar with the works of Liu Mingfu, Yan Xuetong and Xu Qiyu outlined earlier in this article—and still less of those of the influential French Sinologist François Jullien. His work in such studies as Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece (2000) and A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking (2004) deal with the complex challenge of “decoding” Chinese strategy as an extension of a non-Western worldview. They are indispensable works for those policy practitioners who seek to understand the philosophical influences at work in Beijing’s approach to statecraft.
A second challenge to developing a more self-reliant statecraft is Australia’s abject failure over the past fifteen years to mature strategically. As John Howard—arguably our most sophisticated foreign policy prime minister since Menzies—noted in 2005, Australia is a projection of Western civilisation, but one uniquely located at what he called a “special intersection” of history and geography between East and West. Howard believed that Australia’s liminal geopolitical location was less a disability than an opportunity for creative statecraft. Because the nation was relatively secure in its American alliance, Howard wanted Australia to forge a distinctive national pathway into the heartland of an economically rising Asia as a confirmation that the Great South Land had come of age. Yet Howard also warned that the creation of what he called a “balanced alignment” between Australia’s history and geography would amount to the most rigorous test of the nation’s capacity for strategic maturity. Implicit in Howard’s approach was the idea that acknowledging a special intersection was the essential prelude to mapping out a “special path”, a Sonderweg, for the future of Australian statecraft. It is significant that Yan Xuetong in his 2019 book Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers echoes Howard’s ideas. He suggests that Beijing should expect states such as Australia to pursue a “a two-track strategy” in their statecraft, one that simultaneously exploits Chinese economics while relying on American security. Although Howard did not employ the terms “special path” or “bipolar configuration”, his Sonderweg conception of statecraft clearly anticipated a need to balance Sino-Australian economic links with the imperatives of the Australian-American alliance.
Unfortunately, since Howard’s prime ministership Australia has failed the twin challenges of understanding China and developing a mature sense of strategic direction. For over a decade, the nation has been in retreat from both strategic maturity and any special path of policy creativity—content instead to wallow in insularity and inertia—and to wander away from any contemplation of geopolitical reality. Much of this national mood is captured in William Coleman’s important edited book, Only in Australia: The History, Politics and Economics of Australian Exceptionalism (2016) a study which ponders the phenomenon of Australia as “the country that won’t move on”. As Coleman writes, “in the early twenty-first century, Australia seems to be following a ‘special path’ of its own that it laid down more than a century ago”. For Coleman, such a political retreat is a form of nostalgia for the Deakinite Australian Settlement of the first decade of Federation which favoured economic protection, labour regulation and military dependence. The reformist efforts of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard to try to break with this past have proven transitory rather than permanent. Since 2007, after a quarter of a century of socio-economic reformist zeal, Australia appears to have exhausted its ambitions and reverted to the comfort of an “inertial society” in which policy innovation succumbs to stasis. As Coleman puts it, the ideals of an older and more insular Australia have returned, making the country less a social laboratory for the world than “a sacred grove dedicated to the dogged observance of customary gods”.
On March 2, 2019, in an indirect echo of Coleman’s concerns but couched in criticisms aimed specifically at weaknesses in defence, the Australian’s foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, penned an article which indicted Australians for their long neglect of strategic issues. Sheridan framed his critique as a matter of political choice. “Failing to provide for the growing likelihood that we could face a [defence] emergency on our own,” he wrote, “is a historic, national dereliction … We could easily afford it. We have decided not to do it.” Sheridan went on to describe the awful undertow of complacency gripping the country’s defence and national security debate as a near comatose condition, “typical of a land of lotus eaters, loitering in paradise”.
While it is true that debate on strategy and national security has been adversely affected by the regressive intellectual climate Coleman and Sheridan describe, some politicians have issued calls for an end to complacency. For example, in December 2018, Labor’s David Feeney, the Deputy Chair of the Defence Sub-Committee of the Joint Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (JSCFADT) and a former Parliamentary Secretary for Defence in the Gillard government, called for the development of “an Australian grand strategy” to meet the demands of an eroding Western global rules-based order. Feeney highlighted Australia’s lack of trade diversity and fuel reserves. He called for Australia to audit its “whole-of-government” strengths and weaknesses and to combine all factors into “a comprehensive [strategic] picture of national priorities, opportunities and risks”.
In a similar vein, in August 2019, New South Wales Liberal Senator Jim Molan, a former Australian Army major-general with command experience of American forces in Iraq, noted that in the realm of defence strategy and national security, Australia could only be described as “in many ways [being] in denial”. As Chair of the Defence Sub-Committee of JSCFADT, Molan warned that Australia could no longer employ American alliance support as an excuse to choose “butter over guns”. Like Feeney, he recommended a “whole-of-nation” approach to strategy involving the development of a systematic National Security Strategy. Molan dismissed the country’s traditional reliance on Defence white papers for security as outmoded. “Analysis,” he urged, “must go beyond purely military concerns to include social, financial and economic factors.” To enable this analysis to occur, he recommended the creation of a new parliamentary National Security Strategy Committee armed with powers of review and oversight.
Only time will tell us whether the concerns expressed by Sheridan, Feeney and Molan on the weaknesses of Australian strategy will be remedied. The signs are far from promising. Too many Australians remain comfortable in the twin grip of alliance complacency on the one hand and a historical tradition of military voluntarism on the other. This national mentality which rejects true civic responsibility for strategy-making led John Hirst, in his 2002 book Australian Democracy: A Short History, to lament memorably that “defence is the empty core of Australian nationhood”. As we witness the end of the post-Cold War era of uncontested Western dominance, Australia—rather like the distracted and indifferent French public of the 1930s with the Maginot Line fortifications—is choosing to resolve its strategic defence challenges by throwing billions of dollars at traditional capabilities. This trend is most notable with the $50 billion conventional submarine project, an enterprise which increasingly seems to be an excuse for avoiding a deep national discussion of what is really required in Australian strategy. Australia seems caught in a mal de siècle and a kind of bunyip strategic nostalgia for a country of earlier times.
Contingency: The fundamentals of an Australian national security strategy
We come now to a brief consideration of contingency in the form of the menu of possibilities Australia might face into the 2020s and beyond as Sino-American strategic competition unfolds in Asia. While a range of Australian-American alliance activities will be important in the Indo-Pacific in the years to come, Canberra needs to review what a “bipolar configuration” and increased Chinese power projection into South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands may mean for developing a more self-reliant Australian strategy. Such a review must be conceived in a national security framework and confront a pressing need to reduce economic dependency on China by fostering trade diversification in Asia. In the twenty-first century, Australia must supplement its traditional defence and security philosophy of alliance complacency and military voluntarism and conceive of strategy-making as a key civic responsibility—one that involves the development of an organic relationship between government, citizenry and the private sector. In addition, politicians and security analysts must give consideration not simply to familiar areas of national defence such as doctrine, platforms and weapons capabilities but also to previously neglected aspects, notably studying what national mobilisation and societal resilience require under changing geopolitical conditions.
Paradoxically, when discussing the menu of future strategic contingencies, an appreciation of history needs to be at the forefront of any rejuvenated national discussion. As Australia swings its focus of attention back to its immediate region after fifteen years of military involvement in the Middle East and South Asia, history provides some of the best food for thought on strategic fundamentals. After all, Australia has faced great power encroachment into the South-West Pacific before in the form of concerns about Japan between 1919 and 1939—concerns which culminated in the South-West Pacific campaign of the Second World War.
The philosophical touchstone for any informed discussion of dealing with contingency in Australian strategy in the Indo-Pacific must surely be the Hughes Doctrine on the status of the northern archipelagos. In the wake of the 1919 Versailles settlement, Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s main concern was the rise of Japan and its long-term threat to Australia’s regional security. Hughes knew that any great power that gained control of the archipelagos from Java to Fiji would control Australia. As he told parliament on September 10, 1919:
It is proper that a doctrine be promulgated on behalf of Australia [that] in order that Australia be safe, it is necessary that the great rampart of islands stretching around the north-east of Australia should be held by us or by some Power in whom we have absolute confidence … The archipelagos [are] as necessary to Australia as water to a city. If they were in the hands of a superior power, there would be no peace for Australia.
It is instructive that in March 1950, as the Cold War began, Percy Spender, then Minister for External Affairs, reaffirmed the Hughes Doctrine in parliament when he expounded on Australia’s “duty to itself” to ensure that in the island chain there should be no threat to Australian security. As he put it, the islands, are “our last ring of defence against aggression, and Australia must be vitally concerned with whatever changes take place in them”.
A suitably modernised version of the Hughes Doctrine needs to underpin any future Australian Indo-Pacific strategy, particularly regarding the fourteen Pacific island countries. Australia’s interventions in East Timor in 1999-2000 and the 2003 to 2013 Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands are reminders of just how quickly crises can arise in the archipelagic chain. Above all, Australia needs to pay serious attention to Chinese policy analyst Yu Changsen’s description of Oceania as being part of “the greater periphery” of Chinese national strategy. As David Feeney notes, between 2014 and 2018 China “built the equivalent of the entire French Navy,” projected its Belt and Road “debt diplomacy” into Australia’s strategic space and tried to court Vanuatu for future base facilities. Australia needs to vigorously counter the growth of Chinese influence in a South Pacific where inter-state rivalry and non-state security threats pose the danger of intersecting with fragile governance and economic under-development.
Any who might question Australia’s prime responsibility for securing its archipelagic frontier would do well to study how Chinese strategists view Canberra’s geopolitical position. As the ubiquitous Yan Xuetong points out in his writings, Australia, as the predominant regional power in Oceania, can be expected to compete for strategic influence in places such as Papua New Guinea through the development of the Lombrum naval base on Manus Island. It is significant that Admiral Philip Davidson, the Commander of US Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii, commented in February this year that Beijing’s economic activities in the South Pacific may well, over time, become a stalking horse for future Chinese security bases in the Pacific islands. As Davidson put it, “Australia has the right to be very concerned about the Chinese potentially building a base in the island chain”.
America’s elder statesman, Henry Kissinger, once said that there are only two roads to strategic stability: domination and equilibrium. As the era of unchallenged Western domination is replaced by Sino-American bipolar competition, Australia must invest in the complex process of equilibrium. As a nation, we must reinforce the Australian-American alliance but at the same time put far greater effort into helping to shape a new ecosystem in Indo-Pacific geopolitics. Such an endeavour will require intellectual rigour in the form of increased defence self-reliance and much greater public engagement in the country’s national security debate.
Over the next decade, the way in which Australia’s strategic choices are calibrated against circumstance and contingency will provide a test of whether the nation is philosophically capable of blending geographical and historical opposites into a new strategic tapestry. Since most Australians can have little appetite for China’s Orwellian vision of a “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind”, the nation needs to forge a new compact on defence and security as the guarantor of freedom.
The age of global liberalism may have passed away, but this is not the same as an end to the Western ideal of liberty—for which tens of thousands of Australians have given their lives since 1914. As Australia enters a time of turbulence when Western democracy will again be under grave threat, the words of the nineteenth-century British historian Lord Acton commend themselves: “Liberty is not a means to a higher end. It is itself the highest political end.”
Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College in Canberra and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. This article is based on an address to the Australian alumni of the Royal College of Defence Studies, London, at the Commonwealth Club in Canberra last October.