There’s little that’s new in our new White Paper, but there’s one bold innovation which has so far received less attention that it deserves. The Turnbull Government has substantially downgraded, if not quite completely abandoned, the core idea which has been the foundation of Australia’s defence policy for 40 years: the self-reliant defence of Australia. Are we witnessing the end of an era?
Since the canonical Australian Defence of 1976, every White Paper until now has unambiguously affirmed that the principal task of the ADF is the defence of Australia from direct attack, and that it must have the capabilities to do so against any credible threat without relying on the combat forces of our allies. This has been has been the definitive answer to the question ‘What does the ADF need to be able to do?’ and hence the essential starting point for deciding what capabilities it needs and how much we have to spend on it.
There’s always been debate about whether the self-reliant defence of Australia should have been our primary strategic objective for all these years. But there’s no question that this has been the policy, right up to and including the last White Paper in 2013. Paragraph 3.35 of that document said: ‘The highest priority ADF task is to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia without having to rely on the combat or combat support forces of another country’.
Each of its five predecessors in ’76, ’87, ’94, ’00 and ’09 had a sentence very like that. So, to be fair, does the 2016 White Paper. Chapter One, paragraph 1.15, which summarises the Defence Strategy that is to be set out in Chapter Three, says:
‘The self-reliant defence of Australia’s territory remains the highest priority for this Government, and protecting Australia from the threat of armed attack or coercion is the primary mission for Defence.’
But that isn’t what it says in Chapter Three, where the issue is most extensively addressed. The formulation offered in the table in Paragraph 3.3, and again in the subheading above 3.12 seems intended to be the most authoritative: it goes ‘Deter, deny and defeat attacks on or threats to Australia and its national interests, and northern approaches’.
There are several points to make about this formulation. First, the phrase ‘and its national interests’ robs the whole concept of any content, because ‘national interests’ covers just about anything. Indeed the very next paragraph [3.4] defines the whole set of strategic defence interests up to the global level as merely a subset of national interests. So the direct defence of Australia itself isn’t seen as a distinct objective. (And anyone who thinks this is mere pedantry of no relevance to real decision-making has never sat around the DC table.)
Second, the apparently authoritative words in paragraph 3.3 don’t say that the ADF should be able to defend Australia without relying on our allies’ forces. As we have seen, self-reliance is mentioned in para 1.15, and it’s mentioned again in Para 3.13, so perhaps their omission elsewhere was on oversight. But if so, that is itself suggestive. It’s more likely, as well as more charitable to those who drafted and approved the White Paper, that we’re seeing here a conscious, or semi-conscious, decision to step back from self-reliance, and return to a defence policy that assumes Australia will always be fighting alongside allies, and that the ADF’s key role is to support such allies. This interpretation is supported by the great emphasis placed throughout the White Paper on working with allies and partners to defend the seemingly-ubiquitous ‘Rules Based Global Order’.
Third, as Kim Beazley has delicately pointed out, the new White Paper is a little uncertain about whether this first ‘Strategic Defence Objective’ of defending Australia is or isn’t our highest priority and should therefore carry the most weight in determining our capability choices. In fact Kim is too charitable—on this key point the White Paper seems plainly self-contradictory.
In some places, such as the lines from para 1.15 quoted above, the first objective is given clear precedence. In others, such as on page 18, para 1.20 and para 3.33, the document clearly implies that all three strategic objectives are to be given equal weight. Perhaps the intended meaning is that all three objectives should weigh in setting force priorities, but that the first objective should weigh more than the others. This was after all the approach adopted in different ways in the 2000 White Paper and its two successors.
But if that’s what the 2016 White Paper meant, why not say it? Again, maybe this simply reflects muddled thinking and loose drafting, but we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the government is deliberately stepping back from a principle that has underpinned our defence policy for a generation.
So what’s happening here? One part of the explanation for all those muddles may be found in the circumstances in which the White Paper was produced, being started under Tony Abbott and finished under Malcolm Turnbull. No one would be surprised to discover that Tony Abbott and his closest advisers approached the drafting a new White Paper with an instinctive dislike of the whole ‘self-reliant defence of Australia’ tradition, and that their preference was to radically refocus Australia’s defence priorities towards meeting global threats in partnership with Anglosphere allies.
It therefore seems likely that Mr Abbott left his successor a draft that downplayed the defence of Australia and didn’t mention self-reliance at all. Under Mr Turnbull an attempt was made to bring the draft back closer towards the policy mainstream, but too little was done to erase the residue of Mr Abbott’s proclivities.
But a fumbled transition is at most only half the story, because there’s a second, much deeper, reason why policymakers might find themselves easing away from self-reliance. The posture adopted in 1976 made sense in an era when US primacy in Asia was uncontested, so the only threats Australia had to defend itself against were those that could be posed by a poorly-armed Indonesia.
Recent White Papers–especially 2009’s–have grappled with the implications for self-reliance of waning US primacy, and failed to come up with an answer. Today the issue is more acute than ever, and perhaps the ever-starker implications for self-reliance have just become too hard to think about. If so, that’s a big mistake. As the US-led order in Asia passes, self-reliance becomes more important than ever, and defining what it might mean, and how it could be achieved, is the key challenge we face. Our new White Paper tries to evade that challenge by stepping back from self-reliance. It won’t work.