ASPI’s decades: Troubling times and changing strategy

ASPI celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. This series looks at ASPI’s work since its creation in August 2001.

When ASPI was launched, intense argument raged between Australia’s regionalists and globalists.

Old arguments took on new life as government wrestled with the balance between defence-of-Australia and contributing to the global balance.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the globalists were on the up, as Australia joined the US ‘war on terror’ and expeditionary history was reworked in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the second decade, the vision of the region grew to become the Indo-Pacific. Great-power competition returned and the Indo-Pacific was where the global balance would be set.

Over two decades, the globalist/regionalist difference both morphed and, increasingly, merged.

Power shifts remade strategic settings and stoked security fears.

Leadership changes in Australia saw three defence white papers in less than seven years: in May 2009, May 2013 and February 2016. This was a policy churn at notably shorter intervals than previous eras.

Australia’s government was worrying more about strategy—but not necessarily doing a better job dealing with the changes under way.

ASPI’s Andrew Davies commented that the 2009 and 2013 white papers failed to be as influential as might have been expected, writing that ‘DWP 2009 promised big and delivered little, while DWP 2013 was more an exercise in treading water for political purposes than a serious attempt at matching defence resources to the strategic challenges of the day.’

Reviewing the history of defence white papers since the first in 1976, historian Peter Edwards saw the ‘short and unfortunate shelf-lives’ of the 2009 and 2013 white papers as victims of a challenging international environment and domestic political turbulence:

It’s little wonder that analysts this century have found it hard to make confident assessments of the next generation’s strategic threats. Moreover, Defence White Papers have been caught up in the severe political tensions between and within the major political parties. The rapid turnover of defence ministers and more recently prime ministers has further impeded long-term planning. Defence budgets have been raided for electorally popular policies.

The transformation of major-power relations was having a ‘profound effect’ on Australia, strategists Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith wrote in 2017 ‘Australia’s strategic outlook is deteriorating and, for the first time since World War II, we face an increased prospect of threat from a major power. This means that a major change in Australia’s approach to the management of strategic risk is needed.’

ASPI’s Malcolm Davis judged that an assertive China directly challenging US primacy in Asia meant Australia was now a state in the front line, geographically, strategically and politically: ‘The geographical barriers and the ‘tyranny of distance’ are being eroded with the onset of technological innovation in new military domains, such as space, cyberspace and across the electromagnetic spectrum … A mindset of assuming we can defend the sea–air gap is becoming less and less credible.’

The Australian Defence Force must play a greater role throughout maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, Davis advocated, to ‘extend our defence in depth far forward’.

On the traditional strategic agenda, pandemics and other health emergencies are generally listed in the same category as climate change and bushfires—posing security threats rather than changing strategic orders. The reason, as ASPI senior fellow Rod Lyon observed, is because strategy and war are about politically motivated violence, not sickness and death. Then came Covid-19.

The geopolitical impact of the pandemic, Lyon said, was to accelerate the existing trends of a strategically competitive world:

If Covid-19 is accelerating those changes—magnifying their intensity and compressing the time taken for them to work through the system—we will emerge from this pandemic to a sharper, more competitive world, where our main ally is less influential and where multilateral institutions are increasingly under the sway of other great powers that believe in hierarchy, and not in equality.

In the 2020 strategic update, the government pronounced that Australia’s strategic environment had deteriorated, with these words from Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds:

Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances. The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive. These trends are continuing and will potentially sharpen as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The update ditched 50 years of strategic theology: Australia no longer believed it has 10 years’ warning time of a conventional conflict, based on the time it’d take an adversary to prepare and mobilise for war: ‘This is no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning. Coercion, competition and grey-zone activities directly or indirectly targeting Australian interests are occurring now.’

Launching the update, Morrison several times compared the deterioration in Indo-Pacific ­security to the slide to global war in the 1930s: ‘That period of the 1930s has been something I have been revisiting on a very regular basis, and when you connect both the economic challenges and the global uncertainty, it can be very haunting.’

Pointing to those words, ASPI boss Peter Jennings commented:

The biggest change in the strategic update is temporal, not geographic. The Indo-Pacific—now defined for defence planning purposes as the northeastern Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste and the Pacific islands—has been at the core of Australian strategic thinking for decades. What is new is the realisation that the risk of conflict is upon us right now, not a comfortably distant 20 years away.

Journalist Geoffrey Barker called the update ‘a pivotal moment in modern Australian military history’, marking an ‘unambiguous return’ to the defence-of-Australia policy: ‘Of course, the new policy has evolved from earlier defence white papers and updates. But it just as clearly represents a new (or rediscovered) way of looking at the strategic order and finding policy and acquisition solutions that offer new ways of addressing China’s authoritarian arrogance.’

The expanded geography of the Indo-Pacific acknowledges that key elements of the central balance have arrived much closer to Australia.

The main game has come to us, as the tectonic ripples of power lap at the concentric circles of Australian strategy.

At the start of ASPI’s life, the 9/11 attacks changed the shape of the post–Cold War world. Two decades later, Covid-19 accelerated the new era of strategic contest in the Indo-Pacific.