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How not to defend Australia

Posted By on July 27, 2019 @ 06:00

Hugh White’s How to defend Australia is an elegant book but also something of a party trick: engagingly clever but not realistic. It will be essential reading for every national security master’s degree by coursework program for years to come. And it’s fundamentally wrong on just about every judgement it contains. Any government that tried to implement it would damn Australia to a form of global and regional irrelevance that would make New Zealand look like a security colossus. Many will enjoy White’s homage to a rising China and eulogy for a declining United States, but there’s not a lot of data to support either thesis.

I’ll set out here the seven biggest nots of White in the interests of further promoting sales of the English-language edition.

China’s rise is not unstoppable

In a book that slips and slides like an eel on a roller coaster, White is, in fact, clear and consistent in his view of China. Everything he writes ‘hinges on the rise of China and how it changes the distribution of wealth and power in Asia’ (page 9). China’s rise is effectively unstoppable, and China is determined ‘to take America’s place as the leading power’ in Asia (page 10). Resistance will be futile because ‘the more strenuously America tries to contain China, the more likely war will become’ (page 12). This is pretty much the guts of White’s argument. Everything thereafter follows as a footnote to the iron laws of gravity.

This is a lot to hang a book on, and one of the oddities of White’s approach is that he spends no time trying to prove his China thesis. There is actually very little about China in the book beyond the observation that, as the legendary Andrew Marshall said, ‘You know, China is really big.’ Well, yes, but China is also a country which for the last century and a half has reliably imploded every generation to reshape its political system, usually at the cost of millions of Chinese lives.

No one could dismiss the possibility that such an internal convulsion could happen again. Further, China is surrounded by a bunch of countries like Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Russia and the US that are simply not going to roll over for a tummy rub while bowing to inevitable Chinese greatness.

White might counter that anticipating a reversal in China’s fortunes is hardly a strategy either. What if China keeps unstoppably rising? A lot depends on the type of great power China may become. I very much doubt that President Xi Jinping can sustain the plan to make China look like mid-1930s Germany. This is a comparison White explicitly rejects, but a closer look at the system of political and social control the Chinese Communist Party is building, matched with its assertive overseas behaviour, points to a deeply worrying trajectory.

If China rules the world, it will be a planet where there’s oppressive conformity, a highly efficient police state and an ugly ideology of power and superiority. White seems to imply that the likely global response to this will be acquiescence. That’s a big judgement but a profoundly ahistorical one. Although the costs could be high, I doubt the world will let China get away with it. On the other hand, a China that’s liberal, tolerant and democratic (like modern Germany, or Taiwan for that matter) may emerge some day and it’s surely in the world’s interests to push it in that direction.

America’s fall is not inevitable

The other side of this coin is the thesis that America is pretty much a busted flush. White is more opaque here: ‘Of course, America shall remain a very powerful country … and it will retain important interests in Asia that it will seek to uphold’ (page 15). But apart from that caveat the rest of the book would make you think that Uncle Sam had already checked out of Hotel Asia–Pacific. In White’s judgement there’s simply no way that Australia could rely on such a clapped-out partner. Indeed, the only question worth pondering is whether America’s slide down the strategic plug hole will be fast or somewhat slower.

Well, tell that to the US Marines participating in Exercise Talisman Sabre who stormed Langham beach [1] last week in ‘the largest Australian-led amphibious landing and offensive assault since the Second World War’. There isn’t a scintilla of evidence to support White’s thesis and a great deal of observable data pointing to a powerful United States reinforcing its position in Asia. A booming economy, sprightly demographics, first-rate innovation, an immense capacity for reinvention and an instinct for alliance-building that even Donald Trump can’t stifle forever—these are all essential American qualities.

Yes, America wants its allies to do more and is exasperated with security free-riding. But America is not in the Pacific to do Australia a favour. It’s here because of its own strategic interests and has no more capacity to withdraw from the region than Tasmania can abandon Bass Strait.

The real question is not whether America will cede security leadership in Asia but rather the manner of its engagement with the region. It must be said that Trump is doing more than Barack Obama did. We should be so lucky.

It’s not just about size

At base, White’s unit of measurement for strategic importance is size. But size doesn’t explain everything about strategic weight. Nor does it explain nothing about strategic weight. What matters is what countries do with their strategic weight. White’s approach doesn’t accept that subtlety. His is a world in which big fish eat small fish and that’s all you need to know about China—or, for that matter, India, Japan and Indonesia, all of which he thinks could threaten Australia.

Likewise, White’s size theorem consigns Australia to the tiddler category. He gloomily concludes, ‘We could never hope to shape the major power balance in Northeast Asia or elsewhere independently’ (page 85). But, in coalitions, Australia did just that in 1945 and 1953.

Australia is not alone

The size fixation creates an oddly atomised world where states rocket around like differently sized billiard balls and smack into each other. There’s no possibility for lasting or meaningful collaboration, no ability to align because of shared values or strategic outlook, and no acceptance that the world can evolve norms of behaviour that limit consumption of tiddlers by the big fish. Even for a grizzled strategic realist like me, White’s world of dominance by size looks a bit cartoonish and not a reflection of the more complex reality.

Perhaps this is what leads him to the book’s most artificial point, when China and Australia square off into a conflict, mano a mano. Hang on, where are all the other fish? They have fled the tank, leaving it to us with our 36 submarines and hundreds of combat aircraft to bat away at the opponent much like taking turns in a game of battleship.

But Australia is not alone. We have always fought in concert with friends and allies. Almost always that fight has been to preserve an international system that represents more to our interests than the ability to patrol our maritime approaches. If we were ever to be in a world where China wanted to physically attack us, that would mean the entire global order had broken down. We would hardly be alone in wanting to resist a Chinese military advance.

It’s not the late 1980s

White’s force structure proposals have been widely discussed, including in The Strategist [2], so I won’t deal with them in detail here, save to note that his conclusion that ultimately we have to fight at home and alone drives him down the track of a very 1980s-looking military. Thus we are back in the world of shaping an army to ‘contain any adversary forces that make it ashore’ (page 125). We apply ‘highly offensive’ tactical operations to disable enemy forces moving towards Australia, perhaps even attacking the bases from which they deploy.

If this feels like a back-to-the-future scenario that’s because it is. White trialled some of this thinking in the 1997 statement of Australia’s strategic policy [3]. At the time, I was chief of staff to defence minister Ian McLachlan and we thought ourselves cluey strategists for arguing that ‘our self-reliant posture may require us to undertake highly offensive operations in defence of our country’. Back then, this wasn’t intended to substitute for the US alliance or thorough-going efforts to work with neighbours to prevent maritime incursions.

I don’t think White succeeds in making the case for structuring the force for independent defence against maritime attack. It’s no more persuasive now than it was a generation ago; in fact, it’s less so, because it misses changes in technology such as the cyber threat to critical infrastructure and the use of grey-zone warfare by authoritarian regimes. The further forward we can start our defence efforts the better for the security of the continent.

Just adding ‘not’ is not a way of not saying something

White is a master of advancing an argument by building the case for what something is not. Thus it is ‘far from unlikely’ that China will become the ‘region’s leading power’ (page 38); ‘strategic independence does not mean we would always stand by ourselves’ (page 46); and when it comes to nuclear weapons, ‘I neither predict … nor do I advocate … but the question is one we will not be able to avoid’ (page 231). Not for nothing is White regarded as a gifted writer, but I puzzle over this reluctance to offer sharper, simpler judgements. An edifice is constructed but one wonders at the end of the day if White really buys this structure.

Capitulation is not a strategy

Finishing How to defend Australia I was left with the thought that White seems almost to have talked himself into thinking that it just can’t be done. ‘When we weigh the costs of independent defence … we might decide that the risks do not justify the costs. Rather than bear those costs we could elect to take our chances’ (page 20). He hopes that China’s leaders will learn that ‘they would be better off exercising primacy with a light touch’ and indeed ‘the more we go along with Beijing, the lower our strategic risk will be’ (page 41).

White concludes that Christmas and Cocos Islands would be hard to defend and worries about ‘emotive questions about how much we should be willing to pay to defend every part of our sovereign territory’ (page 129). That strikes me as a particularly despairing judgement. White rightly worries about how a potential attacker might seek forward lodgements in places that would help enable attacks on Australia. But what a crestfallen judgement for a person who has spent his professional life in and around Australian defence policy. Will anyone heed White’s call for reforming the defence organisation? He ends the book by saying it will probably take ‘some tectonic event’ for our leaders to realise that change is necessary. ‘By then of course, it may be too late’ (page 299).

White’s proposals about the alliance with the US, about relations with China and other countries, on force structure and on nuclear weapons are not the right strategies for Australia. He’s most certainly right to worry about the capacities of senior policymakers to effect sweeping change and he’s correct on the need to lift defence spending. The tectonic shock he anticipates isn’t some future possibility but a current reality that is jolting Australia daily. I hope his overall pessimism is unfounded.

All that said, don’t not buy the book. You should engage with it, admire its lithe contours and work through its artifices until you have thought your way to a better strategic place about Australia’s defence.



Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/how-not-to-defend-australia/

URLs in this post:

[1] stormed Langham beach: https://news.defence.gov.au/media/media-releases/largest-bilateral-amphibious-assault-conducted-part-exercise-talisman-sabre

[2] in The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/dinkus/defending-australia/

[3] Australia’s strategic policy: https://catalogue.nla.gov.au/Record/1699161

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