Opportunities for Australia in Biden’s national security strategy

It’s almost clichéd to begin any discussion of geostrategic issues with a quote from the Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu. But in assessing the implications for Australia of US President Joe Biden’s national security strategy, it is warranted: ‘In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.’

The chaos arises from the relatively recent upending of the strategic assumptions that have underpinned Australia’s national security planning for at least the past 50 years. Gone is the assumption of US economic and military supremacy, gone is the prospect of general conformity with the rules-based world order put in place after the Second World War, and gone is the hope that the catastrophe of that war would guarantee that there could never be a third world war.

And for Australia, gone is the strategic comfort zone that enabled us to make national security plans with the cushion of 10 years’ advance warning of any significant military threat.

Instead, we are living through a period when a high-intensity state-on-state conflict is being fought in Europe even as we’re planning for a potential transition from cold war to hot war in Asia—and a much quicker transition than our national defence and industrial capability would be able to manage successfully.

Similarly, we are in the midst of a grey-zone conflict with China while preparing for multi-domain warfare in a future conflict that will be fought in space as well as in the land, air and sea domains, and is just as likely to be fought with ones and zeros as bombs and bullets.

It is into this strategically challenging environment for Australia that the US released its latest national security strategy—in effect, the Biden administration’s national security blueprint. And at a time when Australia has a bipartisan commitment to the criticality of the US alliance, Australian policymakers will be looking to the strategy and asking the obvious question: what’s in it for us?

The good news is that there’s much to like in this new US strategy. It repeatedly confirms the Biden administration’s commitment to leveraging US partnerships and alliances to maximise its strategic reach. It states quite simply: ‘America’s alliances and partnerships have played a critical role in our national security policy for eight decades, and must be deepened and modernized to do so in the future.’

That statement acknowledges the fundamental precondition for the success of the AUKUS agreement, which is that US politicians and policymakers must believe that strengthening Australia’s defence and industrial capability is a way of strengthening the US’s own security. To paraphrase Jack Lang, in the race for US strategic commitments and capability transfers, back self-interest—at least you know it’s trying!

The strategy calls out both Russia and China as ‘powers that layer authoritarian governance with a revisionist foreign policy’ and that pose a threat to the US and its allies by ‘waging or preparing for wars of aggression, actively undermining the democratic political processes of other countries, leveraging technology and supply chains for coercion and repression, and exporting an illiberal model of international order’. This is strong stuff, and a clear sharpening of language in setting out the nature of the strategic competition that lies at the heart of the document.

But it is China in particular that ‘presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge’, and this document is a clear rallying call for the US and its allies to effectively compete with the People’s Republic, ‘the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective’.

Particularly welcome in Canberra will be the acknowledgement that the US will ‘place a premium on growing the connective tissue—on technology, trade and security—between our democratic allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific and Europe’. That is good news for Australia’s AUKUS planners, and a welcome confidence booster at a time when a viable pathway to delivering nuclear submarines to Australia under the AUKUS agreement remains hidden behind a classified wall of ‘no comment’s. The document also confirms the Biden administration’s commitment to the Quad with Australia, Japan and India (referred to as the ‘Indo-Pacific Quad’).

So, too, the commitment to invest in ‘a range of advanced technologies including applications in the cyber and space domains, missile defeat capabilities, trusted artificial intelligence, and quantum systems’ will be great news for state and territory governments and Australian businesses hoping to profit from the grab bag of non-submarine advanced capabilities to be developed under AUKUS: AI, quantum, cyber and advanced underwater capabilities.

And there is something strikingly different in this strategy compared with the one Donald Trump’s administration issued: an emphasis on the importance of US engagement with multilateral trade arrangements, recognising the need to chart ‘new economic arrangements to deepen economic engagement with our partners, like the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity’. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the US-designed Trans-Pacific Partnership left many questioning America’s commitment to any real ‘pivot to the Pacific’.

By contrast, the Biden administration has promoted the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as a clear statement that the US is back in the multilateral trade game, noting that ‘America’s prosperity also relies on a fair and open trade and international economic system’.

Perhaps the one landmine for Australia buried in the document’s upbeat topography is the boosting of investment in America’s domestic industrial capacity. At times, the document reads like a stump speech for Democrats ahead of the mid-term elections due next month. It will be a real problem for Australia’s ability to generate industrial and investment momentum under AUKUS if strengthening America’s domestic capacity is code for a new protectionism—a policy generally associated with Democratic Party administration before the Trump-era aberration.

Australian diplomats will also welcome recognition by the US that the current strategic challenge is not a bipolar struggle for influence like the 20th-century ideological struggle with the Soviet Union. The strategy notes that there will be an international triangle of liberal democracies, illiberal autocracies and a third group of countries that fall somewhere between the two.

Countries in our region bridle at being asked to choose between the US (and Australia) and China, and bristle at attempts to enlist their support while criticising their suboptimal democratic credentials. The new US model recognises the need to ‘avoid the temptation to see the world solely through the prism of strategic competition’ and to ‘engage countries on their own terms’. This seems to be shorthand for: ‘We’ll tone down our criticism of your imperfect political systems in return for your support of our broad agenda for a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.’

This in turn affords Australia the opportunity to engage regional countries on AUKUS and related issues without carrying the baggage of a set of binary choices. Instead, the strategy allows for Australia and the US to build new regional alliances to tackle ‘shared challenges that cross borders—whether it is climate change, food insecurity, communicable diseases, terrorism, energy shortages, or inflation’.

China and Russia have few alliances, and the new US national security strategy is designed to keep it that way, while ensuring that America’s traditional alliances are strengthened and that new partnerships can emerge to deliver a decisive competitive advantage. In the words of the venerable Sun Tzu: ‘If an enemy has alliances, the problem is grave and the enemy’s position is strong; if he has no alliances, the problem is minor and the enemy’s position is weak.’ Let’s hope so.