Evaluating Defence Minister Johnston’s address to ASPI’s national security dinner, my colleague Benjamin Schreer warns that pundits tend to over-analyse government statements. Then he dives into searching for markers of policy change. Let me do the same.
I think Ben’s right to detect signs of a new mood that the next defence white paper should focus more on Northeast Asia and less on our immediate neighbourhood. Johnston’s initial criticism of the previous government’s white paper, just six months ago, suggested he felt it got the strategy ‘in terms of our diplomatic and defence posture correct’ but funding aspects badly wrong. Since then, the way Beijing announced its ADIZ has seemed more a small chomp than what Ross Terrill calls ‘nibbling away on multiple fronts for more space and clout’. Beijing’s reaction to our reaction has alarmed us too.
I’m not opposed to prudent hedging against things going badly in Asia, or even rebalancing Australia’s recent ‘pivot back to our own region’ if the situation warrants it—a policy ‘pirouette’ as Graeme Dobell might call it. But I’m uneasy at the suggestion that recasting our strategic policy to be more consequential requires us to deprioritise security responsibilities closer to home.
‘Forward Defence reloaded’ might indeed make our strategic policy much more consequential. And strategic weight can clearly help achieve specific strategic ends—it’s good for more than just diplomatic influence and national self-esteem. But seeking to boost strategic relevance for its own sake, ‘to ensure Australia can play a significant role’, could dilute the focus of the ADF’s necessarily finite resources and create unhelpful entanglements. Being consequential is a better means than an end. We should be prepared to make a credible and proportionate contribution to acting collectively to try to preserve norms such as freedom of navigation so crucial to global trade and order. But if it comes to blows, ADF capability won’t be decisive in Northeast Asia. As Mark Thomson says: ‘bad things may happen, very bad things, but there’s nothing that we can do about them’. If anyone thinks that Australia flying just a handful of Tomahawks into a nuclear-armed great power would improve a bad situation, well, there’s probably such a thing as punching too far above one’s weight.
In contrast, our likely need and ability to lead or independently undertake military operations in the near neighbourhood are ‘non-discretionary’. Quite challenging conflicts of necessity could again arise with little warning in our immediate region. Any increase in our defence focus on Asia won’t decrease the extent to which we need to be able to (and can) make a strategic difference across our direct approaches. We don’t do this as anyone’s ‘deputy sheriff’—we’re protecting our own vital interests. And being a capable regional security manager in cooperation with neighbours lets us make a practical alliance contribution every day.
As I’ve previously argued, doing so isn’t necessarily easy. Even permissive scenarios could require expensive capabilities, such as infantry battalions, that aren’t much use to us in Northeast Asia. I’ve suggested we need to think hard about how and how not to employ our future LHDs. (In the past, whenever we’ve considered intervening in Fiji we’ve been held back by two factors: entirely lacking the capacity; and that doing so would, to use the technical term, have been really dumb. Soon only one of those conditions will hold.) But large ships with lots of choppers on big decks will be invaluable to operate effectively and safely in more challenging situations, even when we’ve been asked us to help.
In arguing against such lavish LHDs, Hugh White reminds us ‘every dollar can only be spent once’. Yet even if the 2015 White Paper drops the 2013 edition’s affectation to only buy equipment for directly defending Australia and neighbourhood contingencies, our priorities should remain to be able to close the sea-air gap and deal with regional trouble before contributing further afield. The intellectually inelegant balanced force with a ‘bit of everything’ that reflects all the challenges the ADF’s faced since WWII (especially since 1976 producing ‘Defence of Australia plus plus’, but also periods when we worried about a weak but hostile China) still seems to provide a reasonable basis to do this, as would the costlier ‘focused force’ Hugh proposes.
Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI.