Reader response: Defence White Paper—between the lines
17 May 2013|

Mark Thompson writes:

Imagine how the White Paper would have read if it had begun with the recognition—brutal yet surely accurate—that our security ultimately depends on the geopolitical balance in our part of the world rather than on our ability to defend the continent against attack.

Unfortunately, that “brutal” recognition is more of a theoretical assumption derived from the attitudes of large states rather than a universal reality for all states. Australia’s security is not ‘ultimately’ dependent upon the geopolitical balance of Asia. Just as the evolving changes during the Cold War between the US and USSR had no substantial impact on Australia’s day to day environment, neither will a (much more geographically restricted) balancing act in northeast Asia affect us. Certainly the balancers may get it wrong with occasional clashes but, save a WW3 type scenario, Australia’s security does not “ultimately depend” upon the degree or even existence of ‘balance’ 10’000km to our north.

As Stephen Walt noticed in the 1980s, regional powers don’t decide their alliances based upon the global balance of power but on regional conditions. So either most countries have been getting their security policies wrong, or the balancing theory, designed to explain the behaviour of great power countries, is simply not that relevant for smaller powers. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing in Asia.

Despite expectations, the evidence for balancing/bandwagoning behaviour in our part of the world is underwhelming. Hence the proliferation of terms such as hedging, soft balancing, underbalancing, omni-enmeshment, strategic hedging etc as scholars seek to explain away the divergence between theory and reality. As we all too often forget, great powers and smaller powers worry about very different things. If Australia was a great power country, then Mark would be right and the geopolitical balance would be the essence of our security (though we’d then also have a viable ability to defend our continent). But mid and small sized countries care far more about their immediate region. Thus we’re seeing only moderate re-balancing in Northeast Asia and little more than modernisation in Southeast Asia. Even if the pessimists are right and an Arms Race emerges in Asia, that would simply re-emphasise the primacy smaller states place on reacting to their neighbours rather than using the geopolitical balance to organise their defence choices. No wonder Australia, a country located even farther south and further removed from any potential conflict or coercion is not acting concerned.

Australia has historically been an unusual country: a mid-sized power that has appeared to act based on the global balance of power. But we haven’t done so because of strategic necessity but because of a political (if not emotional) choice, driven by our Empire-inherited worldview and our familial relationship with the largest powers. We may decide to keep acting in this manner, but we shouldn’t confuse the necessary behaviour of great powers with the voluntary behaviour of a regional power. Australia has the luxury of choosing how much the geopolitical balance affects our military spending. This is an important choice, but our ultimate security, just like most regional powers, is based upon issues and circumstances much closer to home.

Andrew Carr is an associate lecturer at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.