Rethinking Australia’s Plan B

There’s been a lot of talk on The Strategist lately about a Plan B for Australia’s defence. Much of the discussion has called for increased defence spending and greater action by Australia to support the US position in Asia and meet a perceived threat from China.

These proposals are based on two questionable assessments. First, there’s the idea that a significant increase in defence spending is achievable. However, the ‘guns or butter’ dichotomy is always present. Health, education and welfare demands on the federal budget will increase; health services are under particular pressure due to the ageing of the population.

In the defence sector, the massive major capital equipment projects already approved for new aircraft, ships and submarines, along with their likely cost increases, will squeeze any ability to fund new projects or increase personnel numbers. The defence budget will increase significantly only if there’s a ‘clear and present danger’. That doesn’t exist at the moment—in no way does China present such a danger to Australia.

The second false assessment is that we can help shape the wider Indo-Pacific region and help the US in confronting and containing China. Mike Scrafton was right in arguing that Australia cannot materially alter the course of these events—or even mitigate the consequences—by expanding our military capability.

US Vice President Mike Pence’s recent speech on the Trump administration’s policy towards China took American Sinophobia to a new height and marked the beginning of a new cold war. It highlighted a new wave of American strategic and economic policies to confront and contain China.

This more confrontational policy may be popular within the US. A play to the domestic audience is also evident in the publicity given to increased American military activity in the seas of East Asia. A recent example is the way in which the Pentagon highlighted the passage of US warships through the Taiwan Strait, turning what in the past had been a routine operation into an act of provocation. It was not a freedom-of-navigation operation since it was not challenging any right claimed by China.

Despite all this, we need to appreciate that, as Hugh White has argued, the US may not want to remain the leading regional power badly enough to pay the costs and accept the risks involved in confronting and containing China. The Trump administration has become increasingly unreliable and bizarre, however, and anything is possible.

We need a Plan B, but it can’t be one based on increased defence spending or a perceived need to assist the US in confronting and containing China.

The basics are clear. As Paul Dibb has suggested, we need to focus our foreign and defence policies more on our region of primary strategic concern—specifically, maritime Southeast Asia, the eastern Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. We need to focus our offshore military activities on cooperation with our near neighbours rather than on possible strategic partners beyond our region of primary strategic concern. Again, as Scrafton has argued, expanding defence expenditure and aggressively seeking alliances against China doesn’t stand up on efficacy, cost, risk and achievability grounds.

It’s no good suggesting that Australia should try to influence American strategy in Asia. The Trump administration isn’t going to be influenced by the views of a lesser power like us. It seems committed to a program of self-destruction with its policies in Asia. A new cold war with China is in no one’s interest. Washington’s increasing confrontation and containment of China may end badly—either in the ignominy of having to back off from its current policies, or in a bloody war with the deaths of many Americans, Chinese and others from the across the region—possibly including Australians. And like all the wars America has lost since the end of World War II, it will lose this one as well.

We need to listen more to our neighbours. We should not be telling them what they should think and do. We should stop patronising them, by, for example, treating the Pacific island countries as passive dupes to Chinese influence who need to be lectured on geostrategic dangers. We should stop acting as a de facto ‘deputy sheriff’ to the US in Asia.

By all means let’s go ahead with building a joint naval base on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. It will boost security in our maritime approaches and enhance the ability of the PNG Defence Force to conduct surveillance of its far-flung exclusive economic zone. However, it will not be cheap. The Lombrum base is rundown and Manus is a remote island with high support costs. A new wharf and a refuelling facility will be required to accommodate major naval units.

The 2016 defence white paper identified our strategic defence interests as:

  • a secure, resilient Australia, with secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication
  • a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific
  • a stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order.

It attributed equal priority to these interests, but an achievable Plan B should give clear priority to the first two. As Scrafton correctly pointed out in his first call for a Plan B, the rules-based global order has crumbled—due, as much as anything, to the efforts of the US, our major strategic partner—and there’s little we can do about it.