Strategic ambiguity
20 Oct 2015|

As final touches are applied to Australia’s new Defence White Paper, policymakers are being urged to ‘embrace’ ambiguity in international security policy.

An elegant and deeply thoughtful paper by Singapore ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan (PDF) suggests that strategic ambiguity is the best policy for nations concerned about US–China competition. The idea, he says, is ‘to position oneself to avoid having to make invidious choices’.

It’s an appealing notion reflecting an apparently flexible, tolerant and realistic approach to potential challenges arising from US–China competition. But I want, reluctantly, to question the wisdom of Kausikan’s view. The clarity and certainties of the Cold War world may have vanished, as Kausikan notes. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the optimum approach to post-Cold War global policy is Kausikan’s apparent willingness to embrace something close to appeasement in order to avoid ‘invidious choices’. Nor does it follow, as Kausikan argues, that ‘to be forced to choose is to have failed’. Choices, invidious or otherwise, can become unavoidable in a competitive world.

Kausikan seeks to qualify his argument by insisting that ‘we must stand firm on our own vital interests and basic principles’ while applying them flexibly and bending them to accommodate reality. But this concession merely highlights the difficulties inherent in his argument: how are vital interests to be defined? What are the limits to flexibility? Who decides what constitutes ‘reality’?

The new Australian Defence White Paper will undoubtedly express Australia’s vital interests and its assessment of the current strategic environment, including US–China competition, with judicious caution. It will set out in some detail the nation’s future sea, air and land force structure requirements and explain how the Defence Force is to be financed into the future. So the White Paper will reflect choices—strategic, political, technological and financial—that can’t be avoided. There’s no room here for ambiguity: allies and competitors alike should know where we stand.

Kausikan’s notion of strategic ambiguity needs some analysis. There are words and deeds, statements and actions, in security policy. The embrace of ambiguity seems, essentially, to involve leaving uncertainty in the minds of strategic competitors about the limits of what you can accept or tolerate. But while words can be crafted to leave competitors unsure or in doubt, it’s harder to maintain ambiguity when policy choices involve the acquisition of advanced new military armaments, bigger defence budgets and increased military activities including patrols, exercises and surveillance activity. Those sorts of actions signal intent and preparation to confront challenges regardless of weasel words to the contrary. They would be pointless if they didn’t.

Kausikanan’s strategic ambiguity might be appropriate in an environment where all parties are sufficiently satisfied to accept the prevailing state of affairs, where there’s an equilibrium that all actors can accept or tolerate. If equilibrium prevails it may be possible to avoid invidious choices.

But the situation is quite different when one powerful actor (or actors) is dissatisfied and wants to change the status quo. If dissatisfied parties speak and act in ways that discomfort and threaten others, then there’s a clear need for those who are perturbed to be clear about their concerns and how they might react. Strategic ambiguity in those circumstances can encourage aggression. Indeed it may be hard to distinguish from appeasement. It’s certainly true, as Kausikan says, that the less powerful should recognise that there are limits to their ability to influence events and that they should be careful not to over-reach. But this doesn’t mean that smaller countries need to cower impotently before the might of the powerful.

For Australia, the implications of US–China competition have been underscored in recent days by China’s response to statements by Australian ministers at the AUSMIN talks in the US. Following US and Australian expressions of concern over Beijing’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, the Chinese embassy in Canberra has reiterated claims that the US and Australia are lighting a fire and adding fuel to the flames, that China’s actions are reasonable, just and lawful, and that its intentions are peaceful.

Whatever the truth of those contested and self-serving claims, they were certainly not ambiguous and Australia was right to avoid ambiguity in response. Instead Australia agreed to enhanced naval cooperation with the US—an invidious choice, perhaps, but one that signals that Beijing cannot throw its weight around without prompting responses from Canberra.

Kausikan argues convincingly that US–China competition in the South China Sea has far to run and that neither Washington nor Beijing is yet clear about their ultimate objectives. In the meantime, Australian policymakers need to be clear about their interests and objectives. To embrace ambiguity would be to embrace helplessness.