Strategic risk in the new era: a response to Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith
20 Nov 2017|

Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith have written a significant ASPI paper that may well mark a turning point in Australia’s efforts to adapt to the new strategic circumstances we confront in Asia. That policymakers of their status and experience now acknowledge that China’s rise requires big changes in Australia’s defence policy suggests that we are indeed, and at last, making progress towards a serious debate about our strategic future.

Dibb and Brabin-Smith analyse our situation using the concepts of ‘warning time’ and ‘expansion base’ which were most fully elaborated in the 1987 Defence White Paper. They argue that only recent events—even since the 2016 White Paper—have given grounds for deciding that we’re now in warning time as it was then conceived. But in fact the indicators and warnings go back much further than that. They were clear at the time of the 2009 White Paper, as that deeply flawed but perceptive document half-acknowledged, and plain enough even a decade before that.

But more importantly, I’m not sure that the 1987 conceptual framework is very relevant today. Warning time ceased to play a major role in defence policy in the 1990s, and was explicitly repudiated in the 2000 White Paper (paragraphs 6.36–6.38). We would have to venture deep into the airless crypts of defence-planning theology to explain in full detail why that happened, but the key reason was that by 2000 we had stepped quietly away from the ‘defence of Australia’ focus within which the warning time/expansion base had evolved.

As we have given higher priority to operations beyond the defence of Australia, we have slid back to depending on America for the defence of Australia itself, especially as it became less unthinkable that we might face a threat from a major Asian power more formidable than Indonesia. The concept of self-reliance faded away, until it almost disappeared completely from the 2016 White Paper. The more our defence policy has focused on China, the further we have stepped away from self-reliance.

So the defence policy we have today is much further from the policy of 1987 than Dibb and Brabin-Smith suggest. It is indeed much closer to the ‘forward defence’ policy of the pre-Vietnam era.

Plainly the credibility of this policy depends on our confidence that America will always be there for us. Dibb and Brabin-Smith barely touch on that question, but it is absolutely central to our current defence-policy predicament.

Despite China’s increasing power and ambition, our current policy would be quite workable if we could be sure that America was going to remain in Asia as the region’s leading strategic power and Australia’s protector. That’s because it would both reduce the chances of a Chinese attack on Australia and reduce the demands on the ADF in dealing with such an attack if it nonetheless occurred.

That’s why our political leaders are so eager to assure us that this is the case. But the evidence is now inescapably clear that they’re wrong. America’s position in Asia is collapsing fast, and not just because of Donald Trump.

The big question is therefore whether, and if so how, Australia can prepare to defend itself and its vital strategic interests from China without America’s support. Our problem isn’t just that we have run into warning time, but that we have run out of allies.

So what should we do? If, as Dibb and Brabin-Smith imply, we should reinstate self-reliance and aim to build forces that can defend us against China independently, just as we aimed to do against Indonesia in the old days, then we have a very big task ahead. They acknowledge that much needs to be done, but they make the task look less intimidating by suggesting that we can still rely on the concept of warning time to defer major investments.

I’m not sure that’s true. Warning time made perfect sense in relation to Indonesia in the strategic circumstances of the 1980s, but in relation to China today that is less clear. There’s no reason to assume that we would get anything like the warning they assume of an emerging threat.

If we decide that Australia should be able independently to resist a direct attack from a major Asian power like China, then we need to start building the forces to do that right now, not wait for some further warning sign. That’s especially true because it’s now abundantly clear that China’s capability development cycle is a lot shorter than ours.

But before we can do that we need a much clearer idea of what forces we need for this very demanding task. We must think much more seriously about the operations that could most cost-effectively achieve this strategic objective, and about the capabilities that could most cost-effectively undertake them.

Dibb and Brabin-Smith nod in that direction when they talk of developing an anti-access and area denial posture, but that’s where a lot more real work is needed, especially because so much of the investments we’re now committing to—for example, in massive warship programs—make no sense in that kind of posture. The ADF that could defend Australia independently from China would be very different from the ADF today, and the country and economy that could sustain such a force on protracted operations would be very different too —as Dibb and Brabin-Smith acknowledge in relation to things like fuel supplies.

So we still have a long way to go to understand what’s happening to us and what we can do about it. But it makes a big difference that Dibb and Brabin-Smith have now joined the discussion in such a forthright way.