The Strategist Six: Kim Beazley
14 Apr 2016|

Welcome to The Strategist Six, a feature that provides a glimpse into the thinking of prominent academics, government officials, military officers, reporters and interesting individuals from around the world.

1. You’ve recently returned from six years as Australia’s Ambassador to the US. How has the US–Australia alliance evolved over the years?

The alliance is more important to us now than it was when I was Defence Minister. Back in those days the US really paid little mind to the Southeast Asian area. So when we wanted to make big statements—like going through the Cambodian peace settlement or the South Pacific nuclear free zone—the US pretty much tended to stand aside. However, by the time I got to Washington in 2010 it was becoming increasingly clear that Asia was the focal point of American interests—indeed, shortly after I arrived the US ‘rebalance’ was announced. So the American alliance with Australia ceased to be a relationship with a backwater and we became more central to the US. At the same time, as our region developed greater economic and military capabilities, America’s overall engagement in the region became much more important to us.

2.  Are Sino–US relations the biggest challenge for the 21st century?

Even though there’s been harsh words said about the South China Sea and Chinese cyber issues, fundamentally the American leadership understands it needs to get on with China—and the Chinese likewise understand this. The most important bilateral discussion that takes place in the world today is the annual US–China Strategic & Economic Dialogue. And both countries are arriving at lots of conclusions on force separation agreements and investment agreements and they’re beginning to do cyber. So they’re trying to resolve their differences. There is, of course, on China’s part an underlying suspicion that the US wants to pursue an adversarial containment strategy with them, which is something we of course don’t want the US to do. But the US is frustrated by that Chinese interpretation; they think that the Chinese aren’t looking hard enough at themselves on the issues that they’re creating with these large claims in the South China Sea.

3. What role should Australia play in the South China Sea?

Well, I think it should be what it’s always been. We’ve had intensive surveillance activities over the South China Sea since the 1970’s and we ought to keep doing it. I think that we should uphold the global rules based order and should fly and sail wherever international law permits us to fly or sail. In terms of maintaining that position, we should probably keep doing what we would normally do. We don’t often send ships to the South China Sea but we send aircraft there all the time and those aircraft ought to be able to fly in the zone in accordance with international law.

4. How have Defence White Papers evolved since you delivered the 1987 White Paper as Defence Minister?

The whole notion of doing white papers was an outcome of the confusion, difficulty and worry around Australian foreign policy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. And many people in Australia were critical of the way in which we’d done defence policy in the past. Governments needed to convince the Australian people that we were doing all we could to defend ourselves effectively.

Australia’s first White Paper was released in 1976 and by 1987 we were in the position to articulate all this in some meaningful detail. We included in the White Paper some things that aren’t there now: we had a military strategy of defence in depth. We related the force structure to assessments of the most likely levels of threat. We had the notion of a force in being capable of dealing with the most likely threats and a concept of an expansion base sustained within the force structure should we need to meet the unexpected or a higher level of threat.

We had pretty sophisticated analysis of how you think through a defence posture and the force structure based on that. I think that that’s the way you do White Papers. However, I can also see that the 1987 White Paper was in a place in time. A place in time where there was lots of debate and discussion about what should be the character of Australian defence policy.

Now our defence forces are actively engaged pretty well all the time—they’re engaged in essentially expeditionary activity. Our diplomats are engaged in a much wealthier region than was the case then in putting together confidence measures with people in Southeast Asia. So you can see why people writing a White Paper would start to emphasise the rules based order and regional engagement with the sort of intensity we used to have for defence of our approaches.

5. Do you think that the force structure laid out in DWP16, with 12 submarines and the surface fleet, meets Australia’s maritime needs?

Yes, I do. Of course, it also goes to capability and what capabilities we’re going to put on the platforms. We’re going to need more than six obviously with regards to submarines, we needed more than six back in 1987. I was disappointed when we didn’t do eight. So when you look at all the chokepoints on approaches to Australia, you need about a dozen submarines.

6. What is the most significant threat to global security?

I think there’s a multiplicity of current threats to global security. I think the struggle in the Islamic world has created enormous problems. We’re to one side of it actually. We can be helpful but it’s not a fight in which we can lead—that’s really in the hands of the Islamic community globally. I also think that you’ve got forthcoming rather than immediate threats such as the security effects of the consequence of climate change. For example (and this might not necessarily be the case in my lifetime), what happens when Chinese rivers start to dry up? What happens to those rivers that rise in Tibet like the Mekong and the Brahmaputra? I think you’re going to see diversion on a large scale and that’s going to create immense crises in Southeast Asia. And then I think how we handle the makeup of the balance of power or distribution of power in the Asian region will require, from Australia’s point of view, a lot of adjustment. I don’t necessarily think that others will share our perspective on that, but from where we sit and see the world it’s important.