US and Australia need to get asymmetrical—fast

Half a decade of intensifying asymmetrical action—targeted disinformation, malign foreign influence, cyberattacks, espionage, corruption and trade embargoes—have transformed Australia’s geopolitical atmosphere.

So far, Australia has been trying out a bunch of different responses. Foreign interference legislation, the Pacific step-up, a reinvigorated Quad, experiments in technological decoupling, scrutiny of university research collaboration with countries of concern and, most recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s appeal to the G7 to strengthen the World Trade Organization dispute resolution mechanism, only to have China move first against Australia in that forum—all these efforts are currently in play.

The US has taken some similar actions. But how effective have they been in deterring malign actors?

First of all, it’s important to realise that the US and its allies are really just beginning their exploration of asymmetricality, argues John Schaus, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, where he specialises in Asia–Pacific security challenges.

‘We have to dust off thinking about these things. But more than dusting off, the world and the way we think about our alliance is different to 40 year ago. Russia, China and Iran are different than they were in 1986. And the tools available, like cyber and digital information, are completely different.  And we are still grappling with this.’

For Schaus, allied nations need to embrace the zeitgeist of asymmetric deterrence. ‘We assume adversaries will fight the same sort of war we are planning for. We’ve become an easy target both in attack and in deterrence.’

So, skills of non-military offensive and defensive action, which were once well honed on both sides of the Cold War, need to be reimagined in this much more complex age of hyper-digital interconnection, economic globalisation and financial interdependence. But conventional military forces need to be used in more surprising and creative ways too.

In terms of military doctrine, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has been using the phrase ‘integrated deterrence’. But what does it mean? Schaus says that the concept is still being fleshed out.

But he sees two important facets. ‘For Lloyd Austin, he’s asking himself how he can organise his department to work together to achieve deterrence effects in terms of the military and civilian components of Defense.’

‘The second element is how is the military deterrence going to be integrated into broader national-level deterrence efforts, led by the White House and State and using economic elements, diplomacy, and informational components—where Defense is in a supporting rather than lead role.’

Using non-military tools is a lot cheaper and less risky, but it also requires a lot more coordination with allies.

For example, in the case of wine sanctions, Schaus says, ‘Australia has been put into a grey-zone corner by China.’ But, he asks, ‘Why hasn’t the US stepped up to buy that wine?’ Doing so would have sent an immediate message that such actions are ineffectual from an intimidation and deterrence perspective.

Schaus goes on to explain that the hardest part is not military to military or foreign affairs. It’s really a legislative problem. ‘Congress would need to create flexible rules to allow things like rapid importation.’

He also worries that the US is actively handicapping itself on the political warfare front.

‘I think we are very good at playing against ourselves. If we look at how our media has been Balkanised, Russia has been very good at exploiting this vulnerability in the US in the last two presidential elections and China is getting better at it. We haven’t yet found a good way of responding domestically or deploying similar tools in their systems.’

We shouldn’t be mirroring the disinformation tactics of adversaries, Schaus says. Instead, we should remember that the most effective strategy that the West used in the Cold War when dealing with closed political systems was not spreading disinformation but actively looking to spread credible trustworthy information. This had a corrosive effect in the Soviet Union.

The best sources of good information are great journalism and independent academic research, both of which are manifestations of free and open societies, says Schaus. ‘We need to think harder about how we can get that into China.’ And given the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts at surveillance and control of Chinese diaspora, Chinese communities in the West also need to be a focus.

But the question remains, with many nations souping up their grey-zone capabilities and seemingly settling in for an era of mutual destabilisation, isn’t this development highly dangerous for all countries involved?

That is true, says Schaus. A globe full of weakened, badly governed states hardly enhances the security of any nation, and creates destructive feedback loops—especially at a time when the international community must deal with the shared existential crisis of climate change.

But asymmetric activities don’t have to be destabilising. They can be confidence building while also having deterrent qualities.

Nuclear arms control regimes are an excellent example of this duality, says Schaus. They are confidence building in that adversaries agree to rules to hold themselves accountable and to minimise risks of miscalculation. And they act in a deterrent way because each side knows about its respective weapon stockpiles and how and where it could use these weapons.

Schaus says, ‘There are things we could do today to get us closer to that—things in cyber, things in economic engagement—to re-establish what those rules might be.’

In addition, emerging capabilities like uncrewed air systems and sleeping water sensors ‘add to deterrence but are not necessarily provocative’.

The shared crisis of climate change might also provide real opportunities for geopolitical cooperation that are potentially stabilising, Shaus says. Examples might include creating global emissions standards or cooperating on deploying renewable technologies to emerging economic powers such as India that will have to decarbonise at a much quicker rate if we are to avoid the worst impacts of global heating.

But at the same time, says Schaus, the reverse could also apply. Absent cooperative mechanisms, you could see a scenario where countries could use climate change and energy transition in a purely  competitive way—for example, by attempting to increase influence by gaining monopolistic market access to developing countries, or creating supply-chain dependencies.

Schaus says he’s sure that people in the Biden administration are thinking very hard about some of this potential and that there are even more in the broader US foreign and security policy spheres advocating for these ideas. But, he adds, ‘The main issue I think will be bandwidth, if the administration can find the time and the resources to do this while confronting all the other challenges facing us.’