Critics and cheerleading aside, Albanese’s defence strategy has Australia in good company

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

The first big national security decision prime minister Albanese has taken is on how Australia will work with the US and UK to build and operate 8 nuclear submarines. That’s a huge decision with long term commitments, challenges and expense. But it’s by no means the sum of the Albanese government’s defence strategy, just one big building block. For more, we have to see the results of the Defence Strategic Review.

Unfortunately, the public debate about Australian strategy has been superficial and limited. There has been a chorus of nuclear submarine cheerleading, laced with visions of thousands of new high technology jobs and a vibrant renewal of Australia’s manufacturing industry. The critical voices have been few, with former diplomats waxing lyrical about their views of submarines and other defence technologies, joined by the abusively entertaining voice of Paul Keating.

Mr Keating has told us that ‘the AUKUS arrangements represent the worst international decision by an Australian Labor government since the former Labor leader, Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription’. He goes on to say that Chinese power is no threat to Australia or the United States because China does not plan to invade either country. The United States, in contrast, apparently wants conflict and confrontation with Beijing ‘in the service of its underlying imperialism’.

If we accept this logic, then it’s an easy step to the idea that the Australian government is on some kind of irrational frolic with the AUKUS deal, because the real problem is America, not the peace loving, trade-orientated regime of Xi Jinping.

This reflexive anti-Americanism is a happy place for more Australians than you might expect. It’s a delightfully indulgent thing to retail all the flaws in American democracy – the gun violence, the division, remaining racism and the fact that Donald Trump wasn’t just elected president in 2016 but could be again in 2024. It’s as easy to find flaws in our own democracy and history, with treatment of indigenous Australians and our own divisions and inequities as examples of how much we have to do to improve our own society.

But the free pass given to the nastily oppressive Chinese regime that is busy with continuing mass abuse of its own citizens – whether Uyghurs, dissidents or citizens of Hong Kong – and which is using its increasingly powerful military to coerce and intimidate others is more than disturbing. Such blinkered analysis doesn’t contribute to an informed public debate on security and strategy.

So, here’s an alternative to the Keating critique of AUKUS and the Albanese government’s strategic directions.

China under Xi Jinping is a threat to the operation of our part of the world – the Indo Pacific – as a free and open region where issues are managed by negotiation, rules and norms and where force doesn’t dictate others’ choices.

China has already shown its willingness to use military power to dominate others and seize territory others claim through its building of military bases in the South China Sea. It’s military presence and assertion of rights not granted under international law there is causing escalated tension and risking the free passage of aircraft and shipping. It’s intimidation through power is preventing South East Asian nations from agreeing a Code of Conduct with China on how the South China Sea can be managed peacefully. The Chinese government is also using its growing military power to push its claims against Japan and India, with the Chinese and Indian militaries in low level but real conflict on their disputed border. Xi Jinping has continued to direct his Peoples’ Liberation Army to be prepared to fight and win wars at a moment’s notice and to prioritise his military’s ability to attack Taiwan.

And lastly, China has announced its intent to play a big direct security role in Australia’s near neighbourhood. That’s what its proposed ten nation security pact with South Pacific countries last year was all about and that’s behind its growing security partnership with Mr Sogavare in the Solomon Islands.

A region dominated by Chinese power would not be a region that Australia and Australians would enjoy.

A dominant Beijing would change Australia and every other nation in the region because we would need to make choices about how we run our country. and how we engage with others, that were constrained by – and in some cases dictated by – Beijing’s preferences.

The AUKUS submarine deal is a partial response to this, but the real outlines of Albanese’s strategy come from the combination of the soon-to-be announced Defence Strategic Review and AUKUS.

Put simply, these strands of work are about two things. The strategic review is about strengthening Australia’s own military capabilities, while AUKUS is about strengthening our alliance with America along with the UK.

Both of these new streams of work will take more money than there is in the Defence budget funding trajectory from the 2016 Defence White Paper, with a risk being that the Albanese government tries to do it all on the cheap given other spending priorities.  New money into the Defence budget is a hard public discussion that requires clarity about the strategic threat from China at a level we have yet to see from the Albanese government. 

Together, the strategic review plus AUKUS can give Australia some independent capacity to deal with a rising Chinese security presence in our near region – the Malacca Straits across through the South Pacific – as part of a wider regional deterrence strategy with the US, Japan, South Korea – and India to the extent that it acts. A defence force able to be deployed and sustained in combat with all the consumables and supplies it needs will be valuable to Australia and the region.

This would end the Afghanistan, Iraq (and even Vietnam) era of the Australian military not thinking it has to operate alone, but simply existing to provide plug in, niche contributions to bigger US forces.

This new approach of being part of deterring China from engaging in conflict and military coercion in the Indo Pacific, with our own independent capacity to deter China from adventurism in our near region, is not ‘forward defence’ or the 1987 Defence of Australia, but it’s closer to Defence of Australia than anything Australia has done over the period since 9/11.

So, is Australia on a lonely frolic in this assessment of the effect of Chinese policy and power and what to do about it? No. You wouldn’t know it from our domestic debate, but Australia is in very crowded company.

America for the first time since the Second World War understands that its power alone is insufficient to change or deter Beijing’s directions. Starting under Obama and continuing through the Trump and Biden administrations, its strategy now is to work much more closely and cooperatively with allies and partners on the common goal of deterring China from using force to achieve its aims. AUKUS and the Quad group of Japan, India, Australia and the US are key building blocks of this approach.

That acknowledgement that America alone can’t deter Beijing is a sobering one in capitals well beyond Canberra and Washington. The result is a common two track strategy where nations are strengthening their own military capabilities and simultaneously deepening their partnerships with America.

That’s the path Japanese prime minister Kishida set out in Japan’s newly released National Security Strategy. A growing Japanese defence budget will allow ‘counter strike’ and other deterrent weapons to be acquired, while the US-Japan alliance is being made more effective through things like a new joint command.

South Korea’s Yoon administration is also deepening its own already close alliance relationship with the US as it continues building its own impressive deterrent military power. And, ending years of strategic drift, the Philippine is now working with America on new military facilities for US forces there.

The story in Europe is the same, although driven by the need to respond to that other aggressive authoritarian power, Russia. NATO members are rebuilding their own defence capacities while also energising their partnership with the most powerful NATO member – America.

None of these nations thinks that the best way to deal with Russia or China is to end their partnership with the most powerful democracy on the planet and go it alone.

Mr Albanese must use the release of the strategic review to begin a deeper and more principled public discussion of Australian strategy. The alignment between Australia’s approach and other nations we respect and trust can add substance and reassurance to our public debate, without diminishing the challenges of our more dangerous world.