For half a century, Australian strategic policy has shifted uneasily between two poles: self-reliance in the defence of Australia, and the closest possible alignment with and dependence on the United States. But the Australian government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, released in July, marks an important change in direction. Both approaches are largely abandoned, and instead, Australia will seek its security principally as part of a coalition of Asian countries. The government plainly hopes that this coalition will be led by the United States, but that is not taken for granted. We no longer repose our trust in America alone, and if America fails us then we will look not to ourselves but to our Asian neighbours – as John Curtin might have put it, “free of any pangs”. This raises critical questions. Can Australia credibly depend on our Asian neighbours for our security? What are the alternatives?
The government’s abandonment of self-reliance as the country’s primary strategic objective is a particularly stark change. Every defence policy statement from 1976 to 2013 has declared this to be Australia’s highest priority. The 2016 Defence White Paper steps back from that by stating that defending Australia is one of three core missions, along with contributing to operations in Maritime South-East Asia and the South Pacific, and to global coalitions. Self-reliance is hardly mentioned. But this year’s update goes much further. It makes no mention of the defence of Australian territory specifically. We are left to assume that Australia falls within the expansively defined “immediate region” – covering everything from New Zealand to the borders of India and China – which is the new focus of Australian defence planning. The priority, it seems, is to build forces to fight alongside other countries to defend stability and order across this region. Likewise, self-reliance is only mentioned in relation to the ill-considered idea to put deterrence at the heart of Australia’s defence posture. Thus, decades of commitment to developing and sustaining the capacity to defend Australian territory independently from direct attack have been summarily jettisoned.