I have always admired Hugh White for his clarity of thought, his pellucid prose and the way he “shows his work”, explaining the assumptions that shape his conclusions. His latest book, How to Defend Australia, is true to form – seeking, as he puts it, to lay out “what risks we are trying to manage, then what role we expect armed force to play in managing them, then what kinds of operations our forces would need to undertake to perform those roles, then what capabilities can best conduct those operations, and, finally, how they could be built and maintained, and how much they would cost”.
There’s no doubt that these are the right questions, and this is the time to be asking them, as Australia enters a new period of great-power confrontation. And while I do disagree with some of Professor White’s answers, I found myself continually nodding in agreement with a great deal of his argument. As I am an Australian based mostly in the United States and looking back from abroad, it’s perhaps unsurprising that my perspective differs somewhat from his. So let me briefly lay those differences out.
The two principal risks White identifies are the rise of China and the decline of the United States. Predicting that China will soon eclipse the United States (at least in the Western Pacific), he suggests that Australia’s traditional approach of depending “on a great ally, first Britain then America, to defend us from a major attack” will no longer work. This is exactly the right way to frame the problem: China rising, American primacy fading, and therefore an increasing need for self-reliance. Yet it’s far from certain that China’s future will look much like its last four decades, the timeframe White chooses as a reference.
China’s economy has been in a severe slowdown since about 2014, with GDP growth dipping 28 per cent per capita, or 30 per cent in real terms, against the country’s post-1978 baseline. To boost its tanking economy, in 2015 Beijing launched the largest stimulus package in history – more than a trillion US dollars – but its effects have largely worn off, leaving Chinese companies deeply in debt. Cracks are appearing in the nation’s credit system: at least three lending institutions have failed in the past six months. These problems pre-date the current trade war, but US tariffs have worsened them: data for July 2019 showed Chinese industrial output at a seventeen-year low.
In political and military terms, China’s future is equally uncertain. Whatever the outcome of today’s Hong Kong crisis, its impact on China’s already limited soft power (and on prospects for peaceful reunification with Taiwan) has been dreadful, as have reports of a million Uighur Muslims languishing in re-education camps. The one-child policy has resulted in a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) composed largely of only sons – “little emperors”, as some Chinese call them – making China’s military more casualty-averse (and more constrained by public opinion) than in the past. China may therefore have more than enough to deal with in its immediate neighbourhood for the next few decades, leaving Beijing little bandwidth to contest US pre-eminence in the Pacific.
But it’s not clear that the threat from China is one against which the Australian Defence Force (ADF), either as it exists now, or in the revised configuration that White proposes, would be particularly relevant. Conventional capabilities – ships, planes and tanks – are far from central to China’s “Three Warfares” strategic doctrine, which focuses on non-military means. The PLA’s military modernisation is mainly intended to keep adversaries focused (and spending) on traditional warfare while China pursues its goals through other means, including cyberwarfare, political subversion, economic penetration, debt-trap diplomacy and technology theft.
It is worth noting that the PLA’s build-up over the past decade – in particular, its impressive growth in maritime, space, and air and missile capability – remains largely untested. China has fought no ground war since the Sino–Vietnamese War of 1979, no air-to-air campaign since the Korean War in the 1950s and no major naval battle since losing to the Imperial Japanese Navy on the Yalu River back in 1894. As a result, Chinese strategists are relatively risk-averse when it comes to conventional warfare, preferring pre-conflict shaping (the political, economic and cyber means mentioned earlier, along with what they call “legal warfare” and “public opinion warfare”) to achieve what Sun Tzu called “the acme of skill: to subdue the enemy without fighting”.
White clearly recognises this, arguing that Australia’s defence force needs to be optimised for a time when attempts to deter or prevent open warfare have failed. In effect, he is suggesting that since the ADF cannot do much about Chinese pre-conflict shaping activities, we should prepare for the worst case: a maritime, air or amphibious assault on Australia’s mainland, or the seizure of an outlying territory.
But I’m not convinced that this actually is the worst case. China need never contemplate such a risky venture as a major attack on or invasion of Australia when it could more easily isolate us from allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific, penetrate and subvert our economy and political system, and interdict the global links that keep our economy functioning, thereby subduing us without fighting. (Sun Tzu would surely approve.)
To take one example, Australia imports virtually all its petroleum. According to the Australian Petroleum Statistics for May 2019, 83 per cent of this comes from ten countries: in order of volume, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Japan, China, the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands, Brunei, the United States and Libya. Some of these supplies are highly vulnerable to interdiction at source; others could be disrupted en route through naval and air action, special operations, cyberattacks or economic warfare (price manipulation, strangulation of refinery supply chains) by adversaries who could thereby shut our economy down without ever approaching our shores.
Mapping the network of shipping routes, production sites and terminals through which that petroleum flows – and, not incidentally, reducing our dependence on imported petroleum – might result in a radically different set of defence priorities than focusing on protecting our coastline. Analyses of trade (exports and imports mostly move by sea) or telecommunications (we are heavily reliant on space systems and on 97,000 kilometres of undersea fibre-optic cables that land in Australia, and can be interdicted from afar) produce a similar picture, showing a country whose interests and vulnerabilities – whether in times of peace, tension short of conflict, or major war – are not synonymous with its geography.
So, it is arguable that Australia’s future security depends more on our ability to influence and shape our environment short of major conflict – to build alliances with neighbours, work with coalition partners and defend our interests at a distance from our shores, rather than to mount an in-extremis defence of our territory once war breaks out. And an ADF optimised for pre-conflict shaping and deterrence-at-a-distance might look a lot like an upgraded version of what we have today: with top-tier special forces, long-range submarines, offshore surveillance platforms, an ability to mount sea–air–land expeditionary operations close to home or contribute to coalitions afield, and an air force that can deter or severely damage any attacker.
This is not to say that today’s ADF is ideally suited to the task: improving cyberwarfare, missile defence, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and capabilities for countering economic and political warfare would make sense. Likewise, greater investment in diplomatic and information capabilities, foreign aid, our scientific and industrial base, and civilian intelligence agencies would be smart. It might make sense to spend more on these capabilities (which sit outside the defence budget) than on assets that would only come into play if deterrence failed and an adversary appeared offshore – by which time, given our dependence on trade and energy imports, we would already be defeated.
White acknowledges these trade-offs in an admirably clear and accessible way, while noting the larger point that, as a nation, we can only afford to spend so much on defence. He makes a compelling case that, without a powerful and engaged US ally, we will inevitably need to spend more to ensure a comparable level of security. Like other American allies – notably in Europe, but also Japan and South Korea – Australia has had the luxury of free-riding on US extended nuclear deterrence and forward-deployed American forces since the 1950s; a weaker, less engaged Washington would mean tough choices for Canberra.
I agree entirely with White’s reasoning, but from my perch here in the United States things look a little different, and the premise seems a bit shaky. Just as China’s rise appears more complicated and less inevitable than White suggests, America’s current strategic posture is also more complex than retreat. Donald Trump’s mercurial, abrasive personality and bombastic messaging often obscure the underlying contours of American policy, which is closer to what some strategists call “offshore balancing” – where a great power works through allies, intervening only sparingly to prevent rivals dominating key areas, instead of seeking actively to dominate those areas itself – than to retrenchment or decline. Stepping back from the day-to-day tweetstorm chaos, what we are actually seeing from the United States amounts to a strategic reset.
Washington is currently pulling back from over-exposure in the Middle East (withdrawing from Syria, ending support to the war in Yemen, reducing its presence in Iraq, negotiating in Afghanistan), offloading day-to-day operations to an unlikely coalition of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Trump’s decision to call off a strike on Iran in June, and to ignore a series of Iranian provocations since, suggests he has little interest in yet another war in the region, instead relying on economic sanctions. The same is true for North Korea, where his administration has ignored a string of attention-seeking missile launches from Pyongyang.
Trump’s friendly language towards Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un has been combined with sanctions on Russia and North Korea, and formal withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (a dead letter, since Russia systematically breaches it and China, Iran and North Korea never signed it). Trump’s telegraphing of informal limits on the US security guarantee to European countries under NATO’s Article 5, while formally maintaining the commitment, also suggests he is keenly aware of the risk of overcommitment, and is seeking a more sustainable posture, rather than retreat or an acceptance of geopolitical decline.
Whether Trump can carry off such a reset, or his successors continue it, are vast questions. But clearly, the picture is more complex than simply an America in decline: on the contrary, a reset now might preserve American primacy until mid-century or beyond. Combined with the uncertainties of China’s rise, the strategic picture may thus be both more complex and more favourable than White’s conclusions suggest.
One way to view Australia’s current circumstances is through the lens of crisis: for the first time in our history, Australia’s major economic partner is not our primary security partner. The prospect of China going to war with America would be utterly terrible for Australia, in human and economic terms. It’s also crucial to note that China is not now, and hopefully will never be, our enemy – and that a key goal of Australia’s defence posture and diplomatic policy must be to reduce the risk of such a horrific war ever happening, a point White makes at the beginning of his book. But, for exactly the same reasons, Australia’s ability to act assertively in cooperation with our neighbours and other middle powers, to play a constructive, independent role that helps reduce the regional risk of conflict, is greater than ever. This, in fact, is the central point of Professor White’s argument – and I could not agree more. There’s little doubt that the United States would welcome a more assertive Australia, and China would likely learn to live with it, needing us economically as much as we need them.
Everyone should read and contemplate the well-considered ideas in Hugh White’s book, while also considering the kinds of capabilities Australia might need if it is to play an assertive regional role short of major war. This approach, decoupled from defence of our shores and focused instead on furthering our interests in the broader region – where they actually lie – might generate new ideas on how to defend Australia.