The Great Australian Defence Strategy Delusion – Analysis


The government should be concerned about the protection of Australia rather than playing the role as a middle power

Australia has been under siege from China, feeling alone and isolated over the last eighteen months. China has lambasted Australia through its unofficial mouthpiece the Global Times, ministerial contacts have been suspended by China with Australian ministers, and Australian exports to China have been embargoed, ironically benefitted the United States. 

Over the last few years, revelations about Chinese interference and manipulation of Australian society and politics have been given massive media attention by the press. China also began a caustic style of what has become known as ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. This was backed up with trade sanctions against Australian goods. China, which kept the Australian economy buoyant with the minerals boom during the millennium period, suddenly turned into a perceived adversary, where Australia felt it had to act.  

Australia misread China calling for an inquiry into the origin of Covid-19, receiving retaliation that other countries did not receive. This provides some anecdotal evidence that China is using Australia as a testing ground for its harsh diplomatic approach. Australia fell into China’s trap by trying, to punch above its weigh, using the metaphorical analogy economic historian Lim Teck Ghee painted of recent Australia-China exchanges.  

The cornerstone of Australian defence policy, the Australia-US alliance has blinded policy makers into skewing security options towards the containment strategy pushed by the Biden administration. This cut out other possible defence options that might be much more suitable for Australia, a small power, geographically situated on the fringe of Southeast Asia, with China as the number one trading partner. 

This rush to join Biden’s Indo-Pacific containment doctrine is already showing consequences. 

Australia’s relationship with France has soured. French President Emmanuel Macron has accused Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison of lying, and doing irreputable damage to Australia’s reputation around the world. This has reverberated to the UK where France and Britain’s row over fishing rights is escalating. There will be a period of mistrust between Britain and France at a time when Russia is amassing troops along the Ukraine border. With France’s possessions in the Pacific Islands neighbouring Australia, there could possibility be diplomatic issues arising within the Pacific region. US president Joe Biden effectively cast the blame of the AUKUS issue on Australia, which is hardly a confidence boosting action for the US-Australia alliance under the current administration. 

Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have reservations over the AUKUS agreement. Indonesia controls the waters Australian submarines must navigate through to reach the South China Sea. Malaysia’s prime minister Ismail Sabri Yakoob has not welcomed the deal, while Singapore has reluctantly accepted it. Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear submarines will definitely influence Indonesia to upgrade its military, and even consider the acquisition of nuclear weapons, as it has said. Even New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has expressed her government’s displease over Australia’s decision to acquire a nuclear submarine fleet. 

One would expect members of the Chinese United Front within the Chinese diaspora to further destabilize Australian society. Further espionage will go on surveying Australian defence facilities, and even within Australia’s security organizations.  China has this capability, where Australian authorities have tended to be silent on this weakness. 

Australia’s defence strategy has turned into a costly delusion.

The AUKUS agreement signed between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in September is nothing more than a sharing of nuclear submarine technology, artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, and long-range strike capabilities has nothing immediately tangible for Australia’s defence. Currently the agreement is about intentions.  

At this stage there is very little detail about the actualities of AUKUS. The Australian subs will take more than a decade to go online into service. By this time the whole strategic situation might be completely different. Any issue concerning Taiwan’s security may well occur long before Australia even sees a single submarine. What more, the situation in China is currently volatile, with challenges to Premier Xi Jinping’s authority and vision of China. This makes China a big unknown, and in the short- term Australia joining countries aiming to contain China, may be very counterproductive to Australia’s strategic interests.

AUKUS is more a regeneration of the old ANZUS agreement with the UK taking New Zealand’s place. If the US and UK use Australian as a base and staging ground for a nuclear submarine fleet, Australia will just be more vulnerable to a nuclear attack from China in the event of a superpower crisis. This is the opposite to what Australia should want. 

Even if Australia is able to buy, lease or build nuclear powered submarines quickly, without strategic nuclear weapons on board, these platforms will not be strategic deterrents for potential enemies. At best Australia’s nuclear submarines will only be tactical platforms for conventional weapons. They may not be suitable for deployment around the shallow waters off Australia’s coastline to defend the country against any future military threat. 

The strategic alliance Australia just signed with ASEAN has little to do with security. ASEAN is not a defense pact, and has differing member views on China. ASEAN members have mutually coexisted with China for more than a thousand years. ASEAN is in effect a neutral party which sees superpower coexistence in the South China Sea as desirable. During the recent ASEAN Summit in Brunei, the bloc also signed strategic alliances with the United States, China and Russia. ASEAN is scheduled to have a special summit with China in November to bring their multilateral relationship up one more tier.

Australia’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Cooperation Agreement or QUAD, is an organization that former prime minister Howard saw as a platform for Australia to play a key role along with the US in the region. Canberra at the time had the view of being the US deputy sheriff, running on from the war on terror era. However, the QUAD itself has changed with the QUAD plus, and one of the cornerstone countries in the so called frontline, South Korea has been very reluctant to fully commit to the US containment view of the region. There are strong opinions from political analysts that the QUAD’s role in the region may be more provocative than stabilizing on peace.

Australia cannot afford to develop an offensive armory. This will leave the Australian continent poorly defended. Australia needs strategic bombers, tactical fighters, submarines that are agile in shallow waters to defend Australia. A small number of nuclear warheads will send the message that Australia, although a small military country, would be very costly to engage. 

Australia must come to the realization that no country may come to the defense of Australia over low scale localized military action. This is more likely to become an immediate threat to Australia, than a mass invasion from the north. A potential enemy would use forward bases in Indonesia or PNG to launch nuisance attacks, provoke skirmishes on the waters around the country, or make probing flights into Australian territory, all that we have seen in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits. Most probably, Australia will have to deal with this alone. 

The biggest cost to Australia is the need to compromise the nation’s freedom to determine its own policies. The Biden-Johnson axis pressured the Morrison government to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. This severely strained the cohesiveness of the Liberal National Party coalition, and may even cost Morrison the election when it is due next year. Morrison’s reputation after AUKUS and his reversal on climate change policy has done him a lot of personal damage for a conference that couldn’t come to any firm agreement. 

Its time for Australia to come to the realization that it is not a middle power. Australia just can’t spend the money to do it. Australia’s defense strategy decisions are creating more risk for the national security, rather than safeguarding it. Unfortunately, most of the analysts and academics Canberra listen to have given AUKUS hawkish approval. 

The concept of Fortress Australia has been abandoned for the delusion of playing like a middle power. 

AUKUS won’t solve Australia’s diplomatic issues with China. In fact, it will probably make them worse, and this could be felt very quickly with further losses in trade. This means that eventually, every Australian may feel the pain in some way or another. Since the announcement of AUKUS, Australia has increased its breath of strained relations with other nations. 

Australia has 20,000 kilometers of coastline that needs protection. This should be Scott Morrison’s number one priority, not being an appendix to the US vision of containment. Australia has other potential threats much closer to home. 

A survey by the Alvara Research Centre in October 2017 of 4,200 students at 25 universities, indicated that 20% supported an Islamic Caliphate in Indonesia, and 30% were prepared to wage jihad in some form. This number is growing rapidly, and the influence of fundamental and radicalized Islam on Indonesian society and politics has been grossly under-estimated by Australian analysts. This threat must be taken seriously and prepared for, if one day in the near future Australia shared a border with an Islamic Caliphate. Local government in many regions within Indonesia are already introducing very strict Syariah laws. 

Its time for Australia to deeply reflect upon its own geo-position in the world rather than the views from the other side of the world. Until Australia does this, it will not be an independent country. 

Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here

Murray Hunter

Murray Hunter has been involved in Asia-Pacific business for the last 30 years as an entrepreneur, consultant, academic, and researcher. As an entrepreneur he was involved in numerous start-ups, developing a lot of patented technology, where one of his enterprises was listed in 1992 as the 5th fastest going company on the BRW/Price Waterhouse Fast100 list in Australia. Murray is now an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis, spending a lot of time consulting to Asian governments on community development and village biotechnology, both at the strategic level and “on the ground”. He is also a visiting professor at a number of universities and regular speaker at conferences and workshops in the region. Murray is the author of a number of books, numerous research and conceptual papers in referred journals, and commentator on the issues of entrepreneurship, development, and politics in a number of magazines and online news sites around the world. Murray takes a trans-disciplinary view of issues and events, trying to relate this to the enrichment and empowerment of people in the region.

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