A Beowulf amongst Giants?

Australia’s 2009 White Paper generated some spirited debate about defence policy and military strategy.

Some great pieces:

Babbage, Learning to Walk among Giants

White, A focused force

Debate, Beowulf Defence

The region faces significant change, and possibly upheaval. America’s overwhelming primacy in the Asia-Pacific may persist, but there is a decent chance that this will erode. Other giants may rise, in a more multipolar region, as heavily populated, economically prospering and mutually suspicious states.

America will probably remain a heavy hitter, but may gradually (or more quickly) lose the economic foundations it needs to sustain uncontested military and geopolitical might. With that cork out of the bottle, it will release new competition among the strongest states but also amongst or between the middle powers (Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, etc).

This development could be peacefully managed, with an ‘Asian Concert’. However, China’s aim for security and dominance in its own backyard, and America’s reluctance to relinquish its ‘adult supervisor’ role, could place both powers on collision course.

What of Australia? With terrorism for the time being reduced to a second or third order menace, our main national interests seem remarkably traditional: the need to protect the ‘approaches’, by air and sea, as a barrier, and the neighbouring islands that could be used as a base by any predator.

What kind of grand and military strategies are most prudent? The US-Australian alliance will probably remain a fact of life, but within that, Australia will probably be asked to do more. What’s more, Australia is in an awkward position because of its dual dependencies – an economic dependency on China and Japan, who are investing significantly in the country for its iron-ore and mineral resources, and a military alliance with the US.

Thus Australia has a high interest in the emergence of a stable Asian order, but needs some insurance in the good chance that this doesn’t happen.

As some argue, in a landscape of multiple giants, Australia needs the ability to act as a ‘Beowulf’ – that is, the ability to rip the arm off a threatening giant, or in more polite terms, raise the costs of conflict so as to deter any aggression.

This comes with at least two problems: first, robust deterrence needs to be balanced by reassurance, otherwise the ability to rip off arms can seem offensive rather than defensive, and accelerate the arms race, escalation and insecurity that it is designed to prevent. Second, this will direct the bulk of our resources towards conventional and expensive weapons systems and personnel (like an expansion of submarines and maybe 100 JSF’s), and this will divert resources from other things (for example, the ability to intervene and stabilise one of the northern islands, etc).

Ultimately, the question comes down to two different philosophies for a middle power – self-sufficiency versus safety-in-coalitions. Whether America’s preponderance in the region lasts, or whether it fades, it will be a world where many alliances will be possible and counter-balancing happens. The rising power to be balanced against may or may not be China, but regardless of the configuration, how far can Australia bet on having at least one ‘giant’ on its side?

And to prevent these dilemmas coming to the fore, the regular confidence-building cooperation, diplomacy and restraint will be necessary. If we are to have the power to inflict pain and resist a giant, we also need to reassure that giant that this is a defensive and reactive posture.

These will be tricky years ahead.

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