Australian dilemmas

Here’s why Australia’s defence dilemmas are interesting:

Australia is in a potentially dangerous neighborhood. There is the rise of new Asian giants and the possible shift of US grand strategic focus to the Asia Pacific, or as Christopher Layne puts it, In the early 21st century, East Asia is becoming the world’s geopolitical and economic fulcrum. And if US power contracts, a possible return to great power confrontation and collision. Australia also has to balance potentially competing interests – increasing economic reliance on China and Japan, and a long-standing alliance with America.

So here are some areas where the issues sharpen:

Submarines: buy them off the shelf, and lose out on endurance and range? or develop our own indigenous industry, at a considerable cost?

Alliances versus Independence: How much can we and should we rely on the US? Its possible that this traditional ally will get relatively weaker while also being on collision course with China, a country strongly linked to our destiny. And as Andrew Davies argues, dominant world powers can still be challenged locally despite their ability to project power. Rising states historically can compete effectively in their own backyard and apply enough weight to succeed for stakes they care more about against an established heavyweight.

This has great implications for Australian interests. We have a strong stake in a stable Asian order, in which there is no guarantee that our strongest ally could even get what it wants or win a limited conflict. As Hugh White indicates, if we are not willing to follow the US into competition with China, this may leave us on our own. In that case, might we one day have to defend Australia (or at least its ocean approaches) from a major Asian power? If so, that is going to cost some more dollars. If we can’t count on spreading costs and burdens, not to mention using bases, we might gain a more free hand, but free hands assume an independent military capability and the means to regenerate it. For a country historically unwilling to devote a high share of GDP and facing the rising costs of defence inflation, that could be a steep price.

Deterrence versus Reassurance: we might want to be a Beowulf, and have the power to rip the arm off a giant with our Joint Strike Fighters and Collins-class submarines. But increased investment in these weapons could increase tensions unless mitigated by prudent diplomacy. How do we persuade our neighbours that our intentions are overwhelmingly defensive and our defence force primarily an insurance policy? Weapons don’t do that on their own – especially if they enable power-projection. How can we dampen down regional anxiety while we ramp up our capability?

I’m looking forward to reading Hugh White’s new essay ‘Power Shift’ on this, in search of some answers. Should be good reading with the Ashes in the background. Speaking of power shifts…

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