Defence: more bucks for our bangs

AAP/Mick Tsikas

To say the defence white paper was “much anticipated” would be an understatement. Was it worth the wait in the end? That rather depends on who you are and what your assessment of the risks Australia faces actually is.

To judge by the generally positive reception among the hardheaded types who dominate defence policy discussion and thinking in this country, perhaps it was worth the wait.

For the few people who don’t subscribe to the conventional wisdom, however, the arguments are not quite so self-evident. We are, after all, about to ramp up defence spending to 2% of GDP, or by something like A$200 billion – give or take a few billion – over the ten years to 2025.

We are spending this amount of money despite being repeatedly assured that:

… there is no more than a remote prospect of military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future.

Being prepared for any contingency, no matter how remote or expensive it may be to guard against, is still the underlying rationale for all of this vast expense. But would we be persuaded if the medical profession demanded that we build three or four new hospitals in the – far more likely – event that an epidemic of some sort might appear in Australia?

Biosecurity, like environmental security, is noteworthy for its absence in this regard.

But even if we just consider the white paper on the basis of the relatively narrow strategic calculus that informs it, does it make sense on its own terms?

We are told that “maintaining Australia’s technological edge and capability superiority over potential adversaries” is the principal goal. As this essentially means China, is this actually a realistic goal given the repeated concern expressed about its military modernisation and spending? Clearly not.

Australia will overcome this inevitable capability deficit, we are assured, by our continuing reliance on, and relationship with, the US. Great confidence is expressed in the latter’s continuing primacy and its commitment to maintaining regional stability.

To ensure this relationship endures Australia has to play its part. The white paper approvingly cites our participation in the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria as successful examples of this sort of action. But if this is the benchmark for success one wonders what a failure might look like.

There may be something to be said for discouraging China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and elsewhere, but the key question is how best this might be achieved and what Australia’s role in this might be. Even if it is decided to send in a gunboat to demonstrate Australia’s commitment to the principle of freedom of navigation, does it have to be quite such an expensive one?

This is not an entirely flippant point. The reality is that Australia can make absolutely no independent, decisive difference to the outcome of any confrontation or conflict between the US and China in the South China Sea, or anywhere else for that matter.

Australia plays a modest supportive role at best that is primarily about providing what Des Ball famously called “a convenient piece of real estate”, and secondarily by helping to legitimate US foreign policy actions – whatever they may be.

This latter consideration has – or rather, should have – assumed a greater prominence in the minds of strategic thinkers of late. The white paper’s authors can be forgiven for not addressing the rise of Donald Trump directly, but the possible implications of outsourcing primary decision-making authority to another country might have been worthy of more explicit consideration at any time.

The white paper makes the rather large assumption that the US remains committed to, and the backbone of, a rules-based international order. One sincerely hopes this idea remains valid, as it is clearly in the interest of a secondary state like Australia that such an order continues.

And yet we need to remember that the US has a long history of flouting international rules and agreements when it suits it. The US’s refusal to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, rather undermines its authority when dealing with China in an arena of pivotal importance to Australia.

Now, however, we have the real possibility that the US could be led by someone who is entirely contemptuous of the prevailing international order and enthusiastic about utilising American power for exclusively national ends – no matter what impact this may have on friend and foe alike.

The idea that Australia needs to update its defence capabilities to continue playing its supporting role looks less convincing as a consequence – not that this is likely to impinge on the conventional wisdom in Canberra.

The one slightly surprising feature of the white paper was the idea that an Australian defence industry might be an integral part of a national industry policy. While this is potentially welcome, one has to wonder whether electoral rather than strategic motivations didn’t inform this initiative.

More importantly, perhaps, while there may be much to be said for maintaining a manufacturing capability in this country, is military hardware the only thing we can think of? The weapons will almost certainly never be used and will only contribute to an escalating – ultimately futile – regional arms race in the meantime.