The Debate Down Under, in Context

By Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney

Is mild-mannered Canberra suddenly beating its chest and revolutionizing its military to confront mighty Beijing, alone if need be? You would be forgiven for thinking so, if you had read this startling new report from a prominent Australian defense analyst. But you would be wrong.

The reality is more complex. Yes, the rise of China is markedly altering Australia’s security outlook and the shape of its future defense force. But this change is not as fundamental or as single-minded as certain dramatic newspaper articles and blog posts about the think tank report would suggest.

The report in question is Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030, by independent security scholar and veteran policy entrepreneur Ross Babbage. It implies that China’s growing military power could one day pose a direct threat to Australia’s national security, even to its democratic way of life, and that therefore Canberra needs a complete overhaul of its defense policy. The report leaves the impression that senior Australian security bureaucrats are comfortable with the thrust of its recommendations. Yet several of Australia’s leading former defense officials, such as Paul Dibb, have disputed this, and no representative of the Australian Government is on record as having endorsed the report’s radical conclusions.

In recent decades Australia has developed a balanced, if overstretched, military, intended to adapt to diverse contingencies, such as counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, peacekeeping in East Timor, stabilization in the South Pacific, disaster relief in Indonesia, patrolling the Indian Ocean, niche support for U.S. combat operations, and the maritime defense of Australian interests against plausible, limited threats.

Professor Babbage calls for much of this to be jettisoned in place of rugged attack capabilities designed somehow to cripple China, were this authoritarian great power ever to use its military to coerce Australia. This is extraordinary stuff, much of it outside the boundaries of normal Australian strategic debate. Australia, the paper argues, should seriously consider a range of drastic options. These include to:

  • buy or lease from the United States 10-12 nuclear-powered attack submarines – even though Australia can barely man two of its six conventional subs, will struggle to put together its intended new fleet of 12 conventional boats, and harbors viscerally anti-nuclear public sentiment;
  • work with the U.S. to develop a “prompt global strike” capability such as conventionally-armed ballistic missiles;
  • develop a massive cyber-attack capability, involving large numbers of civilian reservists;
  • begin a long-term infiltration of Chinese society, and use this fifth column to severely disrupt the Chinese government in the event of a conflict;
  • plan ways to threaten the safety of Chinese leadership as a last resort in wartime;
  • reshape the army almost exclusively for long-range special forces missions;
  • and build a fleet of “arsenal” ships for conventional missile barrages – a concept considered and dismissed by Washington years ago.

To be fair, some of Babbage’s other proposals – such as increased U.S. access to Australian bases, or Australian involvement in U.S.-Japanese ballistic missile defense – are consonant with the way Canberra already seems to be moving.

In general, Canberra’s security community has – rightly – become more focused on the way China is changing Asia’s power balance, and what Australia and other U.S. allies and partners can realistically do to cope with this changing situation. The 2009 Defense White Paper, driven by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, planned for a substantial and costly expansion of Australia’s strategic weight against regional uncertainty, though it looks downright low-key and affordable alongside Babbage’s new maximalist wish-list.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Professor Babbage’s report either represents Australian policy or the way that policy is likely to develop, at least in the near term. And his assertions that Australian public opinion could readily be persuaded to support a massive, uncosted but no doubt expensive upgrade of firepower remain untested. It is true that Australians have traditionally been anxious about their unique strategic environment – a thinly-populated Western democracy at the edge of Asia – and have at times accepted defense budgets considerably higher than the current 1.9 percent of GDP.

But Australian tax dollars are set to come under increasing strain from a growing welfare burden as the population ages and infrastructure degrades, and nobody yet knows what the future policy trade-off between, say, submarines, hospitals and a national internet broadband network (far-flung Australia does not yet have one) will look like. Moreover, in the wake of devastating floods and bushfires, and with a government fixated on an “all-hazards” approach to national security, the prospects of a defense budget boost devoted exclusively to high-end warfighting remain distant.

Still, perceptions matter, and any false impression that the Babbage paper equals current Australian policy will have ripples in the region. If part of the strategy for dealing with a rising China is to try to minimize the paranoia in the policy debates within China – and those debates are intense and real – then provocative and public proposals for capabilities to sow civil strife and figuratively behead Beijing’s leadership could have precisely the wrong effect.

Admittedly, the Babbage paper also acknowledges, even advocates, the need for diplomacy, engagement and a stance of not seeking to confront China.  But these elements of the proposed strategy hardly seem to mesh with others. The Babbage report also rightly notes that a strategy to deal with rising Chinese power and assertiveness should involve security and diplomatic cooperation with multiple regional countries, from Japan to India to South Korea to Indonesia, not to mention Vietnam. After all, these states have every reason – indeed, perhaps more reason than Australia – to be troubled by their Chinese neighbor’s strength.

It follows – and this is a point the paper needlessly downplays – that in almost any conceivable scenario in which Canberra found its and Beijing’s security interests at odds, Australia would hardly be alone, even if for no other reason than the deep reliance of Japan and India on Australian resource exports.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Australian acquisition of supposedly game-changing offensive weapons could have all sorts of unintended side-effects, not least in the way Indonesia might see things; after all, military planners, we are told, have to look at capabilities, not intentions.

None of this is to say that Australia cannot or should not do more to support the United States and other partners in the region as they seek to balance China’s military modernization. Babbage rightly poses the question of how Australia should plug into the, as yet unrefined, concept of AirSea Battle, the Pentagon’s vision for countering Chinese anti-access capabilities in Taiwan and other Western Pacific contingencies – even if he starts from the intriguing assumption that such conflicts simply would not escalate to the nuclear level and might drag on, World War Two-style, for years.

The question of how to prevent China from becoming destabilizingly dominant in Asia, without generating fresh instability in the process, remains devilishly difficult for the United States and all its regional allies and partners. Of course doing nothing is not an option, and it is not impossible that some great future crisis might yet prompt Australia to put military priorities first. Ross Babbage has at one level done his country a favor by confronting policymakers with a limited menu of unpalatable choices. Some of the ideas – for instance, nuclear propulsion for submarines, enhanced U.S. access and logistics arrangements, and Australian cyber and space efforts – deserve a closer look.

But he did not intend his analytical grenade to be the last word, and we should not treat it as such.

Editor’s Note: This post will be cross-posted to the Lowy Institute’s excellent blog, the Interpreter.

Australian government photo, of a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18 in 20th anniversary livery, in the public domain.

2 comments for “The Debate Down Under, in Context

  1. Matt
    July 25, 2011 at 11:00

    The submarine they intend to build will be obsolete when it is still a blue print. If you say these vessels will come online in 2030. What will a conventional submarine in 2030 look like what sort of capabilities will a future submarine have. How are you going to deliver those capabilities. How can you get a conventional submarine to stay submerged for 74 days, (around the same amount of time as a nuclear vessel has supplies) how do you get the same performance and distance as a nuclear vessel no current conventional vessel can do that but a vessel of 2030 will be able to. What is the screw going to look like in 2030, how are going to deliver a shaft-less drive.

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