Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update: no talk of war here

By Mike Scrafton | There is little to quarrel with in Hugh White’s assessment of the uncertainties in East Asia. His counsel to the government on the way forward for strategic policy, on the other hand, is less satisfactory.

To embark on a major expansion of Australia’s military forces is not the way to protect Australia. On the contrary, it is hard to see where engaging in war against China can result in anything but seriously adverse outcomes for Australia.

The way forward is harder than buying rockets. Australia will need to find a way to live peacefully in the Chinese behemoth’s backyard.

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Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne

Australia’s foreign policy: Resurgent realism or the survival of multilateralism?

By Mike Scrafton | Conceptual confusion in thinking about foreign policy is evident as the post World War II era’s structured international arrangements of durable institutions and agreed norms, – designed to facilitate peaceful dispute resolution and cooperation on security, economic and social matters between nations – is challenged by the United States and others.

The indeterminacy over whether a gradual transition from the rules-based order to a degree of anarchy is taking place is generating a certain dissonance in the speechmaking of leading Australian political figures.

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The Australia-India Strategic Partnership: ‘Shared values’ mask the real strategic purpose

By Mike Scrafton | The much-used phrase ‘shared values’ is regularly used as the basis for international relationships and alliances. It can be used to selectively point to values found in political, social or economic ideologies, or in religious or ethical systems – and to divert attention away from substantive issues or conjure up imaginary communities of interest. In the context of the Australia-India Strategic Partnership, does the use of the phrase mask the real strategic purpose of the agreement?

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Eyes wide open, or a blinkered view? The Australia-China relationship in the Antarctic

The recent report ‘Eyes Wide Open: Managing the Australia-China Antarctic Relationship’ contains a lot of information about China’s activities in Antarctica and usefully sets out aspects of the Chinese-Australian relationship.
But are the report’s recommendations a disproportionate reaction to a manufactured crisis regarding China’s presence and activities in Antarctica?

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Rising powers: grand strategies, balance of power and Australia

By Mike Scrafton | Grand strategies are the territory of great powers, while other states see their strategic independence incorporated into another state’s grand strategy. The comfort that Australia embraced while enclosed in an American grand strategy can’t last, and hard choices lie ahead. In the shifting power balance, Australia will need to recover its autonomy.

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Surviving and thriving in the 21st century: the harder reality of humanity’s road to the future

The report ‘Surviving and thriving in the 21st century’ from Australia’s Commission for the Human Future sets out clearly and with insight the major and inter-dependent challenges that will persist beyond the pandemic – including global warming, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, resource scarcity and wealth inequality. Action is vital, but how to respond seems as elusive as ever.

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The dogs of war cry wolf: the post-pandemic China threat

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings and Michael Shoebridge have recently written of a potential military crisis in North Asia, possibly as soon as late 2020 or early 2021.

Amongst other extraordinary measures, Shoebridge calls for the ANZUS Treaty to be invoked, while Jennings calls for the Australian Defence Force to be placed on the highest levels of readiness and for Australian defence expendture to be boosted to around 3.2% of GDP.

Are their conclusions supported by the evidence they proffer?

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Australia’s strategic quandary: political leadership and the abandonment of strategy

Strategy, the link between policy and the battlefield, is now more important than ever.

If there is another great power war, it will be imperative for the political leadership to be clear and definitive about their strategic goals and about what victory would look like – at a time when the range and technological complexity of the weapons systems involved will provide a major barrier to the level of understanding of civilian leaders.

Australia’s strategic quandary emerges from its status as an ally to a great power. If it abrogates its responsibility to set national policy aims by joining in a coalition in which one great power antagonist determines the goals of the war it cannot claim to have a strategy. It cannot claim to be linking Australia’s national priorities to the military actions. Its fate would be in the hands of its great power ally.

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A tale of two Americas: Australia’s foreign policy choices post-pandemic

Writing in ‘The Strategist’ (Australian Strategic Policy Institute), Michael Shoebridge rightly points out that how the US rebounds from the COVID-19 crisis will be important for international relations and Australia’s foreign policy.

But his arguments posit an excessively flattering picture of the US and an incomplete view of its history.

It is crucial that Australian foreign and strategic policy-makers have a realistic and unvarnished understanding of how the US might approach the post-pandemic world. For better or worse Australia is tightly bound with the US economically and strategically.

Following the US lead may prove to be the right course. However, good, clear-eyed policy in the post-COVID environment cannot be based uncritically on an illusion.

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Capability gaps: Mean dogs and submarines

A new Insight Economics report presents arguments for submarine capability that lean very heavily on a rather fuzzy concept; the capability gap.

Outdated terms-of-art are spread through defence policy unchallenged. They are so common, and have acquired such authority, that the need to define or explicate them is deemed unnecessary. They shut down arguments. However, terms like capability gap carry unexamined assumptions from a time when submarines, P3C-Orions, and minehunters were effective.

In relation to submarines, has the idea of a capability gap become redundant? And does it not seem odd to expect submarines to fill a capability gap in thirty plus years time?

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COVID-19: ‘Dirty hands’ and political leadership in a crisis

A moral crisis arises when the expected outcome of all choices will contravene a moral principle, a personal value, or a social norm. COVID-19 presents such a problem – choice between ethically unpalatable options.

Choosing a mitigation strategy over a suppression strategy strikes a particular balance between expected loss of life and maintaining economic activity. Accepting the real possibility of a greater loss of lives than otherwise might occur has a ‘dirty hands’ feel about it – an example of the challenge of ‘governing innocently’ in a crisis.

The broader lesson for leaders and institutions is the need to prepare themselves not only for rapid action but also for the opprobrium that will come from confronting moral dilemmas.
Governments will face many more unavoidable ‘dirty hands’ type decisions.

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Strategic strike, deterrence and the ghost of the F-111

Some confusion has emerged in Australian strategic thinking over ‘strategic strike’, where a threat to an adversary’s key war-making assets produces a deterrent effect, and ‘tactical strike’, where an effect is sought on the battlefield. The provenance of the concepts in Australian strategic thinking is closely tied to the acquisition of the F-111 fighter bombers…

It was the geostrategic situation that made the F-111s seem an effective strategic deterrent. Now, without the ability to threaten, degrade or destroy China’s essential war-making ability, there’s no strategic deterrence.

Strategic deterrence is a game for the nation with the preponderance of power and broad options.

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China & Australia: when to take the military option off the table

Is the adoption of an arguably irrational strategic policy based on fighting a war with China, either in the company of the US or alone, warranted?

To contrast China’s war potential with Australia’s capacity to mount a credible defence should persuade any rational Australian government to take the military option off the table.

And yet the rhetoric and defence investment planning from Canberra indicates strongly that involvement in a military conflict with China is still on the table. Absent is any explanation of how it is envisioned such a conflict would play out, how many lives could be lost, how much damage might result, and what might be achieved.

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What do the Chinese think of the United States-Australian alliance?

In similar articles appearing in The Australian newspaper and on The Strategist website, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Peter Jennings has lauded the Australian government’s decision to refurbish and expand the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Tindal as ‘a giant strategic step forward’ – a project that ‘will deliver a firmer deterrent posture and a closer alliance with the US’.

In these articles ASPI’s Executive Director seems to overstate the case. Does China view Australia’s defence alliance with the United States ‘with a mix of envy and puzzlement’, as he suggests? Or might it be more likely to look with bafflement on a small, physically distant country willing to openly plan on the assumption of fighting a war it cannot influence against a state crucial to its economic prosperity?

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The warning that wasn’t: Robert Gottliebsen’s warning to the Australian nation on the Future Submarines

Robert Gottliebsen has found ‘a clear warning to the Australian nation’ (‘The Australian’ 12 Feb 2020) in the Naval Shipbuilding Advisory Board (NSAB)’s recommendations. Gottliebsen construes the NSAB’s advice as a warning to the ‘nation of the risks’ which ‘may even ultimately put the alliance at risk’. He suggests that the NSAB is alluding to the possibility that the US will find a way to give Australia a combat system that is old technology.

In this article Mike questions whether Gottliebsen is right to see the NSAB’s advice as anything other than unremarkable and standard, and whether there is reason to think that the US would refuse to supply a suitable combat system. Finally, in light of the ANAO Report’s findings, Mike challenges the contention that there is evidence that Defence is not managing the project risks effectively.

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A critique of Australia’s SEA1000 Future Submarine project – from the outside

How did the Australian government decide to approve the SEA1000 project? That these decisions and the supporting background strategic analysis and assessments are always hidden from wider view by secrecy classifications and need-to-know protocols must be accepted, as must the reality that pragmatic consideration will be given to other important matters like alliance and industry policy. Still, how did SEA1000 happen?
The decision doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has a ‘replacement mentality’ disproportionately affected the decision? Perhaps combined with a shift in influence within goverment in favour of the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF)?

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COP25 Official Photo 2019

Democracy & ignorance: climate deniers and climate believers

It may be unrealistic to expect the normal citizen to become an expert on climate change, but excuses don’t wash for politicians – they should be well-informed, and government policies should be firmly-rooted in the best evidence and science.

Failed policies based on marketing undermine our political institutions, and Australian Prime Minister Morrison’s 29 January 2020 address to the National Press Club doesn’t cut it.

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Australia’s ‘future submarines’ & future war

Australia’s SEA1000 Future Submarine project is back in the news following a 60% increase in the project’s cost to AUD 80 billion, and a report by the Australian National Audit Office that identified flaws in the acquisition process Mike asks the broader question of the strategic assessment that underpins an investment of this magnitude over an extended, 30-year timeframe. What sort of capability will be produced by the project, and what sort of conflict would the capability serve?

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Australia must adapt to a new climate reality

The future international environment is now coming into focus. It doesn’t look promising. Government approaches to defence and human security will need to undergo a radical reassessment if they are to ameliorate the adverse effects. Global warming and population growth will be the weft and warp.

Responding to recent suggestions regarding the development of a greater capacity for government to respond to climate-related events, this article suggests that dealing with the impacts of global warming must not become sidelined by narrowly defining it as a national security issue.

Instead, advisors and governments need a greater capability to understand global warming science and to effectively translate it into institutions, actions and public understanding.

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Australia-China relations and the logic of conventional deterrence

To think Australia’s military strength is ever going to be sufficient to deter China from attacking is a fantasy. Rather, the need is for Australia to avoid situations in which it is likely to be confronted by overwhelming military force – a project that requires hard and continuous diplomatic work in building up shared understandings, channels of communications and robust relationships.

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