Strategic mirror: Pentagon’s China report reveals converging power and strategy

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on military and security developments in China describes an already formidable military capability, and China’s intention that its military strength will achieve parity with the US by 2049. Ironically, the report unintentionally reveals that China’s major strategic objectives mirror those of the US, past and present. Additionally, the report provides evidence that Australia’s increasing investment in Defence is no substitute for diplomacy.

Read more

A bigger canvas: Russia, China and Australia’s strategic policy

The proximity and size of China, and the belligerence of the US toward China, has occluded the view of Russia among Australia strategic planners. While Russia poses no credible direct threat to Australia, it could be a key player in a conflict between the US and China. Once Russia is factored into the analysis of the situation in East Asia, the global consequences of a war are magnified and the recklessness of contemplating participating in such a conflict becomes even clearer.

Read more

Today’s risks and the history of war: recognising the unknowable

Is a great power war in prospect? The study of war provides insights into the preconditions for conflict and an awareness of the unpredictable nature of war. It shows that great power wars can be as unpredictable as they are transformational. The winners are hidden from sight at the inception, and the losers risk everything. If Australian leaders assume they could come out unscathed on the winning side of an East Asian war they are taking a huge gamble on behalf of Australian citizens.

Read more

Australian strategic policy: why we need a robust public debate

Only a select group of voices is heard most often and most loudly on the subject of Australia’s strategic policy. This creates a false sense of certainty around what is a speculative and inexact policy area. The policy choices, and the connection between strategic policy and force structure, deserve to be intensively examined and validated through public debate – not least of all because the opportunity cost of defence investment is huge.

Read more

AUSMIN 2020: confirmation of Australia’s abandonment of strategic autonomy?

Australians should not take comfort from recent government statements around the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations – claims that Australia makes its own decisions, its own judgments, in the Australian national interest, in order to uphold Australia’s security, prosperity and values. Reassuring words are the slippery province of diplomacy. Strategic policy is founded in force structure and force posture.

Read more

The rationale for Australia’s 2020 Force Structure Plan: A 2040 war?

There is a mismatch between the urgent need to respond to the supposed recent deterioration in Australia’s strategic circumstances, and Australia’s recently-released 2020 Force Structure Plan.

It is highly improbable that many, or most, of the investments proposed in the Plan will be delivered on time and within cost. Ministers and defence planners know this. But bringing capabilities into the ADF inventory within the next 20 years doesn’t seem to be the priority for government, despite the apparent deterioration in the strategic environment.

Read more

A replay of the 1930s: Fact or fearmongering?

Announcing the strategic shift proposed by Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Prime Minister Morrison compares the current strategic environment to “the existential threat we faced when the global and regional order collapsed in the 1930s and 1940s”.

Arguing from historical analogy is a dubious business. But if the Prime Minister believes current global circumstances are comparable to those that preceded the Second World War, the response in the Strategic Update is inadequate. If he doesn’t, his references amount to fear-mongering.

Read more

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

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.

Read more
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne

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

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.

Read more

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

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?

Read more

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?

Read more

Rising powers: grand strategies, balance of power and Australia

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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?

Read more

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.

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.

Read more

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 better or worse Australia is tightly bound with the US economically and strategically.

But Shoebridge’s arguments posit an excessively flattering picture of the US and an incomplete view of its history – at a time when 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.

Read more

Capability gaps: Mean dogs and submarines

A March 2020 Insight Economics report presents arguments for a submarine capability that lean very heavily on a rather fuzzy concept; the ‘capability gap’.

Outdated terms-of-art are common and unchallenged in defence policy, they require no explanation and have acquired the authority to shut down arguments. But in reality, terms like ‘capability gap’ carry unexamined assumptions from a different time.

In the current strategic environment, 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?

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more

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.

Read more