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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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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Strategic rivalry between United States and China: causes, trajectories, and implications (SWP)

A comprehensive and insightful paper that looks at the various dimensions of the rivalry between the United States and China.

Australia, already caught up in the global competition for influence, is likely to be subject to ‘increased pressure from Washington on its allies to take a clear position on the sharpening US-China conflict and clearly side with the United States’.

The paper seeks a strategy for Europe ‘to escape the bipolar logic that demands it choose between the American and Chinese economic/technological spheres’ – but the recommendations for Europe should resonate equally with Australian policy-makers and strategic thinkers.

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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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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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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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Traps, Trump and Thucydides: challenging Allison’s concept of a ‘Thucydides’ Trap’

In his book ‘Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap’? Harvard academic Graham Allison finds in Thucydides’ ‘The History of the Peloponnesian War’, some near universal law of international relations where war between established and rising great powers is close to inevitable – the ‘Thucydides’ Trap’. In this article, Mike argues that Thucydides may be read as exposing a different trap to the one that Allison finds.

The trap lies in the illusion that the contingent circumstances that enable one state to become a hegemon are a reflection of some inherent superiority of the nation and its people rather than being inadvertent and transitory. It is in the mistake of not realising that exercising power without moral underpinnings leads to disaster not victory. And crucially, the trap is in allowing emotion to override common sense because of flattering populist rhetoric and exhortations to nationalism and exceptionalism.

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