Australian Financial Review

Independent Posturing outside the US Alliance Would Endanger Australia

Senior Fellow
A Chinese Coast Guard ship sails near a Philippine vessel that was part of a convoy of civilian boats in the disputed South China Sea on December 10, 2023. (Photo by Ted Aljibe via Getty Images)
A Chinese Coast Guard ship sails near a Philippine vessel that was part of a convoy of civilian boats in the disputed South China Sea on December 10, 2023. (Photo by Ted Aljibe via Getty Images)

If the only tool you have is a hammer, then most things resemble a nail. This is the oft-quoted observation of the American psychologist Abraham Maslow regarding cognitive bias. Supposed bias is why some are sceptical of contemporary Australian strategic and defence policy.

The charge is that Australia is pursuing an overly militarised foreign policy based on alarmist assessments of the material threat China poses. This is leading to over-reliance on an American ally whose intentions and obligations owed to us are uncertain, and which comes at the expense of our ability to make independent sovereign decisions.

Gareth Evans canvassed some of these issues earlier in these pages and ended by suggesting that the national security community should put less faith in a militarised alliance and more in creative diplomacy in the region.

Let’s begin with the contention that the China military threat is exaggerated. Evans’ time as foreign minister ended in 1996; by then, China was a few years into the most rapid military build-up in peacetime history. Since then, Chinese defence spending each year has been around twice the pace of GDP growth.

To what end? Until the first decade of this century, most believed it was almost all about dissuading Taiwan from declaring independence. Is that all it’s about? Fortunately, Xi Jinping has eliminated much of the guesswork. He speaks about designs to not just prevent Taiwanese independence but to integrate it into the mainland, by force if needed.

Beyond Taiwan, he claims islands and maritime territory owned by Japan and virtually all the South China Sea. He is developing military capabilities for these purposes, including long-range strike weapons, and normalising the Chinese military presence and coercive activities in all these areas. Chinese strategic and military ambition doesn’t stop with Taiwan.

Australian strategic policy since 2017 is more nuanced than merely being an American lackey, as Chinese propagandists would have it.

Which means Chinese militarism requires a military response if we are to constrain or deter Beijing. Against a rapidly arming revisionist power, diplomacy is impotent without sufficient hard power behind it. When individuals centralise power and silence those around them, as Xi has done, it is prudent to believe him when he says that China will seek military, not just diplomatic or economic, pre-eminence in East Asia.

This provides context for a sensible Australian response. Let’s stick to the military and strategic elements.

It is true that our treaty with the US does not guarantee that it will come to our defence – just as we are not legally bound to join the US in any war. However, the most reliable currency in international politics is not legal obligation but national and geopolitical interest (including common values). The more important and integral we are to American regional objectives, the higher the likelihood the US will come to our aid.

Put differently, the more damaging Australia’s subjugation is to America’s interests, the more Washington will be prepared to sacrifice its own blood and treasure in our defence.

The determination is unavoidably a subjective one. Joe Biden, Nikki Haley and even Donald Trump will make the same kind of calculation even if they will have different thresholds of when the US ought to render assistance. What is clear is that Australia pursuing a far more independent posture based on self-reliance and minimal (or non-existing) commitments to the US makes us more vulnerable.

First, it greatly diminishes the prospects of the US coming to our defence and creates greater licence for countries like China to issue ever more serious threats against us. A similar logic applies to assessments of when and whether US extended nuclear deterrence covers weapons of mass destruction threats and attacks against Australia.

Second, moving away from an integrated military-industrial-technological base with the US severely limits what hard power we can develop or acquire for ourselves. It leads to greater impotence and isolation in strategic terms because a diminution in national hard power and lack of alignment with great powers such as the US and Japan makes one less relevant and more exposed in a region which pays homage to hard power.

The evidence is that much of East Asia doesn’t operate according to heroic or charitable principles. When China was imposing economically coercive measures against Australia, almost everyone was silent. The few advocating for our cause included the US and Japan. Intimidating Chinese provocations against  Philippine ships in the South China Sea are now commonplace. These same two countries have stood by Manila while South-East Asian neighbours, and ASEAN as an organisation, remain tight-lipped.

Would a more independent but less capable Australia really enhance our security or improve our ability to behave as a creative middle power in the region?

Inevitably, the sovereign decision to ask and receive more from the US will mean the latter might ask more from us. But this is no different from any meaningful alliance in history. The alternative is to bear the immediate and longer-term risks and costs to Australia of walking back the alliance or opting out altogether.

Australia’s strategic policy under the Turnbull, Morrison and Albanese governments is more nuanced than merely being an American lackey, as Chinese propagandists would have it, or more sophisticated than a “have hammer, see nail” approach. Not addressed here is whether we are adequately funding our defence forces, and whether creating thousands of unionised jobs in Australia in building our future nuclear-powered submarines is truly in the national interest. But that is a discussion for another time.

Read in Australian Financial Times.