Australia’s modern history has been defined by our national pursuit of peace, power, and stability in our isolated part of the world, often deferring to great powers. But for some Australian strategic policy thinkers, this isn’t the best way to get bang for buck.
Australia, like many nations around the world, is at the edge of a precipice of immense economic, political, and strategic change.
The post-Second World War order, established in the dying days of the war and formalised with the Bretton Woods Conference and the formation of the United Nations, set the stage for the period of stability, prosperity, and growth which transformed the world despite periods of tumult.
In putting an end to the often-ancient rivalries between varying imperial powers, the United States, through its post-war might, guaranteed the freedom of the seas and promoted an explosion of free trade across the globe, paving the way for the modern, interconnected global economy and period of innovation we enjoy today.
Through this might, both conventional in its strategic arsenal, the United States established what has become known as a “strategic umbrella” where for greater input into their ally’s security policy and easier access to their markets, the United States would do the heavy lifting on the global geostrategic stage.
Australia, alongside nations including the United Kingdom, Canada, across Western Europe, and parts of north Asia, in particular, have served as the major beneficiaries of this new globalised world and radically new approach, ironed out at the Bretton Woods Conference, and then more drastically implemented through policies like the Marshall Plan, to reconstruct Europe following the devastation of the Second World War – this golden era of the Pax Americana is now coming to an end.
After all, this recognition forms the foundation of both the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the recently released Defence Strategic Review which establishes a number of key factors shaping the development and implementation of “National Defence” and the resulting creation of a “Focused Force” to reshape the nation in the era of great power competition.
The Defence Strategic Review details: “Australia’s region, the Indo-Pacific, faces increasing competition that operates on multiple levels – economic, military, strategic, and diplomatic – all interwoven and all framed by an intense contest of values and narratives. A large-scale conventional and non-conventional military build-up without strategic reassurance is contributing to the most challenging circumstances in our region for decades. Combined with rising tensions and reduced warning time for conflict, the risks of military escalation or miscalculation are rising.
“In this environment, we must sharpen our focus on what our interests are, and how to uphold them. Our focus needs to be on: how we ensure our fate is not determined by others; how we ensure our decisions are our own; and how we protect our way of life, our prosperity, our institutions and our economy,” the review articulates.
It can now be safely said that the foundational assumptions of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Defence Strategic Review, like virtually every Defence White Paper, have their foundation in two separate doctrines, the first being the post-Second World War doctrine of Forward Defence and the 1987 Paul Dibb-authored Defence White Paper, titled Defence of Australia.
With this new reality in mind, Defence Connect spoke with Sam Roggeveen – Lowy Institute director of the International Security Program and author of Our Very Own Brexit: Australia’s Hollow Politics and Where it Could Lead Us – to discuss his latest book, The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace, the basis for its central thesis, the implications for Australia’s defence posture and force structure as the nation seeks power and peace in the era of great power competition.
Defence Connect: Sam, thank you for joining us. Your new book, The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace, comes at an interesting time in Australia’s debate about our oscillating defence doctrine, what was the genesis of this new book?
Sam Roggeveen: Thanks for the invitation to join you and discuss this complex subject.
I think it came out of a frustration with the state of Australia’s security debate. I felt that there were elements of danger and a sense of threat in the Australian debate that I wasn’t seeing in quite the same way.
I did feel that there was sort of an element of close analysis missing from those who felt that the danger from China was overwhelming and that therefore Australia needed to pull ever closer to the United States and of course has done so under AUKUS. AUKUS happened while I started drafting this book.
I think has reinforced many of the conclusions that I drew, many of the fears that I have about Australia drawing ever more, more close to the United States in its efforts to secure itself against the risks of a rising China.
Defence Connect: How do you see The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace fitting within the historic framing of Australia’s defence posture and doctrine as it has been since the end of the Second World War?
Sam Roggeveen: The typical way to divide the Australian debate is between “Forward Defence” and the “Defence of Australia” school.
I put myself firmly in the “Defence of Australia” school, so I would argue that the primary goal of the Australian Defence Force and of Australian defence policy should be to defend the Australian continent against military threats.
Further to this, I would say the broader role that many have argued for, that of Australian defence policy shaping the regional order, I disagree with this. For me, that is one area that really ought to be one for statecraft primarily rather than for defence policy.
Those who read the early chapters of the book will notice a lot of similarity with Hugh White.
So I do, for instance, I do more or less embrace the argument that he made, which is that American power is going to decline and therefore we’re making a mistake to pin our security on the assumption that the United States will remain indefinitely the leading power in this region and most of all that it will maintain the motivation to be a leading power in Asia.
So it’s not so much a question of America being powerful because it’s got all the ingredients to have, you know, a very bright future despite its current political trials.
America’s a very young population, it’s got a continent to itself. Economic fundamentals are pretty sound. America will remain very large and very powerful for a long time. But is it motivated to be the leading strategic power in Asia?
Defence Connect: That is an interesting question to ask and one that frames a lot of Australia’s strategic insecurity and corresponding policy, what are your thoughts on the continuing engagement of the US in Asia?
Sam Roggeveen: Like Hugh White, I come down the side of ultimately, no. The United States will not be motivated to withstand a challenge from China, largely because America will be a very secure country, even if it doesn’t resist that change.
China can become a leading power in Asia, and it wouldn’t affect materially America’s own security. Therefore, I think as allies, we have to ask ourselves, well, would the United States be prepared to make major sacrifices on our behalf?
That means, if the answer is no, as I think it should be, then we have to do much more of it for ourselves.
Defence Connect: What does that “doing more of it for ourselves” look like to you?
Sam Roggeveen: Well, I have heard the argument made, for instance, that AUKUS is not so much an attempt to keep America engaged in the region, but an insurance policy in case it isn’t engaged in the region.
Now, if you ask me, that seems like a strange way to insure ourselves against the risk that the United States will become a waning power in the region. I can think of much more cost-effective ways to do that.
So that strikes me as an ex post facto argument that’s been made because AUKUS is now the law of the land as it were. So it’s something that’s been bolted on subsequently rather than an argument that would have been persuasive before AUKUS was announced.
I tend to think there is still a little bit too much faith placed in the United States as our ultimate security guarantor.
It’s very difficult to project power over the oceans, much more difficult than it was for Japan in the Second World War, for instance. So if we had modern anti-ship missiles in World War II, then the kind of offensive that the Imperial Japan sprang in 1941 would have been impossible. So, you know, it makes for an era in which even middle-sized powers like Australia can resist great powers.
So that’s why I say for Australia, the future lies not in long range power projection as we’re now proposing with the AUKUS submarines in particular, but with defending Australia closer towards borders. Australia’s single biggest defence asset is distance.
If China wants to project military power towards Australia, then I say let them come to us and then we can use highly sophisticated, but not particularly expensive anti-ship weapons and anti-air weapons to protect our air and maritime approaches.
I think we can do that quite successfully on our own. Ideally, we would do it with Indonesia’s cooperation. And that’s why the book makes an argument for a much stronger and more ambitious security partnership with Indonesia.
You can find the full podcast with Sam Roggeveen, the Lowy Institute’s director of the International Security Program and author of Our Very Own Brexit: Australia’s Hollow Politics and Where it Could Lead Us, and his latest book, The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace here.