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Australia's Regional Security: Keeping our balance

Address to the University of Newcastle Asia Pacific Research Centre and Newcastle Institute, Newcastle, 6 December 2023

Although there has been some very welcome lowering of the immediate temperature between the US and China, and Australia and China, in recent weeks, with the Xi-Biden meeting in San Francisco, and the Xi-Albanese dialogue in Beijing, the reality is that Australia’s Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific regional security environment continues to be more fragile and volatile than it has been for a long time. And the primary dynamic making it so is the intensity of the strategic competition between Washington and Beijing. Navigating a course between the two neighborhood giants in the years ahead will continue to be the most formidable international challenge faced by Australia, and indeed most of the other countries in our region.

For Australia, keeping our balance as we walk a tightrope between China and the United States is not an enterprise for the diplomatically or politically faint-hearted. The stakes could hardly be higher. We are hugely economically dependent on trade with China. We are highly vulnerable in security terms if drawn into any outright conflict with it, not least over Taiwan. We are increasingly enmeshed in, and dependent upon, our alliance relationship with America, and will become even more so with the AUKUS program, but it is an alliance the longevity and protective value of which, particularly in the age of Trump, no longer can be assumed. And we have a domestic environment where these issues are increasingly salient, and have assumed an increasingly ideological and potentially divisive cast – not least for the 1.4 million Australians with Chinese ancestry whose political voice is increasingly being heard.

There has never been a greater need, under these circumstances, for informed, rational and measured debate about how we can best position ourselves to meet these challenges. And never a greater need, in my judgment, for that debate to result in a broadly bipartisan and nationally united policy response, one that is both principled and practical. But the reality is that we are further away than we should be from meeting both those objectives. While there is a measure of agreement among Australian policymakers and those who influence them about the severity of the regional security challenges that we will face in the years ahead and how we should respond to them, some significant divisions – not all of them healthy or productive – persist between Government and Opposition, within the wider think tank, academic and media policy community, and to some extent within the Government itself.

They relate above all to the extent and imminence of the security threat posed by China under Xi Jinping; to the wisdom of further deepening Australia’s alliance dependence on the United States; and to how we should be prioritizing our defence preparedness. These are all issues of great complexity, and of course there will always be room for sincere differences of opinion in addressing them. But this is not a time for ideological rather than evidence-based analysis and argument. And above all it is not a time for crude political point scoring. There has been too much of both. The issues are too important for that, and the stakes just too high.

Not all is discord. There are concerns about both China and the US which are broadly shared across the Australian policy community, and indeed across most of our wider region. In the case of China, they extend to its international law-defying territorial ambition in, and militarization of, the South China Sea, with its “9-dash line” this year expanded to 10; its repeatedly stated determination to unify Taiwan with the mainland, not excluding the use of force, in a context where its repressive actions in Hong Kong have made reunification on a "one country, two systems" basis a nonstarter; its continued assertiveness on other territorial fronts with Japan and India; its efforts to increase its presence and influence in smaller but strategically significant regional players, including the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste; its willingness to apply economic coercion, and its general economic nationalism; and its transition from a bystander to regular spoiler role in the United Nations Security Council and other multilateral contexts. Above all, there is anxiety – compounded by Beijing’s manifest determination to upset the status quo both regionally and globally – about the very significant expansion and modernization of its military, including nuclear, capability.

In the case of the United States, the increasingly alarming vagaries of its domestic politics, with the re-election of Trump no longer unthinkable, have created concerns across the board – not entirely confined to Washington’s allies and partners – about its will and capacity to stay the course in its long self-appointed role as regional security stabilizer and balancer, particularly given its distractions elsewhere with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and now again in the Middle East. There is also concern about its retreat from the open trading policies that have contributed so much to the region’s economic prosperity, and consequent stability. Anxieties about US reliability have particular resonance in the context of North East Asia, where North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and engage in other military provocations in ways that alarm both South Korea and Japan.

The problem with the regional flashpoints everyone has identified – those with a US-China dimension that I have already mentioned, but others as well like the old perennial of India-Pakistan – is that nations can sleep-walk into war, even when rational, objective self-interest on all sides cries out against it. Bellicose nationalist rhetoric, designed mainly for domestic political consumption, can generate over-reactions elsewhere. Small provocations, economic or otherwise, can generate an escalating cycle of larger reactions. Precautionary defence spending can escalate into a full-blown arms race. With more nervous fingers on more triggers, small incidents can rapidly escalate into major crises. And major crises can explode into all-out war – creating, in this nuclear age, existential risks not only for its participants but life on this planet as we know it.

All these shared concerns translate into a degree of agreement – but only a degree – across the Australian policy community as to what our defence and foreign policy response should be.

First, there is a general recognition that Australia will need – whatever the state of our US alliance – to spend more on building our own military self-reliance, accepting that defence preparedness should be governed by potential adversaries’ capability rather than their perceived hostile intent. But how much more, and on what assets, remains contested. No-one seems to doubt the need for the Australian defence porcupine (or, in our case, echidna) to have more and sharper quills. But there is still a real issue as to just how long and strong and unequivocally self-managed some of those quills really need to be – above all the nuclear-powered submarines promised by AUKUS. And there is still plenty of scepticism – historically well-founded – as to whether we are really prepared to pay for needed new capability, and able to deliver it with any timeliness.

Second, it is broadly uncontested that we need to spend more diplomatic time and attention consolidating, building, or rebuilding as the case may be, bilateral relationships around the region with key regional neighbours, especially Indonesia, but also Vietnam, our FPDA partners Malaysia and Singapore, and Japan, South Korea and India. And also in the Pacific, where the previous Coalition Government’s largely denialist climate policy has been a significant turn-off for our island friends in recent years. New Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and particularly Foreign Minister Penny Wong, have received deserved praise for their sustained personal engagement in this respect, not least for the decision to give the population of Tuvalu refuge from the impact of sea-rise.

Third, although it has its critics on the fringes, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – bringing together the US, Japan, India and Australia – continues, since its revival in 2017, to command quite strong support across the Australian security policy community, albeit more for its optics than any real military substance, joint naval exercises notwithstanding. While the Quad is unlikely to evolve into a fully-fledged military alliance, not least because of India’s inhibitions about so positioning itself, the new grouping has great combined military clout, and simply by its existence sends a very clear signal to Beijing that any significant further adventurism in the region may be met by a more muscular and united push-back than it would like. Recent moves to give the Quad a greater non-military focus, with cooperative initiatives on health security, clean energy, regional connectivity and the like, should contribute usefully to its longevity.

But as encouraging as all this more or less common ground may be, the reality is that there remains in Australia much that is highly contested within the security policy community, going to the three quite fundamental issues of how we should we positioning ourselves diplomatically in relation, respectively, to China and the United States and, in that context, what form our defence positioning should take.

In each case the division can be broadly – albeit crudely, because of course there are exceptions in both camps – described this way. On one side, there is the defence and intelligence community and those think-tanks and media who sail with it – above all the largely Defence-funded Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the Murdoch press almost in its entirety, and a strident section of the Nine media empire – who tend to a pessimistic view of the threat environment and a disposition to approach most problem-solving through a primarily military lens. On the other side, there is the foreign policy constellation of current and former diplomats, and academic, think-tank and media analysts and commentators (including me), who tend to be more optimistic about the possibility of peaceful solutions and more willing to champion diplomacy, dialogue and cooperation as the path to them.

This divide remains very pronounced in the case of China. Since the change of government, Prime Minister Albanese and Foreign Minister Wong have been keen to downplay talk, all too common talk under their predecessors, about “drums of war” beating. Wong’s speech to the National Press Club in April 2023 clearly spelt out the new tone when she said that we should “not waste energy with shock or outrage” at China using its great and growing strength and international influence to advance its national interests, but rather “cooperate where we can, disagree where we must, [and] manage our differences wisely”. And Albanese has made clear in multiple statements through the course of the year – including at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, the East Asian Summit and the G20 meeting – his own strong commitment in this context to dialogue and diplomacy, to cooperation rather than confrontation. All that bore fruit (helped by a weakening in the Chinese economy inclining it to be more accommodating) in the resumption of bilateral relations formalised by Albanese’s visit to Beijing in November 2023 to mark the 50th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s ice-breaking.

But that softer tone, for all its obvious rewards, has not found much favour with many in the defence and intelligence community, who continue to fulminate privately, and occasionally publicly (as with Defence Industry Minister Conroy raging against “appeasers” in the context of the AUKUS debate at the ALP National Conference in August 2023, and ASIO head Mike Burgess in October 2023 blasting Chinese intellectual property theft as the worst “in human history”) about the scale of China’s military buildup, the imminence of the military threat it poses to Taiwan, the reality of its determination to build Pacific bases potentially threatening Australia, the state-capture risks of its Belt and Road Initiative, the perfidy of its industrial espionage, and the alarming extent of its influence operations, not least within its now very large Australian diaspora.

All this is regularly fuelled by alarmist statements from the Coalition opposition, who have made a meal, historically, of claiming Labor to be soft on communism and weak on defence. Its home affairs spokesman was quick to claim that Albanese’s Beijing visit, for all its evident success in stabilizing bilateral relations, had not “fundamentally changed anything underneath the surface” Tension within the government is well contained for now, but remains capable of boiling up at any time.

Tension is also present, and not going away, on the question of Australia’s relationship with the United States. There is no serious inclination anywhere to walk away from the ANZUS alliance, with a general recognition of the benefits we continue to derive from access to intelligence, high-end weaponry and technology (with the second tranche of AUKUS, going to cooperation on AI, electronic warfare, hypersonic and underwater capabilities and the like, seen as particularly significant in this respect). There is also the deterrent utility of the prospect – not guaranteed, but not to be ignored – of the US coming to our defence if attacked. But beyond that the ground is indeed contested.

There are those who are true believers in the moral exceptionalism of the United States, the indispensability of its continued economic and military primacy in maintaining both global and regional peace and good order, and the certainty of its military commitment to Australia’s defence, and who are prepared to follow it down almost any path it should take. But there are many in the Australian security policy community who are much more sceptical on all these fronts. And there are those who strive to keep a foot in both camps. While the Coalition parties remain more or less unanimous true believers, pretty much the full response spectrum is evident within the Albanese Government. Defence Minister Richard Marles is closest to a true believer. Prime Minister Albanese, while comfortable enough talking Washington talk – not least on state visits, like that he very seamlessly carried out last month – is an instinctive straddler. And Foreign Minister Penny Wong, while always cautious, is more inclined to scepticism, particularly on the attractions of continued US primacy, being very explicit in her April 2023 National Press Club speech about Australia’s national interest lying, above all, in our living in a multipolar region, one “where no country dominates, and no country is dominated … and all countries benefit from strategic equilibrium”.

A cutting-edge issue – though one on which the commentariat is much more inclined to be frank than any politician – is whether the US will really feel obliged to rush to our military defence if we are ever seriously threatened, or only do so if its own national interests are also directly at stake. There is a particularly strong case for scepticism in the case of our reliance not just on US extended deterrence, but extended nuclear deterrence: it defies credibility to think that Washington would risk losing Los Angeles to save Sydney, or for that matter Seoul or Tokyo. And scepticism on all these fronts will certainly accelerate in the unhappy event of Donald Trump, who clearly regards allies as encumbrances more than assets, regaining the presidency.

One context in which alliance-related tension could clearly explode is if China were to attack Taiwan. This is not inconceivable, although much of the current speculation about Beijing taking military advantage of Washington’s preoccupation with Russia in Ukraine, and now again the Middle East, seems to me wildly overdrawn. China’s long-term ambition to regain Taiwan is clear, but the downside risks of taking precipitate and unprovoked strike action – for both its internal prosperity and stability, and its wider international reputation – would seem to outweigh any possible rewards. That said, the prospect of an invasion – however remote – will continue to divide Australian opinion. Peter Dutton – then Coalition Defence Minister and now Opposition leader – said in 2021 that it was “inconceivable that we wouldn’t support the US” in any military action it chose to take. Defence Minister Marles made clear his own view in October 2023 that Australia “cannot be a passive bystander in the event of war”.

But there is a strong view within a large section of the ALP that if it did come to a fight, and one unprovoked by Taiwan, while it would be a tough call not to join in the defence of a fellow thriving democracy, that siren call should be resisted. The argument is that Taiwan has always been a special case, its sovereignty never recognised internationally in the same way as Kuwait’s or Ukraine’s, and that Australia has little or no capacity to influence the outcome, but a great capacity to suffer if drawn into war at any level.

The biggest defence issue of all currently testing the solidarity of the Australian security policy community, and likely to do so for years to come, is the desirability, and credibility, of Australia acquiring a fleet of eight or more nuclear propelled submarines, under the AUKUS agreement with the United States and United Kingdom. Signed by the Morrison Coalition Government in 2021, and embraced without any evident reluctance by the Albanese Government in 2022, the merits of that agreement have come under fire domestically for three main reasons.

The first, which also has had some international buy-in in the neighborhood and beyond, goes to its implications for nuclear non-proliferation, and is the most easily answerable. The boats will not be nuclear- armed; their propulsion units will be lifetime-sealed, requiring no refueling or any Australian production of possibly divertible fissile material; and IAEA negotiations to establish effective new safeguards protocols seem close to conclusion.

A much more compelling domestic criticism goes to the cost-benefit equation, taking into account to the eye-watering estimated cost of up to $A368 billion over the next 30 years of the proposed SSN program, the gravity defying delivery timetable (the early 2030s for the first US boat, a decade later for the first new jointly designed and built boat, and sometime in the 2050s for the last… if all goes to plan). Are these boats, for all the undeniable advantages over conventionally powered boats they bring in range, speed, endurance underwater, firepower and (for now, anyway) undetectability, really the optimal choice for Australia’s defence needs? Would not we be better served by spending the same or less money on getting, much sooner, a much larger fleet of conventional boats, many more of which could be simultaneously at sea, and which may well – with expected advances in detection capability over the next few decades – be no more vulnerable than the SSNs?

If the role of the AUKUS boats is to be a useful, albeit numerically marginal, add-on to US underwater capability in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, they can no doubt play that part well. But if their primary purpose is to protect continental Australia, and our Indo-Pacific sea-lanes and communication systems, from attack, could we not be as well or better served by a larger, much earlier deployed, conventional fleet? How much value is really added, here as elsewhere, by moving from a posture of defence of our continent and archipelagic surrounds to one of distant forward defence? These questions remain basically unanswered.

The remaining big concern about the merits of the AUKUS project, and the one that worries me most of all, is whether by so comprehensively further yoking ourselves to such extraordinarily sophisticated and sensitive US military technology, Australia has for all practical purposes abandoned our capacity for independent sovereign judgement. Not only as to how we use this new capability, but in how we respond to future US calls for military support. The official response is that an Australian flag means just that, and that we will retain complete operational independence in the use of these boats, whatever the context. But my own experience as Foreign Minister tells me that is not quite the way the world – and American pressure – works.

These criticisms going to the desirability of the AUKUS submarine program may well be subsumed by rapidly growing concerns about its basic credibility. There has to be real doubt as to whether the US Congress, in its present mood, will ever support the sale of three – let alone a possible five – Vanguard submarines to Australia or anyone else. And, given the history of all three countries in meeting design-and-build targets for complex new defence assets – and there are few, if any. more complex than nuclear submarines – anyone who thinks the second phase of this project has any more chance of proceeding smoothly to completion has not been concentrating. And the unhappy reality is that if the whole AUKUS project falls over, as it well might in the next year or two, we have no obvious fallback Plan B.

Such, many of us would argue, are the consequences of allowing essentially free rein in security policymaking to hardliners in the defence and intelligence community, as has essentially been the case in Australia for most of the last three decades. Many of us are hoping that diplomacy will – as the Albanese Government has signalled by its early actions – no longer be confined to a second fiddle role, that the kind of extraordinarily productive cooperative relationship between Defence, Foreign Affairs and the intelligence agencies that existed for most of the Hawke-Keating Government years can be recreated, and that Australia will again play the creative and constructive middle power role we have in past on both regional and global security issues.

The basic objective of that diplomacy must be to urge upon both China and the US the need to exercise restraint, and to embrace and sustain over time the spirit of détente which, at least for a decade in the 1960s to 70s, dramatically thawed relations between the US and Soviet Union. From China, further restraint is unquestionably required. It has stepped back in recent times from the most strident manifestations of its wolf warrior diplomacy, hostage diplomacy and aggressive trade restrictions – obviously having found a lot of this unproductive or counterproductive, and certainly unhelpful in the context of its weakening domestic economy– but still has a lot of ground to make up.

From the United States, the restraint needed is, above all, to step back from demanding recognition of its continued primacy both regionally and globally, with Washington now seeing just about every arena as zero-sum struggle for dominance. The inability of leaders right across the political spectrum to (at least in public) conceptualise the US’s role in terms other than the ‘p’ words – primacy, predominance, pre-eminence – makes for continuing real, and potentially acute, tensions. The wisest response I have heard from an American leader in this respect was from Bill Clinton at a private, off-the-record event in which I participated in California in 2002, two years after he left the presidency. He said then that the right choice for America was to use its great and (then) unrivalled military power not “to try to stay top dog on the global block in perpetuity”, but rather “to create a world in which we will be comfortable living when we are no longer top dog on the global block”. But that language has never to my knowledge been repeated publicly by him or anyone else in high US office: it’s just seen, domestically, as too politically toxic.

The influence of middle powers like Australia should not be exaggerated: some issues will always be above our paygrade. But nor should our voices be dismissed as irrelevant. Australia has played an important role in the past in energising solutions to apparently intractable regional and global problems like achieving peace in Cambodia, outlawing chemical weapons and banning mining and exploration in the Antarctic. It is also the case that we and others like us have gone missing on some issues where our voices really could have made a difference, for example in reinforcing rather than undermining the willingness of Presidents Obama and Biden to adopt a posture in relation to nuclear weapons of ‘No First Use’.

I think we do have an important role, in the present regional security context, in emphasising, over and again, the crucial importance of approaching every divisive issue not with a confrontational but a cooperative security mindset - that approach which focuses on finding security with others, not against them; on confidence-building strategies; on seeing security as multidimensional, with many economic and social as well as military and other hard-edged traditional components; and above all on building habits of dialogue, consultation and cooperation between nations.

It is not a matter of holding back on the tough messages that need to be delivered: we should never be Beijing’s patsy, and nor should we be Washington’s. But it is a matter of practising restraint and balance in the way we conduct all our relationships, and encouraging others to do the same. That way lies not only the prospect of a sunny future for Australia-China economic relations, but a safer, saner and more prosperous region, and world, for us all.