Many Australians are still hoping America will come to our aid in a stand-off with a country like China but one expert believes we could be left on our own.
The book How to Defend Australia provides a disturbing reality check about China’s growing power and an acknowledgment of the challenges Australia faces as China seeks to take its place as the dominant player in East Asia.
Written by Professor Hugh White, a former senior official in the Department of Defence, and senior adviser to former defence minister Kim Beazley and prime minister Bob Hawke, it urges Australians to consider the risks emerging in the region and how to prepare for a very different future.
“There is still a deep reluctance among political leaders of both sides of politics to really acknowledge the seriousness of the situation,” Prof White told news.com.au.
Prof White’s book was released in July and provided a blunt assessment of the strategic risks Australia faces in the region and how it could build up the military to protect itself without relying on America.
It hoped to spark a rethink of Australia’s defence policy, recognising that things have changed and that America’s dominance in East Asia will likely diminish in the future and leave Australia to defend itself.
But Prof White said many people still seemed to be clinging to the idea that Australia didn’t have to choose between China and the US.
“A lot argue that we would be mad to abandon the US alliance and I agree but what if they abandon us?” the professor of strategic studies at Australian National University said.
“Neither side of politics is taking China’s challenge seriously and even if they do, they are saying we should cling more tightly to the US.
“My argument is I don’t think US support is a durable solution,” he said. “I think it’s likely the US will eventually withdraw from Asia, which is why I’m sceptical of (US Secretary of State) Mike Pompeo saying the US will push back”.
Mr Pompeo was in Australia earlier this month and confirmed America’s commitment to the region.
“Let me be clear — the United States is a Pacific nation. We care deeply about what happens here and we’re here to stay,” he told reporters.
“We think of this as an unbreakable relationship — grounded in our shared values of democracy, the rule of law and human rights.”
Despite the strong words, Prof White said the US was not doing anything to push back.
“Saying it isn’t doing it,” he said. “We need to think about how Australia can stand up for itself in an Asia that is not dominated by America.”
Prof White’s book comes as warnings about China’s ambitions become louder, with Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, head of the parliament’s intelligence committee, warning Australia needed to be “clear-eyed” about its position in the world and if the challenges were not understood, “choices will be made for us”.
WHAT ARE THE THREATS?
If there’s one easy way to understand Australia’s vulnerability, you only have to look at its neighbours — the threat is not just about China.
Australia has got used to being one of the biggest economies in the region. In the 1980s Australia had the second-biggest economy in Asia, after Japan.
Its gross domestic product (GDP) was once bigger than China’s. It’s a different story today with GDP now only about 5 per cent of China’s and less than half of Indonesia’s.
By 2050, it has been estimated Australia’s economy will rank well behind those of all major Southeast Asian nations.
India is expected to become the world’s second-biggest economy, while Indonesia will probably become the fourth-biggest economy and will have the weight to become one of Asia’s great powers.
Indonesia has always been seen as a potential strategic risk for Australia because of its size and proximity, and this will only increase as it becomes more powerful.
“Australia has never had to deal with a neighbour more powerful than itself, and it will take some getting used to,” Prof White writes in his book.
Currently there’s no indication of how Indonesia will use its power and what role in the region it will aim for. It’s the only country in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood capable of being a valuable ally but also a serious adversary.
THEN OF COURSE, THERE’S CHINA
Prof White believes China is serious about resuming what it sees as its rightful place as the leading power in East Asia, which extends across Japan, Hong Kong, North and South Korea, Mongolia and Taiwan.
In the next few decades China will have the capability to attack Australia although it’s not clear why it would do this.
Prof White believes Australia could become a target if it actively supported America, Japan or another country for dominance in East Asia and the Western Pacific.
China could also become a threat if America withdraws from the region as this would leave Australia living under China’s shadow and vulnerable to its power.
Australia could go along with what China wants and this would reduce the risk of conflict but this could cost us, especially if China tries to force decisions on the country that go against its social and political values.
AMERICA WILL LIKELY DESERT US
Australia has long relied on America to protect it, including through its policy of extended nuclear deterrence (NED), which says the US will retaliate against another country that attacked one of its allies.
This policy was a good deterrent when America had superior firepower but in recent years China has put a massive amount of money into its air and naval forces and now has nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
This means the US no longer has a military advantage, and any war would also be fought in the Western Pacific, close to China’s shores and giving it a strategic advantage.
This is also a serious risk the conflict could become a nuclear war and this means American cities could become targets.
“In a new Cold War Americans would have to ask whether saving Taiwan from China — and preserving US leadership in Asia — would be worth losing Los Angeles and Seattle,” Prof White’s book notes.
While Americans previously accepted the risk of nuclear war against the Soviets, this was because they thought the Soviets posed a global threat and America’s own survival and security relied on them.
In contrast, China is not expected to become dominant beyond East Asia and the Western Pacific because its further expansion will be resisted by India, Russia and Europe as well as America.
“That means America’s own security does not depend on preventing China from dominating East Asia. Why then would America accept the costs and risks of trying to do that?”
Prof White writes that the US will still remain a very powerful country, with the world’s second or third biggest economy.
However, he believes it will be a mistake to expect that its future involvement in Asia will look anything like the dominance it has exercised there for so long.
“America has remained our ally for so long because the alliance has cost it very little, and it has helped support America’s leadership in Asia.”
As America steps back from the region, its alliance with Australia will be less valuable.
WHAT AUSTRALIA NEEDS TO DEFEND ITSELF
In his analysis, Prof White points out that Australia’s geography means no country could mount a serious attack intended to seize and hold on to part of the territory, without having a nearby base.
This means the country’s most important strategy is to protect the islands north of Australia from being used to launch an attack from the air or the sea.
Australia must stop any potential adversary from establishing bases in this inner arc of islands that lie within a few hundred kilometres of its shores.
“A country with bases near our shores — especially within unrefuelled fighter range of our shores — will be much better able to defeat Australia’s air and sea defences than one that has to operate from further away,” the book states.
In World War II, Japan was able to directly attack Australia after it established a network of bases in these islands. The battles of the Coral Sea, Milne Bay and Kokoda were all about stopping Japan from securing another base at Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea.
More recently Australia has renewed its focus on building stronger relationships with its Pacific Island neighbours, amid concerns that China is growing its influence in the region.
But Australia also needs to keep an eye on developments even further away to ensure its security.
The islands of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines could also provide a barrier to, or access for those wanting to threaten Australia.
Japan’s ability to threaten Australia in WWII followed its successful invasions of what is now Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. Johore in Malaysia is the nearest point on the Asian mainland to Australia, it’s about 3200km from Darwin, and right across from Singapore.
Complicating this is the fact that Indonesia is poised to become a major power in itself and could have its own formidable maritime forces. This might act as a shield for Australia but it could also increase the risk we face from Indonesia as an adversary.
The broader strategic interest that could fuel much of this risk is the relationships between the region’s major powers: China, India, perhaps Japan and eventually Indonesia.
These countries are the ones that could have the potential to project power over the long distances necessary to threaten Australia so it’s in Australia’s best interests to keep an eye on them.
Their relationships with each other could also impact the regional order and decide whether any of them has the reason or capacity to threaten Australia.
Previously it was thought Australia could not defend itself without help from a major ally like America but Prof White’s book looks at how Australia could stand alone.
While countries like Japan and Indonesia could become allies, Prof White believes Australia can’t take for granted these countries would be willing to sacrifice their relationship with China to help during a conflict.
Prof White says Australia needs to decide how to respond to the growing strategic risks and whether building a bigger armed force could make it independent from America.
“A strategically independent Australia could adopt a posture of armed neutrality like Switzerland or Sweden, allied with no one and prepared to defend ourselves alone — or in close partnership with New Zealand — against any direct attack,” his book suggests.
Australia could co-operate with neighbours like Indonesia, or align itself with one regional power against another — with India against China, or with China against India.
“But we can only be strategically independent in this way, and able to make these choices, if we have significant military power — significantly more military power than will be provided by the armed forces we have and are planning today.”
Australia could rely on geography and skilful diplomacy to keep the country safe but the less capacity it has to resist armed pressure, the more often it will find itself choosing to go along with things it doesn’t want to do.
However, building the military power to make Australia strategically independent is only worth doing if the country is sure it is justified and can be sustained over decades.
Prof White argues that Australia should be investing in more equipment for sea and air warfare, which is where a potential threat to the country would come from. For example, he believes Australia needs two or three times more submarines than it does now.
Australia’s defence budget has not reached 2 per cent of GDP since 1994 but he believes this needs to be increased substantially, closer to 3.5 per cent if Australia wants to be an independent power.
This would mean finding another $70 billion per year, about three times the cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Prof White said there were still some big questions that needed to be answered about what the best way forward was but if Australia wanted to have a chance of being able to defend itself, action needed to be taken now.
“Even with an exceptional effort, it would take until 2030 at least to build the absolute minimum force we would need as a middle power and perhaps until 2040 to finish the job.
“These will be very risky decades, and our strategic exposure will increase the longer we delay.”