Reader response: decoding the Defence Minister: getting serious about Asia
13 Dec 2013|

Benjamin Schreer’s decoding of the Defence Minister’s speech at ASPI’s National Security Dinner smokes any number of rabbits out of their burrows. Perhaps the most enticing of these rodents is the question of what the Minister’s speech means for strategic policy and the development of ADF force structure.

It’s apparent that the rise of China is already generating strategic repercussions throughout the Indo-Pacific region; at perhaps a faster pace than might have been expected. Ben’s correct to link these to consequences for Australia’s strategic policy. The strategic environment is changing and both nation and government might be expected to respond in some measure. I’ve recently speculated about the consequences of a changing Australian/Indonesian strategic relationship and argued that they’re similarly profound.

What remains to be seen is whether the process of strategic policy making can be focused with sufficient clarity to correctly deduce the substantive changes needed in the structure and posture of the Australian Defence Force. It may be the intention of Minister Johnston to increase the readiness of ADF force elements and focus preparedness on the more challenging aspects of combat, but there’s another rabbit running around that complicates such straight forward desires.

This is the financial situation facing defence that, as reported in Patrick Walters’ post, is currently at its lowest level as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product since the Second World War. Circumstances, especially what the Minister describes as the difficult state of government finances (that is, the declining Commonwealth revenue base) mean that correcting the situation will be difficult and is as yet without a likely outcome. For the foreseeable future, options for strategic policy and the consequent management of its objectives will be significantly constrained.

Experience has shown that it’s difficult to quantify levels of readiness required for possible military operations. What Ben calls the concept of ‘defence self-reliance’ has evolved as a policy tool that allows the evaluation of priorities in allocating resources to various defence capabilities, their sustainment and their preparedness. The Defence organisation has a long way to go in assessing the true costs of capability development, let alone in developing the tools that will enable it to assess and cost the options for a more active and challenging strategic objective for the ADF.

One thing that would seem more certain is that whatever the developments in strategic policy, they won’t represent a return to forward defence. The era of emerging ex-colonial states, yet to develop a national identity, and of superpower client regimes is over. Any attempt to develop cooperative defence arrangements with countries in the Indo-Pacific will be made with independent countries protecting their own interests, pursuing their own objectives and, on occasions, at odds with each other.

Nonetheless, enhancing defence relationships with regional countries has been a fruitful exercise. It’s not a new idea; a deliberate policy of building defence relationships with Asian nations was initiated as far back as the 1994 defence white paper Defending Australia. Evolution has been bumpy but nonetheless persistent; today it includes regular interaction at military and civilian level with most regional nations.

Indeed, the process has already developed to such a degree that Edward Luttwak, advisor to the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, thinks that Australia is building a latticework of regional defence arrangements, involving countries such as Malaysia and India, as well as to Indonesia, to support the capacity of the ANZUS Alliance to contain China.

Luttak’s view may point to a change in US attitudes towards Australia’s regional security initiatives. A few decades ago, critics perceived a tension between Australia’s role in the ANZUS alliance and its regional security building activities. With the US pivot towards Asia, Australia’s established security building arrangements acquire a new significance.

But Australia’s levels of defence contact vary considerably from country to country, only a few involving more than tokenistic military exercises. Turning this disparate collection into something resembling a regional defence agreement is a long way off. The possible consequences for the ADF can be contemplated in the broad, but can’t yet be defined at any realistic level of planning.

This process could be further complicated if future revelations from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowdon create an impression that the ‘five eyes’ intelligence community is actually a regional eight (Japan, Singapore and South Korea colluding with the members of the Anglosphere), and so provides China with an opportunity to expand its influence.

Nonetheless, the ADF will probably develop to reflect a growing Australian military involvement with its neighbours. Given manifest uncertainties, such changes are unlikely to be presented in the next white paper as sweeping policy revision and major force structure adaptation. Rather, increased operational appropriations, to fund growth in practical cooperation with regional militaries (as has developed in the relationship with Indonesia since 2002) would seem the best path for increasing the scope of strategic policy and extending ADF force posture.

Derek Woolner is a Visiting Fellow at the Strategic and Defecne Studies Centre at the ANU.