The Weekend Australian for 11-12 April 2009 carries a front page story which proclaims that Defence strategists have “ignored the advice of Australia's most senior intelligence chiefs and rejected the view that China's military expansion poses little threat to the nation's long-term security” – see Spy chiefs cross swords over China as Kevin Rudd backs defence hawks.
It goes on to say “... the hawks have won, and Australia will spend more than $100 billion over the next two decades to boost its naval and air war-fighting capacity. The rise of China will shape Australia's defence planning for a generation”.
This may well be a beat-up – I can easily envisage a scenario in which intelligence chiefs are saying to the government that China’s military expansion poses little threat to the nation’s long term security, and defence planners are saying to the Government “That’s all very well, but China will be the most militarily capable power in the region (apart from the United States) and that is the level of capability against which we must plan if we want to be able to continue our strategic policy of ensuring that we can dominate our immediate region”.
Defence planners must also have regard to the fact that capabilities change only slowly, but intentions can change very quickly. So the focus must be on what people can do, not whether in today’s circumstances we think they mean us harm.
There is no contradiction between that approach and the view attributed to the intelligence chiefs. Defence planners are paid to think about worst possible cases (their job is to secure our future); intelligence officers are paid to tell the government what, in their assessment, based on all the information available at the time, is the most likely case.
If indeed we are reverting to fear of China as the strategic basis of Australian defence policy, then I am horrified, on several grounds:
- I don’t think such fear is warranted
- Even if it were, why damage one of our most important relationships by spelling that out? There are some doubts and fears that might be a legitimate basis for worst case planning, but should only be discussed between consenting adults in private.
- There is the danger of a self-fulfilling prophecy in publicly proclaiming countries with which we are at peace to be a threat – that proclamation must colour the thinking of the other country about every aspect of the relationship. We should choose our enemies as carefully as we choose our friends.
- To the other countries of our region it would say more about us than it would about China.
So let me spell out where I stand on the issue:
- I regard the growth of China as a benign development which poses little threat to Australia’s security
- I believe that we need to spend much more on defence than we do, for the following reasons:
: We live in much more uncertain times than we had thought even a year ago. No-one has fully assimilated the consequences of the Global Financial Crisis, but the level of debt being assumed by our major ally, and by the United Kingdom, as a result of all of the bailouts and stimulus packages means that a major realignment of global influence is taking place. Such times are never comfortable or secure (for further reading see my earlier post on Debt and sovereignty, which I think is a very important issue for the Defence White Paper to consider).
: Many of our capabilities are nominal rather than real – we own the platforms but in too many cases they are under-maintained, they are not equipped to be placed in a hostile environment, and the personnel are seriously stretched.
: We have first class platforms but in many cases we do not have enough of them to represent a credible capability.
- We need to plan to be able to control the sea-air gap surrounding Australia and to project power into the region to our north, with reference to the capabilities that are emerging in the region. This is not and should not be driven by fear of any one country or group of countries; it is simply a matter of saying that if we are in control our future is as secure as we can hope for it to be. And if we can project force into the region we can help our regional neighbours to secure themselves against external threat as well.
- In considering the capabilities that are emerging in the region we need to have regard to the nuclear technological capabilities that will emerge as neighbouring countries respond to climate change (see Climate change and nuclear proliferation). This is another matter the Defence White Paper needs to reflect upon quite carefully.
- At all times we must plan for the maintenance and development of high level military skills – the capacity to manoeuvre front line aircraft, to operate submarines and surface ships in a variety of roles, to conduct joint operations, to command and control disparate force elements over a wide battlespace, and to operate in conjunction with our allies. If we ever lose those skills we will find it extraordinarily hard to recover them: we will not gain them from our adversaries and we will be irrelevant to our allies.
- I think the only appropriate basis for developing the defence budget is to decide what effects we need to achieve, figure out what that will cost, and budget accordingly. Most of our present problems derive from the fact that we set the budget first and then, like a very large kid in a very large sweet shop, ask “What can you get for $20+ billion?” The result is hollow forces – we squeeze as many platforms as we can into the envelope of what the budget allows, but do not provide for the full costs of ownership and consequently do not have not the capabilities that those platforms should represent.