The 2016 Defence White Paper describes a rules-based global order as a “fundamental strategic interest”.
This project, supported by the Department of Defence’s Strategic Policy Grants Program, aims to lead a national debate on the rules-based order and its implications for Australian security and defence. It will connect the legal, political, and historical debates about the nature of the global order with the practical realities of Australia’s strategic environment. It will address how the order can evolve to meet new technological challenges and modes of warfare, including grey zone operations.
In the name of keeping the nation safe, Australia is joining the Asia-Pacific’s accelerating missile race. However, not only will it not keep the nation safe, it will stoke an uncontrolled fire that is engulfing the region’s strategic landscape. The wise response would be to throw everything at firefighting – at garnering international support for a formal arms-control dialogue, a missile moratorium and the creation of a new arms-control architecture to replace the now-defunct INF treaty, the lapsing of which has allowed this fire to spread.
To the contrary, the Morrison government is choosing to feed the flames. It’s the worst of all options – arguably even worse than doing nothing.
The government’s plans to acquire long-range missiles and other advanced weapons systems for use in high-intensity military conflicts were publicly revealed in the release of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) on 1 July. The plan, which has received loud support from former Australian defence officials, is likely to involve the purchase of 200 long-range missiles from the United States and the longer-term development of Australia’s own advanced strike systems, potentially including hypersonic weapons. (Although it is not widely known, Australia is capable of developing the latter, following more than a decade of close hypersonics collaboration with the US.)
Three main justifications are given for spending billions of taxpayer dollars on implementing this new plan, at a time when the nation’s resources are stretched thin by the global pandemic.
Although the idea of using the Defence Strategic Update to create arms-control leverage is probably the most positive spin that can be put on an otherwise disturbing document, it is still problematic.
The first is that the pandemic itself has increased strategic uncertainty and made it necessary for Australia to become more self-reliant. While there may well be some truth in this, it smacks of a post-hoc rationalisation, given that discussion surrounding the DSU preceded the pandemic.
The second is that the weakening of the international rules-based order (which, until recently, Australia has energetically championed), makes it necessary for Australia to rely more heavily on military might. Again, this argument can’t be dismissed, because multilateralism is clearly under strain, but it is part of a distorted view, one that is becoming entrenched in defence policy circles in Canberra, that cooperative security is a peacenik fantasy and multilateral institutions are too broken to fix.
The third justification for throwing Australia into the region’s accelerating arms race is the most convincing: it’s being driven by fear over China’s rapidly expanding military capabilities – specifically its asymmetric development of INF-range missiles, and its successful hypersonic weapons, space and cyber warfare programmes. These capabilities, some of which have been acquired with Russia’s help, are understandably worrying to Australia’s defence decisionmakers, who feel increasingly exposed at a time when China’s strategic (over-) confidence is growing, and faith in US global leadership and alliance resolve is declining.
The Morrison government hopes by amassing long-range missiles and complex munitions of its own, Australia will be able to develop a strong, self-reliant deterrent capability, which will discourage military and non-military coercion by China, and provide a credible warfighting capability if deterrence fails.
Although responding to the China challenge in such a way might be reassuring to some, it is expensive and risky and could too easily backfire. As the DSU itself warns, although hypersonic weapons will make it possible to strike targets rapidly, accurately and lethally from afar, they also reduce decision times, make military miscalculation more likely and increase the consequences of strategic error. These characteristics, combined with the ambiguities inherent in dual-use missile deployments in the region’s nuclear possessor states (China, North Korea, Russia and the US), erode rather than reinforce the predictability on which stable deterrence is based, dramatically increasing strategic risks.
It is possible Canberra’s defence elite are hoping it won’t be necessary to implement some of the riskier elements of the DSU. Indeed, a fourth (unspoken) reason for announcing the plan could be to signal to Beijing that it is time to stop the current missile arms race and engage in serious arms-control dialogue. This would echo the debate that has been underway in the US for the past year, on whether deployment of US long-range missiles to the Asia-Pacificcould help bring China to the negotiating table to begin hammering out a missile arms control regime. Some US analysts and officials believe this tactic could succeed where efforts to engage China in trilateral negotiations over the extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) have failed.
Although the idea of using the DSU to create arms-control leverage is probably the most positive spin that can be put on an otherwise disturbing document, it is still problematic. As a tactic, it could unintentionally reinforce the security dilemma and feed arms racing pressures, especially if no clear pathway to the negotiating table is elaborated.
Australia would do better to focus its attention on trying to help extinguish the fire that has already been lit, rather than adding to it. It could do so both by offering to host an Asia-Pacific arms-control dialogue and also by marshalling its diplomatic forces to encourage others to participate. Several proposals for discussions already exist, including some practical suggestions on how to engage China.
In this episode of COVIDcast, Sam Roggeveen, Lowy Institute’s Director of the International Security Program, sat down with Professor Hugh White to discuss the connection between the pandemic and the changing balance of power in Asia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement today that Australia was being targeted by a “sophisticated state-based cyber actor” was curiously measured. On the one hand, the “targeting” necessitated a Prime Ministerial statement, guaranteeing widespread media coverage. On the other hand, the PM’s assured the public that “this has been a constant for Australia to deal with”.
That’s probably because Morrison needs to deliver two messages.
First, the Prime Minister wants to communicate to the Australian private sector, to reassure local companies that might be seeing signs of the “targeting” that the government agencies are on top of it, and to encourage those that haven’t to tighten security. Morrison laid the groundwork for the more detailed technical advisory from the Australian Cyber Security Centre.
Countries such as Australia want to deter adversaries without provoking them.
Second, the Prime Minister is unavoidably sending a message to the “state-based actor” behind the intrusions (which is almost certainly China). In essence, Morrison is saying: We know what you’re up to, but we aren’t going to name you (yet).
That reluctance is part of the emerging rules of this new game of cyber competition. Countries around the world are struggling to develop a framework to manage growing state-on-state rivalry in and through cyberspace.
Countries such as Australia want to deter adversaries without provoking them. Public attribution – and the threat of doing so – is seen as one of way of warning and deterring an opponent. But early attribution can also be provocative and leave less room for subsequent escalation. Australian agencies may hope that the PM’s statement will deter the attackers from moving on to extract large volumes of information or engaging in any sabotage.
As the PM put it, “That fact that these threats present is not a surprise in this world in which we now live”. One part of managing that threat – and creating more rules – has to be a more nuanced popular vocabulary. Though the PM’s words were chosen carefully, the alarming and imprecise phrase “cyber attack” was used heavily in the media build up and subsequent coverage of his remarks.
Australia’s national debate about China has been dramatically transformed over the last few years. China’s rise is arguably the most important thing to happen to Australia’s place in the world since federation, so the fact that we are debating its implications so openly and frankly is entirely welcome. To those complaining about name-calling and a lack of “nuance”, I would respond that Australia’s culture of public debate could do with a bit more grit.
But although Australians are now much better informed about the kind of challenge China poses, the national debate hasn’t yet turned to the question of costs: What price are we prepared to pay, and what risks are we prepared to take, to mitigate the challenge posed by China?
Lowy Institute non-resident Fellow Alan Dupont’s opinion piece in The Australian on Tuesday is a case in point. Dupont makes the now familiar argument that Australia is too economically dependent on China and needs to diversify. When I say the argument is familiar, I mean among strategic commentators – you rarely hear it from economists because they recognise how costly such diversification could be.
Dupont says “The cost of not diversifying is too great”, but without an estimate of the cost of diversification, it’s hard to make a judgment about what it would cost to not diversify. Safe to say, however, that if it was easy and cheap, we would have done it by now. More likely, it will be expensive and will involve levels of government intervention in the economy that will make both major parties and the Treasury deeply uncomfortable.
From time to time even the US has coerced Australia, and we had to compromise for the greater good. Now we will need to compromise with another great power, one that will grow even bigger than the US and is much less friendly towards us.
Dupont also says “We can’t be held hostage to China’s whims and coercion”. He says “can’t” but what he really means is “shouldn’t” – he’s making a value judgment rather than stating a fact. But again, we should be thinking about the costs of such a stance, and on its face it seems as if building an economy that makes Australia entirely immune to threats and coercion from Beijing would be prohibitively expensive.
That means we need to be selective about where we are prepared to compromise and where we will stand firm. We can’t just declare, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently did, that Australia will “never … trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes”, because that’s an impossibly high standard. Indeed, it is a standard we never met in our foreign relations even before China was a great power.
From time to time even the US has coerced Australia, and we had to compromise for the greater good. Now we will need to compromise with another great power, one that will grow even bigger than the US and is much less friendly towards us. We are already being tested by Beijing, and the tests will get harder as China grows.
But will it grow? Dupont argues that there is a kind of fatalism in Australia about this question, which he says has been “shattered” by recent events. China faces “growing headwinds” in Asia, including the loss of American goodwill, the deterioration of relations with neighbours, the professed desire of America’s friends and allies in Asia for Washington to maintain its presence, and the Duterte government’s reconsideration of its decision to revise its defence treaty with the US. China’s relations with Europe have also soured.
Dupont’s conclusion is that “China’s power may already have peaked, challenging the notion that the communist nation will inevitably become the dominant state and global rule-setter”. But note the crucial words “may have” rather than “probably has”, which suggests Dupont himself thinks it’s a less than 50/50 likelihood.
Needless to say, the future is unknowable, but if Dupont is basing this tentative judgment solely on recent diplomatic setbacks he lists, it seems like a thin reed. China is a truly colossal economic power, a nation which is already by some measures the world’s largest economy and which has enormous potential for further growth. We can’t be certain China’s growth rate will continue on a straight line. Coronavirus will take a big chunk out of this year’s growth figures and there may be another even bigger crisis ahead. Then again, the United States went through a Great Depression and the biggest war in human history, yet still emerged as the leading global power.
So we can’t base our plans for the future on the possibility that China may fail. In fact, despite the vigour and candour of the contemporary Australian debate about China, we may still not have fully internalised how successful China could be. Yes, China is riddled with internal problems and has increasingly fractious relations with neighbours and other great powers. But given the scale of its economic miracle, it’s hard to believe this will shift the dial enough to stop China’s trajectory towards regional leadership. That’s not fatalism; it’s reality.
A four-country bulwark against Beijing's regional dominance is an idea whose time has come. To make it work, New Delhi must be convinced to join in. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.