Australia still needs to invest in a credible self-defence policy because in foreign and strategic policy there are no “forever” friends or allies, writes Asialink Chair and former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese.
There has been much breathless commentary on AUKUS both here and abroad. Its significance is real. It is, however, more a leap in technology than it is a fundamental strategic departure.
AUKUS makes sense as part of Australia’s plan B for China. That is, the plan we need if we find ourselves in a full-blown Cold War 2.0.
Some would say that is precisely where we are. I hope they understand what a new cold war means. It means a radical reordering of the global economy to decouple it from China, which is the largest trading partner of most countries in the world. It means a strategic fault line down the middle of the Indo-Pacific, with Southeast Asia — our strategic hinterland — uncomfortably trying to straddle the strategic fence.
This is not a pretty picture for Australia and our starting point should be that Cold War 2.0 is neither inevitable nor desirable. It serves neither our security nor our economic interests.
The risk today is that rather than fix our policy around how best to stop short of a new cold war, we become its cheerleader. And in doing so, we narrow our options and find ourselves exposed should US-China relations unexpectedly move in a different and more accommodating direction.
In foreign and strategic policy there are no “forever” friends or allies. Nations act in pursuit of their interests and interests change. Just look at the way the interests of the United States were re-articulated under President Trump with his dismissive view of alliances and his “America first” mindset.
Or, even more significant, the way in which President Xi Jinping has ditched the policies of Deng, abandoned hide and bide, doubled down on ideology and moved China’s economic settings further away from the market.
That the alliance with the US is a significant net benefit for Australia is, in my view, beyond doubt, although it is clearly not beyond debate. It gives us privileged access to defence technology and intelligence and, more importantly, it means that any potential aggressor would have to calculate the prospect that the US would come to our direct defence.
Australians must however understand that this last benefit is no guarantee. It does not absolve us from having the capacity to defend ourselves without relying on the combat assistance of the US.
The truth is we have failed to acquire that capacity despite it being the objective of Australian defence policy for the past 40 years. Perhaps reflecting the deeper doubts of the Australian people, Australian governments have never really believed we can adequately defend ourselves.
Indeed, we have been quite clever in finding ways to ensure that if we ever face a direct threat the US will be there for us: whether it is paying our so called “insurance dues” by joining US-led wars, inviting a US presence in Australia, integrating our defence forces with that of the US, celebrating a hundred years of mateship, or simply being a good and uncomplicated ally.
It has for the most part been a very successful strategy, but is it a sustainable one? We are now facing the most uncertain strategic outlook since World War II. That means we must find a way to actually achieve our stated goal of defence self-reliance. Not because the US is unreliable or a declining power, but because like all powers it will only ever act in its own interests, and while we can align our interests they can never be identical. That is the real meaning of sovereignty.
Australia must be prepared to invest in the credible defence of Australia. It will require much more than two per cent of GDP and it will require a force structure built around the defence of Australia, including acquiring more asymmetrical and more offensive capability.
It also requires a well-resourced foreign policy. Australia can neither buy nor bully its way in the world, so we are quite dependent on persuasion – which is the currency of foreign policy.
Our foreign policy should be framed around both engaging China and building the balancing arrangements that can constrain China so that it cannot recreate the Middle Kingdom where harmony was hierarchy, China was at the apex and other states pre-emptively conceded the paramountcy of China’s interests.
AUKUS has a place in such a strategy. But it only makes sense if it sits beside an active diplomacy determined to avoid a new Cold War and a defence policy with a laser-like focus on the defence of Australia without relying on the combat assistance of any country.
Peter Varghese AO is Chancellor of The University of Queensland (UQ), chair of the Asialink Council, and former Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Banner image: HMAS Farncomb (SSG 74) submarine participates in the International Fleet Review, Sydney, Australia - October 4, 2013. Credit: The Mariner 4291, Shutterstock.
This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review ($) on September 21, 2021.