Australia Defence Strategy Delusion

Murray Hunter
















A dissenting view on the great AUKUS Pact.


Australia has been under siege from China, feeling alone and isolated over the past 18 months, with Beijing lambasting it through its unofficial mouthpiece the Global Times. Ministerial contacts with envoys have been suspended and exports to China have been embargoed, ironically benefiting the United States.


Over the past few years, revelations about Chinese interference and manipulation of Australian society and politics have been given massive media attention. China has also practiced its “wolf warrior diplomacy on Canberra, baking it up with trade sanctions. China, which kept the Australian economy buoyant with the minerals boom during the millennium period, suddenly turned into a perceived adversary.


Australia’s call for an inquiry into the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic has generated unprecedented retaliation, providing anecdotal evidence that China is using Australia as a testing ground for its harsh diplomatic approach. Australia fell into China’s trap by trying, to punch above its weight.


The cornerstone of Australian defense policy, the Australia-US alliance, has blinded policymakers into skewing security options towards the containment strategy pushed by the Biden administration, cutting out other options that might be more suitable for a small power, geographically situated on the fringe of Southeast Asia, with China as its number one trading partner.


This rush to join Biden’s Indo-Pacific containment doctrine is already showing consequences. Australia’s relationship with France has soured, with French President Emmanuel Macron accusing Prime Minister Scott Morrison of lying over complicated negotiations over the purchase of diesel-electric submarines, only to dump them for US nuclear boats. This has reverberated to the UK where France and Britain’s row over fishing rights is escalating. There will be a period of mistrust between Britain and France at a time when Russia is amassing troops along the Ukraine border.


With France’s possessions in the Pacific Islands neighboring Australia, diplomatic issues could arise within the Pacific region. Biden effectively cast the blame of the AUKUS issue on Australia, which is hardly confidence boosting for the US-Australia alliance.


Indonesia controls the waters Australian submarines must navigate through to reach the South China Sea. Malaysia’s prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has not welcomed the deal, while Singapore has reluctantly accepted it. Australia’s decision to acquire nuclear submarines will influence Indonesia to upgrade its military, and even consider the acquisition of nuclear weapons, as it has said. Even New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has expressed her government’s displease over Australia’s decision to acquire a nuclear submarine fleet.


One would expect members of the Chinese United Front within the Chinese diaspora to further destabilize Australian society. Further espionage will go on surveying Australian defense facilities, and even within Australia’s security organizations. China has this capability, where Australian authorities have tended to be silent on this weakness.


The AUKUS agreement signed between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States in September is nothing more than a sharing of nuclear submarine technology, artificial intelligence, cyber warfare, and long-range strike capabilities with nothing immediately tangible for Australia’s defense. Currently, the agreement is about intentions.


At this stage, there is very little detail about the actualities of AUKUS. The Australian subs will take more than a decade to go into service. By this time the whole strategic situation might be completely different. Any issue concerning Taiwan’s security may well occur long before Australia even sees a single submarine. What more, the situation in China is currently volatile, with challenges to Premier Xi Jinping’s authority and vision of China. This makes China a big unknown, and in the short- term Australia joining countries aiming to contain China, may be very counterproductive to Australia’s strategic interests.


AUKUS is more a regeneration of the old ANZUS agreement, with the UK taking New Zealand’s place. If the US and UK use Australia as a staging ground for a nuclear submarine fleet, Australia will just be more vulnerable to a nuclear attack from China in the event of a superpower crisis. This is the opposite to what Australia should want.


Even if Australia is able to buy, lease or build nuclear powered submarines quickly, without strategic nuclear weapons on board these platforms will not be strategic deterrents for potential enemies. At best Australia’s nuclear submarines will only be tactical platforms for conventional weapons. They may not be suitable for deployment around the shallow waters off Australia’s coastline against any military threat.


The strategic alliance Australia just signed with ASEAN has little to do with security. ASEAN is not a defense pact, and has differing member views on China. ASEAN members have mutually coexisted with China for more than a thousand years. ASEAN is in effect a neutral party which sees superpower coexistence in the South China Sea as desirable. During the recent ASEAN Summit in Brunei, the bloc also signed strategic alliances with the United States, China, and Russia. ASEAN is scheduled to have a special summit with China in November to bring their multilateral relationship up one more tier.


The Quadrilateral Security Cooperation Agreement or Quad, is an organization that former prime minister Howard saw as a platform for Australia to play a key role along with the US in the region. Canberra at the time viewed itself as the US deputy sheriff, running on from the war on terror era. However, the Quad itself has evolved into the Quad plus, although one of the cornerstone countries in the so-called frontline, South Korea has been very reluctant to fully commit to the US containment view of the region. There are strong opinions from political analysts that the Quad’s role may be more provocative than stabilizing.


Australia cannot afford to develop an offensive armory, leaving the continent poorly defended. It needs strategic bombers, tactical fighters, submarines that are agile in shallow waters for domestic defense. A small number of nuclear warheads would send the message that Australia, although a small military country, would be very costly to engage.


Australia must come to the realization that no country may come to its defense over small-scale localized military action. This is more likely to become an immediate threat than a mass invasion from the north. A potential enemy would use forward bases in Indonesia or PNG to launch nuisance attacks, provoke skirmishes on the waters around the country, or make probing flights into Australian territory, all that we have seen in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits. Most probably, Australia would have to deal with this alone.


The biggest cost is the need to compromise Australia’s freedom to determine its own policies. The Biden-Johnson axis pressured the Morrison government to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 for the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. This severely strained the cohesiveness of the Liberal National Party coalition, and may even cost Morrison the next election.


It’s time for Australia to come to the realization that it is not a middle power. It can’t spend the money. Defense strategy decisions are creating more risk for national security rather than safeguarding it. Unfortunately, most of the analysts and academics Canberra listen to have given AUKUS hawkish approval.


The concept of Fortress Australia has been abandoned for the delusion of playing like a middle power. AUKUS won’t solve diplomatic issues with China. In fact, it will probably make them worse, and this could be felt very quickly with further losses in trade. This means that eventually, every Australian may feel the pain in some way or another. Since the announcement of the pact, Australia has increased its breadth of strained relations with other nations.


Australia has 20,000 kilometers of coastline that needs protection. This should be Scott Morrison’s number one priority, not being an appendix to the US vision of containment. Australia has other potential threats much closer to home.


A survey by the Alvara Research Centre in October 2017 of 4,200 Indonesian students at 25 universities, indicated that 20 percent support an Islamic Caliphate in Indonesia, and that 30 percent are prepared to wage jihad in some form. This number is growing rapidly, and the influence of fundamental and radicalized Islam on Indonesian society and politics has been grossly under-estimated by Australian analysts. This threat must be taken seriously and prepared for, if one day in the near future Australia shares a sea border with an Islamic Caliphate. Local governments in many regions within Indonesia are already introducing very strict Syariah laws.


It’s time for Australia to deeply reflect upon its own position in the world rather than the views from the other side of the world. Until Australia does this, it will not be an independent country.



Murray Hunter is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.

This article was published in Asia Sentinel dated 3 November 2021. Republished with permission from Asia Sentinel.




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2022-01-22 18:11