This paper examines criticisms of Australia’s strategic shift towards an outgoing defence posture within Asia.
Australia’s two recent Defence White Papers have continued the country’s strategic shift towards an outgoing defence posture within Asia, and a further shift away from its previous focus on a ‘near abroad’ comprising the waters to its immediate north and to the troubled island states of the South Pacific. Now, much of the policy discourse is on the challenges and the requirements of the ‘Indo-Pacific region’ and of Australia’s playing a more significant role in moulding its destiny. Hence, the country’s emphasis on even closer relations with the US (of which the Darwin decision is an especially good illustration), with India and Japan and with Indonesia not just as a significant factor in the control of illegal immigrants, but as a future determinant of strategic outcomes in Southeast Asia. Hence also, in terms of policy implementation, the Army’s new-found enthusiasm for a ‘maritime strategy’ and the Navy’s acquisition of Hobart class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWDs), Canberra class Amphibious Assault Ships (LHDs) and its aspirations for perhaps a dozen long-range submarines to succeed the Collins class.
But this new emphasis on Australia maintaining a more distant and potentially interventionist focus in the Indo-Pacific region is not without its critics. Criticisms fall into two categories. The first comprises doubts about whether such a posture is wise, still less necessary, especially if it is seen as code for national involvement in a policy of ‘containing’ a rising China. Others, on the basis of the West’s troubled interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the domestic political reaction to them — suggest that the age of interventionism is over. For evidence of this they point to the West’s recent reluctance to get sucked militarily into the troubles of Syria. International activism of this sort can certainly be portrayed as unwise, avoidable even counter-productive.
The second category of doubt is about the feasibility of such an outgoing policy. Some argue that Australia simply cannot afford the military means that such an ambitious policy focus would require. For them, the evident gap between what it needs and currently envisaged levels of defence spending suggest that successive governments have, whatever they may say, more or less accepted that limitation for the foreseeable future.
Still others point to the spread of sea-denial capabilities around the region and doubt whether intervention, or even a forwards posture, in all but the most benign of political environments is actually militarily feasible. Finally sceptics point to the extent of the challenge faced by Australia’s maritime defence industry especially with a ‘valley of death’ opening up after the completion of the AWD and LHD programmes and before the start of any future submarine or frigate replacement project.
For all these reasons, such sceptics urge the reigning in of Australia’s ambitions and a return to a focus on the defence of Australia’s near abroad. Many of their arguments are weighty, not to be dismissed lightly and could well recur in still greater strength in the years to come. Nevertheless, they may be based on false premises; if so, it would be mistake for the country to retreat from its activist aspirations for those reasons. Instead this paper will argue that an outgoing maritime policy is both preferable, and for all its manifest challenges, possible.