Paul Dibb and Richard BrabinSmith have done Australia a service by speaking so bluntly about our deteriorating strategic circumstances and the need to strengthen our defences.
Identifying China’s military expansion and rapid territorial conquests in the South China Sea as a potential threat is brave, tricky, delicate and complex.
As they rightly observe, it is wrong to assume China will be hostile to our interests.
We should do everything we can to positively engage the Beijing government.
But defence planning must deal with reality and it always plans against capabilities rather than avowed intentions. Similarly, it must take into account actual behaviour. Beijing has ignored international law in the South China Sea, built big military facilities on territory to which it has no plausible claim, massively expanded its military and directed expansion against the capability of our ally the US.
Only a country determined never to face reality would ignore all this. So we should prepare.
Dibb and Brabin-Smith have offered the most explicit public expression of this since Ross Babbage some years ago argued that Australia should adopt the same asymmetric strategy against Chinese capabilities as Beijing has adopted against the US. That is, aim to possess armed forces sufficiently robust that they make the cost of any action against us too great.
Where Dibb and Brabin-Smith are on much weaker ground, and where their ideas could even potentially do some damage, is in their call for a new defence strategy. That is the very last thing we need.
Beijing militarises the South China Sea in the time it takes us to write a defence White Paper.
No, no, no to new strategies. Our nation drowns in strategies. Let’s have fewer strategies, and more actions. The only strategy we need now is the Nike strategy: Just do it!
Our White Paper acquisition plans have wholly credible force modernisation and expansion commitments. The only change we need to make is to accelerate them. Any revisiting of the French submarine decision can only lead to further delay.
The only possible change to that submarine plan should be to try to hurry the French along and perhaps keep the youngest of the Collins subs in service even after the earliest French subs come online so we can build a force of more than six subs more quickly than we are currently doing.
The other big contribution of the two old strategists is to counter the hysterical preemptive kowtowing of Australia’s China lobby. That we have just held a meeting at official level of the Quadrilateral Dialogue — involving the US, Japan, India and Australia — is entirely a good thing. Anyone who pays even the faintest lip service to the English language could not regard such a dialogue as anti-Chinese or as an expression of the policy of containment.
The word containment means not only attempting to prevent the strategic expansion of a power but to isolate it economically and deny it technology and diplomatic credibility. No one is trying to do that to China.
Beijing’s official reaction to the Quad meeting was to say that it welcomed dialogues in the region and hoped they weren’t directed at any outside party.
The China lobby in Australia seems to hold the view we should be ashamed even to talk to other democracies, a truly humiliating and contemptible outlook.
Some of the Australian China lobby even now see this as a conspiracy against Beijing.
Dibb and Brabin-Smith have injected more realism into Australia’s strategic debate.