Things are chang­ing rapidly in South­east Asia and so must our de­fence forces


Aus­tralia’s strate­gic out­look is de­te­ri­o­rat­ing and, for the first time since World War II, we face an in­creased prospect of a threat from a ma­jor power.

China’s ag­gres­sive poli­cies and its use of co­er­cion are grounds for con­cern that it seeks po­lit­i­cal dom­i­na­tion of coun­tries in our re­gion, in­clud­ing South­east Asia.

There is a real risk that South­east Asia is be­com­ing a Chi­nese sphere of in­flu­ence. Peter Vargh­ese, the for­mer sec­re­tary of the De­part­ment of For­eign Af­fairs and Trade, has de­scribed the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions as a bro­ken reed.

In­di­vid­ual South­east Asian coun­tries are drift­ing into China’s or­bit and ASEAN has proved in­ca­pable of pro­tect­ing its ter­ri­to­rial in­ter­ests in the South China Sea. China’s mil­i­tari­sa­tion of the South China Sea has brought its power pro­jec­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties 1200km closer to Aus­tralia’s vul­ner­a­ble north­ern ap­proaches

Bei­jing is steadily erod­ing our strate­gic space. This is short­en­ing the time Aus­tralia has to un­der­stand, pre­pare and — if nec­es­sary — re­spond to ad­verse mil­i­tary de­vel­op­ments.

China’s eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence in our re­gion con­tin­ues to grow, and its pro­gram of mil­i­tary mod­erni­sa­tion and ex­pan­sion is am­bi­tious. It is de­vel­op­ing mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties that could come to threaten us di­rectly.

This means the com­fort­able judg­ments of pre­vi­ous years about the lim­ited lev­els of mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity within our own re­gion are no longer ap­pro­pri­ate.

It is China that could come to pose se­ri­ous chal­lenges for Aus­tralian de­fence pol­icy. No other ma­jor power is likely to threaten us mil­i­tar­ily in the fore­see­able fu­ture. The US, Ja­pan and In­dia are democ­ra­cies and we are dis­tant from Rus­sia’s pri­or­ity se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Since last year’s de­fence white pa­per, Aus­tralia’s strate­gic cir­cum­stances have de­te­ri­o­rated, with a con­tin­u­ing shift in the bal­ance of power in the re­gion in favour of China, and the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump at a time of a per­cep­tion of de­clin­ing US power.

The de­vel­op­ment of in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal nu­clear weapons by North Korea raises doubts about US ex­tended nu­clear de­ter­rence and the spec­tre of fur­ther nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion in our re­gion of pri­mary strate­gic con­cern.

In the years ahead, the level of China’s mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­ity able to be brought to bear against Aus­tralia will in­crease. So, our judg­ments re­lat­ing to de­fence risk man­age­ment will need to rely less on the ear­lier ev­i­dence that ca­pa­bil­ity was lim­ited, and more on as­sess­ments of Bei­jing’s mo­tive and in­tent.

Judg­ments of mo­tive and in­tent are in­her­ently am­bigu­ous and un­cer­tain. But we can­not ig­nore China’s build-up of of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties in our strate­gic neigh­bour­hood.

Po­ten­tial warn­ing time for high-in­ten­sity con­flict in­volv­ing China — in our neigh­bour­hood or far­ther afield — is shorter be­cause China’s ca­pa­bil­ity lev­els have risen and will in­crease fur­ther.

This ob­ser­va­tion ap­plies to shorter-term con­tin­gen­cies and, in­creas­ingly, to more se­ri­ous con­tin­gen­cies cred­i­ble in the fore­see­able fu­ture.

We must now reckon with a ma­jor power ca­pa­ble of do­ing us se­ri­ous dam­age.

How should Aus­tralia re­spond? Much more thought needs to be given to plan­ning for the ex­pan­sion of the Aus­tralian De­fence Force and its ca­pac­ity to en­gage in high-in­ten­sity con­flict in our own de­fence — in a way we haven’t pre­vi­ously had to con­sider.

The fact is that con­tin­gen­cies in­volv­ing China that are cred­i­ble could now be char­ac­terised by higher lev­els of in­ten­sity and tech­no­log­i­cal so­phis­ti­ca­tion than those of ear­lier decades.

This means readi­ness and sus- tain­abil­ity need to be in­creased. We need higher train­ing lev­els, a demon­stra­ble and sus­tain­able surge ca­pac­ity for the ADF, in­creased stocks of mis­siles, more main­te­nance spares, a ro­bust fuel sup­ply sys­tem, and mod­ernised and sur­viv­able op­er­a­tional bases, es­pe­cially in the north of Aus­tralia. We also need to pay at­ten­tion to the key is­sue of whether there is a sound basis for the timely ex­pan­sion of the ADF.

Mat­ters that would ben­e­fit from spe­cific ex­am­i­na­tion in­clude the de­vel­op­ment of an Aus­tralian equiv­a­lent of an “anti-ac­cess and area de­nial” ca­pa­bil­ity that will en­able us to dom­i­nate our north­ern and west­ern ap­proaches — in­clud­ing, if nec­es­sary, the straits of South­east Asia — to ex­ploit China’s mil­i­tary weak­nesses when op­er­at­ing at a dis­tance from its home­land.

We also need to re­build ca­pa­bil­i­ties that have been run down in the past 15 years be­cause of our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with op­er­a­tions in Afghanistan and the Mid­dle East. These in­clude: anti-sub­ma­rine war­fare; min­ing and mine coun­ter­mea­sures; mar­itime sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance; and the ca­pac­ity for sus­tained strike op­er­a­tions for weeks and pos­si­bly months.

Plan­ning for the de­fence of Aus­tralia needs to take these new re­al­i­ties into ac­count, in­clud­ing by re-ex­am­in­ing the ADF’s pre­pared­ness lev­els and the lead times for key el­e­ments of the ex­pan­sion base.

The con­duct of op­er­a­tions far­ther afield, in­clud­ing in the Mid­dle East, must not be al­lowed to dis­tract from the ef­fort that needs to go into this plan­ning or from the sub­stan­tial fund­ing that en­hanced ca­pa­bil­i­ties will re­quire.

Ar­guably, all this will need a rad­i­cal change to de­fence pol­icy plan­ning. It will re­quire new strate­gic think­ing from the De­fence Or­gan­i­sa­tion. This is a sum­mary of an Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­icy In­sti­tute pa­per launched to­day by for­mer chief of the de­fence force Sir An­gus Hous­ton. Emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor Paul Dibb and hon­orary pro­fes­sor Richard Bra­bin-Smith are at the Strate­gic and De­fence Stud­ies Cen­tre in the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity. Both are for­mer deputy sec­re­taries of de­fence.

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