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.