Australia’s traditional way of war is to send expeditionary forces abroad to fight in a coalition—to secure the continent by fighting far from it.
For more than a century, a central tension of Oz strategic debate has been aligning the expeditionary/alliance history and the defence of the continent.
‘Fortress Australia’ fits the logic of our geography, yet alliance pulls towards the expeditionary answer. When confidence in alliance falters, the fortress Australia arguments grow louder.
Such a loss of faith in the US was why Malcolm Fraser became the first (former) prime minister to call for armed neutrality, arguing in his book Dangerous allies that Australia had to escape its cage as a ‘strategic captive’ of the US. Even Fraser, though, didn’t go the full fortress. He just wanted new friends in Asia.
Hugh White’s How to defend Australia is a deeper argument about Australia’s strategic options than Fraser’s 2014 effort. The former prime minister hacked hard at the shackles of the alliance, but offered little detail about what should come next. White, by contrast, follows the logic of his thinking to explosive (even nuclear) conclusions.
Where Fraser wanted to abandon the alliance, White thinks it’s the alliance that’s leaving Australia: see my previous column and the first of these ASPI interviews for White’s discussion of the dangers of alliance entrapment or abandonment.
White’s prescription for a new Australian way of war is for a fortress Oz (his preferred term is strategic independence), but a fortress with a long military reach. That independence would be built on a strategy of ‘maritime denial’—involving sea denial and air control—to prevent any adversary from arriving on the shores of the fortress.
Maritime denial will be Australia’s best bet in coming decades, White argues, because it exploits our geography and the technological advantage of defence over attack in maritime warfare. A denial strategy narrows possible targets to increase effectiveness. And ‘a defensive posture with a narrow focus limits the risk of escalation, which is a central priority for a middle power confronting a great power’.
White offers several versions of how this well-armed, independent Australia could deal with the circumstances it faces in the region.
Adopting armed neutrality: In this scenario, Australia and New Zealand would avoid all other alliances and alignments and only fight to defend their own territories. ‘The downside’, White writes, ‘is that we would miss the chance to work with others to keep a threat further from our shores and sharply reduce the chances that anyone else would support us if we were attacked.’
Adopting extended neutrality: Here, Australia would widen the area it defends to cover small island neighbours, ‘to keep them out of an adversary’s hands’.
Aligning with Indonesia: ‘If Indonesia were willing, there would be obvious advantages in fighting alongside it to keep an adversary out of the archipelago to our north. The downside is that we would embroil ourselves in major wars that we might otherwise avoid.’
Aligning with China, India or Japan: ‘We might be drawn into their wars against our interests; and they might fail to come to our aid when we needed them. Moreover, the more closely we align ourselves with one major power, the more likely we are to face hostility from its rivals.’
Remaining a US ally: A US that stays in Asia ‘would not be the ally we have known for so long’. Either it would be ‘locked in a bitter, costly and dangerous rivalry with China’, White writes, or the two giants will reach ‘an edgy and probably unstable accommodation’.
White says that none of these options is ideal and Australia will probably try versions of all of them in the decades ahead. And none of these options ‘will work for Australia unless we have the strategic weight that only substantial independent military power can provide’.
The choice Australia confronts in considering a new way of war is, ultimately, what sort of player it wants to be in the Asian century—a middle power or a small power.
If Australia wants to remain a middle power, White writes, it must build strategic independence so it has a significant capacity to fight alone:
Middle powers can stand up to a great power without the backing of another great power, while small powers cannot. Middle powers can shape the way the international order affects them; small powers must take what comes. Middle powers have choices to make, even if they are often very difficult ones; small powers do not.