This article was published in The Canberra Times on 5 May 2023
By Cameron Leckie
To much fanfare, and more than a little speculation, the Defence Strategic Review has been released. So what are the key takeaways? It’s worth looking beyond the headlines about joining the missile age at a cost of $19 billion.
The review is typical of all contemporary government documents. Full of buzzwords (“Integrated Force”) and bland, uninformative and generic statements (“Our approach to statecraft must include measures internal and external to Australia and build on actions already underway”). The use of such language requires careful parsing of the document, sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph.
The Review was announced by the Albanese Government to address the “growing strategic challenges that Australia and its partner countries will face in the world in coming years.” The Review states that “Australia has faced significant security risks, but our current strategic circumstances are now radically different.” The next sentence in the Review highlights what is radically different, namely that “No longer is our Alliance partner, the United States, the unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific.”
This is the crucial fact upon which so much of the Australian polity appears to be in a state not much short of what maybe be called a panic. The great and irrational fear is that Australia is facing a situation where we can no longer rely upon a seemingly all-powerful imperial power to provide a security blanket.
On the alliance, the Review states that “Contrary to some public analysis, our Alliance with the United States is becoming even more important to Australia.” This is interesting on several levels. The first phrase is a tacit acknowledgement that there is growing debate amongst the Australian population on the alliance with the United States, perhaps best documented by the Independent and Peaceful Australia Networks (IPAN) Peoples Inquiry into the costs and consequences of the alliance. The second phrase also demonstrates a high degree of befuddlement. The United States is no longer the unipolar power, but the alliance is becoming more important? Is this a sign of desperation? Of fear? Of denial?
Whatever the reasoning for this seemingly irreconcilable position, it is indicative of a gaping hole in the description of the ‘radically’ different strategic circumstances facing Australia. And that is the future of the United States. The imperial system of the United States is in decline, which has been clear for many years but is now at the point where not only is the decline accelerating, but it cannot be hidden any longer.
It is thus disingenuous to raise concerns about China’s military build-up, which according to the authors “is occurring without transparency or reassurance to the Indo-Pacific region of China’s strategic intent”, without also discussing the strategic intent of the United States. For it seems increasingly clear that the intent of the United States is to trigger and/or provoke a war with China in the short term, for the purposes of regaining its hegemony. This is the unmentionable driver from which the China as threat narrative, as exemplified by the Red Alert scare campaign, is promulgated.
Further evidence that the Review has failed to come to terms with the evolving multipolar world is the emphasis placed upon the maintenance of the “global rules-based order”. This seemingly innocuous term is anything but. It is a euphemism for the hegemonic ambitions of the United States and Australia’s role as a sub-imperial power. The problem for Australia, as retired Commodore Richard Menhinick puts it, is that the rules-based order which we are seeking to maintain, is not the order enshrined in the United Nations Charter (which interestingly is not mentioned in the Review). The second problem is that countries such as China and many others, are well aware of this crucial difference.
One of the key issues raised in the Australians for War Powers Reform submission to the Defence Strategic Review was the potential for Australia to “become involved in a conflict with China without the ability to exercise sovereign decision-making power.” The submission proposed that this was not in Australia’s interest.
The importance of sovereign decision-making capacity is highlighted in the Review where it states that Australia’s focus should be on “how we ensure our fate is not determined by others; how we ensure our decisions are our own”. But the Review fails to identify that it is through Australia’s close alliance with the United States that we have already effectively ceded the decision-making power for a Sino-American war to Beijing or Washington. Under these circumstances, and with the weak recommendations of the recent Inquiry into armed overseas conflict decision making, the Parliament effectively has no authority or power to influence the most consequential decision in Australia’s history.
The Review is far from a first principles analysis of Australia’s strategic circumstances. Rather what the Review, and the Governments response, signs Australia up to is defending an anachronistic order led by a once great superpower which is following the same path of all previous empires; that of decline and fall. The Government has effectively handcuffed our future to that of the United States. Perhaps not surprising when serious conflicts of interest have been identified relating to key members of the Review team.
Unfortunately, the Review is a retrograde step for those who seek a truly democratic country, where the will of people, as expressed through the Parliament, is the centre of decision making with decisions being made in the interests of Australian’s, rather than a foreign power. There is a long battle ahead to achieve Australian sovereignty and independence over our defence policy.
Cameron Leckie served as an officer in the Australian Army for 24 years. He is now an agricultural engineer and a member of Australians for War Powers Reform.