So, we are getting ready to take on China? That’s brave – but is it worth it? | Allan Behm, Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone

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Allan Behm: China must be engaged, not contained

Strong national defence is the consequence of four interrelated factors: a vibrant economy; an educated, inclusive and resilient society; a smart defence force that exploits agility rather than bulk; and an active and engaged diplomacy. Interestingly, an invested diplomacy is what ultimately brings together all the elements of national power and focuses them on realising the national interests.

So, we are getting ready to take on China? That’s brave. But remember, VCs are often won posthumously.

The attempted overreach in the package announced by prime minister Scott Morrison looks more like underreach, if China is the country we are seeking to deter. No matter how successful a flyweight is in bulking up to the welterweight division, you don’t get into the ring with a heavyweight. You’ll get smashed.

So what does the government imagine it’s going to get for its investment of $270bn over 10 years and an additional 800 (yes, 800!) ADF personnel, bringing defence spending to 2% of GDP? A solution to the “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly” world that is in prospect, or a gesture that reflects our fear rather than the confidence to work with our neighbours to create a more stable and secure world? Whatever “a sovereign Indo-Pacific” might mean, regional and global security requires us to encourage China to be a contributor to a stable world order. China must be engaged, not contained.

An agile ADF is important and a more versatile naval capability should distinguish Australia’s approach to national defence. That means submarines rather than frigates, but the government has yet to lay a keel. Missiles are great, but there’s never enough of them.

Remember, a welterweight will never defeat a heavyweight, so you don’t get into the ring. Rather, you build coalitions.

Allan Behm is head of the international and security affairs program at the Australia Institute

Ashley Townshend: This will begin to prepare Australia for threatening new challenges

Prime minister Scott Morrison’s speech at the Australian Defence Force Academy on Wednesday will have sent a chill down the spine of most Australians. But the bleak assessment he shared about the Indo-Pacific’s deteriorating strategic environment is frighteningly spot on – and justifies the department of defence’s major new investments into deterring and responding to coercion in our front yard.

Three worrying trends lie behind the region’s slide into dangerous strategic competition: an eroding balance of power, a decline in the US’ capacity to deter aggression and maintain regional order, and an increase in China’s aggressive use of coercive statecraft – such as maritime assertiveness, economic leverage, covert influence operations and other grey zone activities – backed by its massive investments in high-end military capabilities designed to reduce our access and influence in the region.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan – which provided the strategic substance for Morrison’s lecture – will begin to prepare Australia for these threatening new challenges.

Prioritising the Indo-Pacific as the focus for our defence activities is the simplest but most important policy shift being ushered in. Since 2001, Australia has spent over $15bn on military operations in the Middle East compared to less than $4bn in our region – an unstrategic use of resources that was compounded by the way that counterinsurgency operations also warped our procurement priorities.

This, presumably, will now end, freeing up additional funds and bandwidth to support our Pacific and Southeast Asian partners to better defend their – and our – strategic interests by pushing back against Chinese coercion, expansion and regional adventurism.

How we do this, however, will pose thorny new questions about what kinds of military and geopolitical risks Canberra is willing to run in defence of our regional interests. This applies even more to the other big policy shift in today’s updates – Australia’s re-entry into the high-end deterrence game.

Investing $13bn to $23bn in long-range strike capabilities, unmanned combat aircraft and offensive/defensive cyber assets will give the government serious options for threatening Chinese forces, interests and infrastructure in a crisis. But developing the operational concepts and political thresholds for making the preemptive military threats that deterrence requires will be a long and difficult process – and is where the really hard choices lurk.

Ashley Townshend is the director of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre, the University of Sydney

Brendan Thomas-Noone: The new investments may miss the broader picture

One of the most noteworthy admissions in the new defence strategy prime minister Scott Morrison laid out on Wednesday is that Australia – and the US – may no longer hold a technological military advantage in the Indo-Pacific.

This assumption has been a cornerstone of Australia’s defence policy since the end of the cold war. It has largely allowed Australia to invest in high-end military equipment, often bought from the US, with the confidence that it was superior to anything a potential aggressor in the region could deploy.

The Australian defence force may be small relatively to other large land-based armies in the region, but its equipment, technology and training could be counted on as being superior.

But China’s rise has brought all sorts of implications for our defence policy, and its ascent as a scientific and technological power is perhaps the most consequential. Most estimates put Beijing’s national spending on R&D to reach parity with the US, Canada, the UK , New Zealand and Australia combined in PPP terms by the mid to late 2020s.

Much of this R&D will also bolster the People Liberation Army’s military capability and explains – in part – why technology has become the central element of US-China strategic competition.

Ensuring Australia has a competitive edge in military capability and technology is critical for a middle power in the Indo-Pacific. This new defence strategy leans into emerging technological capabilities like the autonomous UAV “Loyal Wingman” to team up with our crewed fighters, robotic capabilities for our land forces and boosts our space-based communications and underwater sensors.

This is on top of an additional $3bn for defence innovation and science.

But these new capabilities and investments – while needed – may miss the broader picture. With many new technologies originating in the private sector or through Australian universities having national security implications, investing and building our broader scientific and innovation capacity will be just as critical as new missiles and drones in withstanding the worsening strategic environment.

Brendan Thomas-Noone is a research fellow of foreign policy and defence at the United States Studies Centre, the University of Sydney

The Guardian

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