Monday, February 14, 2011


Alas, late posting (again!),

Which is a pity because this commentary on Ross Babbage's recent analysis on China provoked a number of people within the strategic community.


Kevin Rudd's once dynamic new security agenda to transform Australia’s defences is now dead. It’s expired. Ceased to be. Nothing demonstrates this more vividly than the empty response to a recent call to dramatically increase military spending. A special report, prepared by senior defence analyst Ross Babbage (who worked as a key adviser to last year's Defence White Paper) was released last Monday. It urgently warned about a new existential danger confronting Australia – China’s increasing military might. It urged the rapid build-up of our forces. In particular it stressed the need to quickly acquire nuclear-powered attack submarines; ballistic missiles (to be launched from arsenal ships); and begin a significant investment in cyber-warfare. Now.

The warnings plopped like a damp squib.

Even the detail of Babbage's Kokoda Paper was only seriously reported in one paper, which subsequently carried a prominent opinion piece dismissing both his warnings and their accompanying call to arms. Given Babbage’s links with Rudd, less than a year ago his utterances would have been poured over in an attempt to discern possible future directions of Australian defence policy. Today, they’re dismissed and ignored. Not even the opposition is prepared to embrace his proposals for re-armament, because these depend on significantly boosting spending on the armed forces. That’s not going to happen. Maintaining a balanced budget is the new holy Grail of Australian politics and the chances of extra money being found for expenditure on defence can now be reduced to a concrete number – exactly zero. This doesn't, however, mean that Babbage's work should be ignored. The problem he raises is fundamental to Australia's security outlook – the key problem is, what is the correct answer?

Babbage emphasises that Australia cannot stand aloof from what's happening in our region. "The scale, pace and nature of China's military expansion," he warns, "poses the most serious challenge to Australia . . . since the Second World War. Simply modernising Australia's current national security capabilities would be ineffective in balancing, offsetting and deterring the rising Peoples Liberation Army." Babbage doesn't hesitate as he searches for an answer. Submarines, strike aircraft and "next-generation special forces" are needed, he believes, to provide strategic leverage. Instead of merely submitting to the changing international dynamic, Babbage is prepared to fight.

This pressing bugle-note represents one answer to our new strategic situation -- but now you understand it, you can forget it. No political party (with the exception, perhaps, of One Nation) is prepared to take on China. The country will ignore Babbage's recommendations. Perhaps, in his private moments, even he admits this. He chose to leak the document in return for a front-page splash and (almost as a result of his electing to give one journalist special treatment) Babbage’s proposals subsequently sank like a stone. He’s brilliantly connected within the strategic community, both here and in the US, but these aren’t the decision-makers. The politicians are the key to understanding where Australia is going.

This is one of those big moments in history where the shape of the world is changing. There's been nothing like it since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in Russia. For a long time in the ‘90s there were hopes that a new international order might replace the competing states of the past. It didn't. Nor has the call to global Jihad managed to transform the underlying realities of the world in the way the prophets of the apocalypse originally hoped. A rising China is another matter.

At the end of 1942 Winston Churchill insisted "I have not become the King's First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire". It was inspiring rhetoric: but his words failed to match with reality. It was a statement full of empty bombast and, like it or not, dissolve the Empire is exactly what Churchill was forced to do. When he was born (somewhat abruptly, after his mother had been dancing too vigorously while attending a ball at Blenheim Palace) the maps of the globe were splashed red with gay abandon. As a dashingly-attired young cavalry officer Churchill had charged the dervishes in the Sudan with the 21st (Empress of India's) Lancers. His mind continued to inhabit this proud world of empires and dominions, presided over from London. But the globe continued turning on its axis. Less than a decade after his proud boast both India and Pakistan had sloughed of British rule and much of Africa was free. The once-glorious empire had contracted to isolated pinpricks of scarlet on the map. It had been reduced to islands like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. Political reality had evolved to reflect the underlying economic actuality.

Our own ways of understanding the world will continue to totter unsteadily unless they shift to reflect the underlying forces that are now distributing power in a different way. Any attempt to thrust China ‘back in its box’ will simply increase the eventual possibility of a horrific confrontation. Beijing cannot be ignored. New international superstructures will need to accommodate this, and these changes are the issue that Hugh White attempted to address in his recent Quarterly Essay, ‘Power Shift -- Australia's future between Washington and Beijing’.

Like Babbage, White’s starting point is also the rise of China but he outlines very different solutions to the same problem. Although he’s now an ANU professor, White doesn't come at this issue from the rarefied atmosphere of ivory halls and cloisters. He's also produced a Defence White Paper: not one as ambitious, perhaps, as the most recent, but one which has nonetheless proved its worth over time. One significant -- possibly unbridgeable -- feature defines the difference in approach. This has to do with the broader political environment.

The most recent Defence White Paper was framed when Kevin Rudd’s dominance of the political process appeared unassailable. As a founding member of the Australian -- American Leadership Dialogue, the (then) PM appeared located securely within Washington's orbit. Rudd also understood China and proclaimed himself a friend of the Middle Kingdom, although this was not the way Beijing always interpreted his actions. Babbage’s warnings mesh with Rudd’s vision, but much has changed since last June. When Labor dumped Rudd the party also jettisoned his worldview. No one today is going to jump up and down if Julia Gillard decides to slash at the defence budget to find money for flood victims. Priorities have changed. Muscling-up in case we need to take-on Beijing isn't an issue high on anyone’s agenda.

Paul Dibb (author of another Defence White Paper, this one from 1987) has called on the government to explicitly repudiate Babbage's arguments. He knows this won't happen, of course, because if the government adopted a firm position it would just be giving the opposition another stick to beat it with. Instead, both sides of politics are determined to remain mute. The risks of articulating new policies to deal with our declining relative power are too politically dangerous. Instead we'll continue making ad-hoc arrangements, incrementally replacing specific defence capabilities. We’ll continue to postpone the reckoning.

There is a need to find a new answer to the rising power of China, but the purchase of new submarines and missiles will only be one part of a far more delicate solution. Unless can incorporate a new way of dealing with the international environment that is less reliant on military hardware and the accompanying budget support, it will be useless.

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