Inside Story

Spiky questions about the US alliance

A seasoned analyst outlines the strategy Australia should have debated before the latest bout of defence spending

Hamish McDonald Books 26 August 2023 2598 words

In step: Anthony Albanese and US president Joe Biden mount the podium at Naval Base Point Loma for March’s AUKUS announcement. With them is British prime minister Rishi Sunak. Evan Vucci/AP Photo

When I travelled through the Central Asian republics in 1990, the Soviet nomenklatura, drinking themselves silly in their exclusive clubs, could see the writing on the wall. But the locals had barely noticed Moscow’s empire was about to contract dramatically. Empires don’t always crumble because their subject peoples rise up; sometimes it’s because their rulers realise the imperial grip is no longer worth the effort and the resources are needed elsewhere.

Ahead of an American presidential election that might return to power an isolationist and avowed admirer of dictators, Australian national security insiders have been assured during their regular “leadership dialogue” with their American counterparts that, yes, protection and patronage remain. But whether or not Donald Trump returns, says Lowy Institute analyst Sam Roggeveen, the Americans will inevitably pull back from trying to maintain strategic primacy in the Western Pacific.

Eventually, Roggeveen argues in his important new book The Echidna Strategy, the Americans will come to terms with a power balance involving its adversaries — China, North Korea and Russia — facing off against strong friends like Japan, South Korea and Australia, with independent emerging powers Indonesia and India in the middle.

Roggeveen doesn’t envisage a sudden US withdrawal from the Asia-Pacific. But Australia will gradually lose great-power protection, forcing it to take a more independent path. “There won’t be a principled declaration of independence, but a hesitant and gradual process of separation triggered by America’s declining interest and motivation to protect Australia.”

Since this shift could conceivably happen over the first half of this century — during the next twenty-five or so years, that is — he believes it should be influencing the defence investments and foreign policy decisions we are making right now. Instead of placing a “big bet” on the United States remaining dominant, and acquiring nuclear submarines to assist, Australia should adopt a version of the porcupine strategy — by promising to inflict too much pain on the aggressor to justify any gains they may anticipate — for its own defence and go all out to keep Indonesia on side and help build its strength.

In a little over 200 pages of elegant logic, Roggeveen, who has led the security team at Lowy for the last fifteen years and before that worked in the Office of National Assessments, delivers a broadside at Canberra’s bipartisan consensus on the AUKUS agreement. He adds to the case made by figures like James Curran, historian and Australian Financial Review international editor, that the agreement still hasn’t been explained — and probably can’t be, except as a political fix.

As former ONA head Peter Varghese says, Roggeveen’s book “defies the echo chamber of current strategic policy” — the chamber that takes in the two main parties, the defence and foreign affairs departments, ONA’s successor the Office of National Intelligence, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the ANU National Security College, and a federal press gallery captivated by gee-whiz weaponry and China panics.

Roggeveen builds on the thinking of strategic analysts Hugh White and the late Allan Gyngell, who could see an era of power contestation developing in Asia. Far from “appeasement” — the cheap slur thrown by junior minister Pat Conroy at Labor’s national conference last week — they urge a bristly defence of Australia and its approaches combined with efforts to avoid being roadkill if the big vehicles start moving.

Roggeveen looks first at America’s national will. So far, the cost of its post-1945 security presence in Asia has been manageable and the risks low. But China’s rise and North Korea’s nuclear weaponry are changing the calculus. “When it comes to taking on China, the costs are too high and the stakes too low,” Roggeveen says.

The United States is uniquely secure, he points out, buffered by wide oceans east and west, and by benign neighbours north and south. It has the world’s largest military, its largest nuclear arsenal, and a young and growing population. With foreign trade only 23 per cent of its GDP, it can be economically self-sufficient.

“When Donald Trump said what was previously unsayable for a US president — that America’s allies are free-riders, that NATO had passed its use-by date, and that America gains nothing from its forward military presence in East Asia — the response from the US security establishment was swift and predictable,” Roggeveen writes. “America’s alliances, they said, are the backbone of global security.”

But Trump had grasped an important point. “America’s alliances are not a service the US offers to its allies and the world. Ultimately, they need to make the United States safer. If America’s alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia cease to have any benefit for the US, then it will stop making sacrifices for them.”

Cold war justifications for alliances are crumbling. East Asian allies are starting to question the “extended deterrence” of US nuclear forces and thinking about acquiring their own. “The US has learned to live with French, British and Israeli nuclear weapons. It can do the same for South Korea and Japan,” Roggeveen says.

And unlike Washington’s old enemy, the Soviet Union, China lacks an exportable ideology. “Communism in China is little more than a series of slogans (such as the ‘China dream’ and a ‘community of common destiny’). To be a communist in China today is to be committed not to the global spread of Marxist-Leninist ideology but simply to the preservation of Communist Party rule at home.”

Realistically, no nation of China’s economic weight would ever be content for its rival to be the leading strategic power in its own region, “any more than the US would tolerate China being the leading strategic power in North and Latin America. Imagine tens of thousands of Chinese troops based in Canada, an aircraft carrier permanently stationed in Cuba, and Chinese spy planes routinely patrolling just off the US east coast, and you get the idea.”

Should Trump be re-elected, or a “Trump-like figure” take the Republican Party back into the White House, his agenda would return, and probably with less institutional resistance. Trump might have been unexpected but he isn’t anomalous, says Roggeveen. His rise injected a new uncertainty into Australia’s strategic future.

The result will be “a long sunset of American power in Asia, in which China emerges as the leading nation but not the dominant one.” Australia’s alliance with the United States won’t be formally abrogated or repealed: too many people in both countries have a stake in its preservation.

“The treaty will remain,” says Roggeveen. “So will the troops, and the joint exercises, and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangements, and the arms sales. What will erode is the credibility of the alliance. Australia and the region in general will simply stop believing that the alliance represents an implicit promise that the two countries will fight on each other’s behalf.”

Yet Australia is doubling its bet on the United States staying on top. The planned eight nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs, more than the British or French navies possess, will operate as a one-eighth addition to the US navy’s SSN force. Aside from being able to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles with a 1500 to 2000 kilometre range, their role will be to find and chase China’s ballistic missile submarines, or SSBNs.

For nuclear powers, such SSBNs are the guaranteed “second strike” capability against a successful “first strike.” Roggeveen could have said more about the fact that China has only six SSBNs, five operating from a base in Hainan island facing the South China Sea and one near Qingdao in the Yellow Sea. Maintenance and training mean that only one or two are likely to be on patrol at any time. The relentless “freedom of navigation” patrols in these waters by US and allied forces seem designed to stop those SSBNs slipping out into the open ocean, from where more of the continental United States would be in missile range. Or perhaps they are poised to destroy the subs before they can launch. Either way, are we out to remove this stabilising element of mutual assured destruction?

This is a case of capability determining defence policy rather than the other way round, Roggeveen says: “Once we have the capability to send a fleet of boats thousands of kilometres to our north around China’s coast, and the capability to fire missiles at the Chinese mainland, we are going to have to come up with reasons why we are choosing to withhold that capability in the event of war.” Equally worryingly, “by the time this question arises Australia will have been enculturated and integrated with the US Navy over decades. It is too much to expect that our leaders would turn their backs on all that in the decisive moment.”

Any sense that the United States might have to compel Australia into helping in a future conflict is contradicted by the continuing willingness of both major political parties to lock military planning into US thinking. As Roggeveen puts it, the AUKUS agreement shows that “Australia didn’t need to be talked into anything.” And from an American perspective, what’s not to like when Australia comes offering to pay hundreds of billions of dollars for US weapons?

All the costs of AUKUS weaponry will be carried by Australia, with no hard promises in return. “It is a project of vaulting ambition that is out of step with Australian tradition as a military middle power, wildly at odds with our international status and, most importantly, a wasteful expenditure of public money that will make Australia less safe,” Roggeveen says. “But having cancelled the French project and inaugurated AUKUS, Australia is now proposing to manage not two but three submarine designs. The Collins upgrade is still going ahead, and we are adding two nuclear-powered designs as well, a technology with which Australia has no experience. It will surely shock no one if this initiative fails entirely, or is severely cut back over time.”

Meanwhile, Canberra’s advocates of more defence spending are vague about what exactly Australia needs to defend itself against. At the same time, they assume that China is or will be so powerful that resisting it without US help is pointless.

Waging war on Australia wouldn’t be easy, says Roggeveen, and Australia can relatively cheaply raise the stakes even further. “Australia’s security commentators project their anxieties about Australia, their lack of confidence in it, onto China. They think we can’t manage the challenge of China alone because we’re not strong or mature enough. I say we are, and I say we can.”

The invasion scenario put up by defence hawks like late army general and Liberal senator Jim Molan are laughably implausible. “Contrary to popular belief, we don’t need to defend ourselves against invasion,” says Roggeveen. “[T]his will remain beyond the capabilities of any rival military force for the indefinite future, and even if it becomes achievable, it will remain unnecessary and even counterproductive for the aggressor.” The only plausible reason to attack Australia would be to strike facilities being used to attack China — the US strategic bombers at the Katherine air base, for instance, and the SSNs at the Fremantle naval base.

Instead, Australia should rely on distance to put huge restraints on any Chinese military action. “Put simply, distance is Australia’s single biggest defence asset,” Roggeveen says, reminding his readers that Beijing is closer to London than to Sydney. That distance is invariably played down in the Australian defence debate in favour of a view that Australia is on the front line of military competition with China, or on China’s doorstep.

Australia should invest in forces that can punish and repel any antagonist who comes close — an antagonist gaining a military base in the Pacific islands, for example — but not attempt to project power any further. In other words, no capabilities aimed explicitly at hitting Chinese territory. Submarines, yes, long-range air power, yes, some missiles, yes, a lot of troops for restoring peace or providing disaster relief in the region, yes — but no heavily armoured army. Backing these capabilities would be hardened military bases, stockpiles of fuel and strategic materials, and deeper protection against cyberattack and other “grey” threats.

This is the “echidna strategy” of the book’s title — a version of which Roggeveen suggests for the defence of Taiwan. (He doesn’t favour a simple surrender of this democracy, and perhaps could have made this clearer.) It is essentially a strategy of denial.

“[This means] we are essentially planning to inflict the bare minimum damage on China so that we can persuade Beijing to stop but not give it a reason to hit us even harder,” Roggeveen says. It may not be heroic, “but such is the lot of a middle power when facing a great power. The alternative, which we are now pursuing, is a defence strategy which incentivises China to pay more military attention to us.”

Roggeveen does explore the ultimate defensive spike — nuclear weapons for Australia — but concludes that as nuclear weapons haven’t been used against non-nuclear adversaries since 1945, the chances of China raising the stakes that far against a much smaller, distant power are slim enough to discount.

But this doesn’t mean Australia should withdraw into a ball like a threatened echidna. It should be ambitious, but by using diplomacy and defence support. The focus should be Indonesia, the only emerging big power in the most contestable region around China capable of pushing back against the Chinese. “All the threat inflation, all the fever dreams conjured by our security pundits about China’s military threat to Australia — we are at risk of being surrounded; there is danger on our doorstep — would suddenly become real if Indonesia was ever hostile towards Australia.”

Then there is preserving Australia’s sphere of influence in the Pacific by doing more: more aid, more infrastructure, more investment, more labour mobility, more diplomacy and more defence cooperation. Though the smaller nations might be reluctant to surrender their China leverage, a European Union–style economic and political pact could cement island relations with Australia and New Zealand, with free trade, open borders, shared services, a regional airline and perhaps even a regional bank with a single currency.

This initiative could build on Roggeveen’s argument for a doubling of the Australian population to create a bigger economic base. With Papua New Guinea’s population now put tentatively at 11.8 million, and another three million or so in the other Pacific island nations, the region is there for us all to bulk up.

Roggeveen also puts the case for strong regional organisations. Not the Quad so much — its members are too dispersed, too divergent and too invested in China to agree to a NATO-style common defence, or even to explicitly mention China — but the much-derided Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its appendages. Instead of being disappointed about what ASEAN fails to do, we should look at what it’s been able to prevent — namely, wars between its members.

The Albanese government might sincerely believe in AUKUS, or it might be using it to help gain time in office in the expectation it will collapse on someone else’s watch. Either way, this book from such a seasoned and centrally placed figure in the defence and foreign policy sphere shows that our national future is being decided in panic and haste. •

The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace
By Sam Roggeveen | La Trobe University Press/Black Inc. | $32.99 | 232 pages