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A Change In Our Defence Posture

Professor Owen Harries died on the weekend. He was famous as a promoter of the ‘realist’ view of geo-politics. Harries supported the Vietnam war because he was concerned about the expansionism of China but he opposed the Iraq war because he believed the neo-conservative approach of trying to democratize the Middle East, was an exercise in futility.

In a tribute to Professor Harries, the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has adopted a realist approach to our future defence posture.

The defence posture has pivoted away from the focus on the Middle East towards the Indo-Pacific. This means that in the future, Australia will probably not support American interventions in the Middle East. This change has occurred in a context where, as the Prime Minister has said, global relations are more uncertain than at any time since the ’30s and ’40s. However, the Government has departed from Professor Harries approach in moving to a policy of containment when it comes to China.

Owen Harries was a disciple of the famous American foreign policy expert George F Kennan who argued against the policy of John Foster Dulles during the cold war: Dulles argued that America should move to a position of negotiation from strength when it came to Russia. Kennan took the view that it would be better for America to pursue a policy of diplomatic engagement rather than adopting a more aggressive defence posture.

The Government now appears to be adopting a more aggressive defence posture in an attempt to contain China. Realists like Professor Hugh White of the ANU believe that this is an exercise in futility.

Australia is going to spend an additional $270 billion on defence over the next ten years. The armed forces will increase by 800 personnel; we are going to purchase long-range anti-ballistic missiles (although they will only have a range of 340 kilometres), and there will be enhancements to our cyber-security defences and long-range radar defences.

The weakness in the Australian approach is that this aggressive approach is not accompanied by a diplomatic statement that explains that Australia remains a supporter of a peaceful approach to conflict management and resolution. It appears that Australian foreign policy lacks a framework for conflict management. This is reflected in our lukewarm approach to internationalism.

While Australia is close to the United States in a geopolitical sense, it is close to China economically. From this perspective, it should be making more positive comments about China’s economic growth as a contribution to global prosperity. It should be seeking to work with China in international forums to enhance the international trade and payments system.

Australia did give advance notice of the Prime Minister’s announcement to China but it is unclear what the Chinese response is as this article is being prepared. Indonesia, which also had advance notice, released a statement saying that it agreed with Australia’s analysis that the strategic environment is deteriorating.

However, it is unlikely that Australia’s new approach will provoke China to a more militaristic stance. China has not historically been territorially ambitious. It is also likely that it already has the military capability to launch an attack on Australia.

Australia needs to accept this reality and prepare a response to China that reduces the prospect for conflict. The alternative is that China will use its economic strength to weaken Australia and any potential threat it poses to China’s interests.

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