We’ve crossed a strategic Rubicon

An op-ed by Professor Rory Medcalf, Head of the ANU National Security College and author of Contest for the Indo-Pacific

17 September 2021

The Morrison government has acted swiftly to regain just a fraction of the military edge that Beijing has been acquiring for years.

There comes a time in the world of policy when the old martial allusions are apt, not trite. Australia has crossed a strategic Rubicon, bitten the bullet, nailed its colours to the mast.

Amid accelerating concern about China’s coercive power, the government yesterday announced multiple momentous steps to shape our security for a generation or more.

We will now augment our formal American alliance with a tight alignment with the UK in a tripartite grouping called AUKUS, launched in a virtual meeting of the three leaders. All acronyms are ungainly at first, but we had best get used to this one: it may well become as familiar as ANZUS.

The initial priority of AUKUS will be to pool established US and British expertise and technology to develop a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia – a costly and formidable deterrent force, more usually the domain of a major power than a middling one.

This new triple near-alliance is based on capability, convergent interest and, above all, trust. It will be easy enough to caricature as an outmoded ‘‘Anglosphere’’ but bear in mind that these are three of the world’s most multicultural democracies, informed by a shared recognition that preserving liberal principles globally will require deterring coercion here in the Indo-Pacific.

Accordingly, the trio have hinted at a larger commitment to one another: a merger of our military, industrial and scientific capabilities to protect shared interests in an unforgiving century.

This will extend to critical technologies like cyber, artificial intelligence and quantum computing – commanding heights that China is seeking to dominate for security ends.

And almost as an aside, the government has confirmed plans to acquire serious strike weapons – missiles to hold sea, air and land targets at risk at ranges of hundreds of kilometres. These will be reinforced by research into cutting-edge ‘‘hypersonic’’ missiles and a national enterprise to manufacture missiles on Australian soil.

It’s a huge amount to take in. That’s part of the point. For more than a year now, the government has been warning the nation we have entered a time of danger and disruption, a new 1930s.

The mismatch between these tectonic strategic shifts – driven overwhelmingly by China’s confrontational power play with many countries – and an incremental strengthening of Australia’s security capabilities had become unsustainable. By compressing so much into one burst of change, the Morrison government has hoisted the bar on what counts as politically acceptable in the nation’s security posture.

The Labor opposition – briefed just before the announcement – has signalled broad assent. A tightened alliance with Joe Biden’s US and a capable Australian navy: those are predictable enough for Labor. After all, the promise of a superior submarine fleet began with Kevin Rudd.

It appears Labor is now on board, however reluctantly, with nuclear propulsion and a renewed UK alignment too. That should be seen in substantial part as a sign of the times – and public anxiety about China – although there will be resistance in some quarters.

Such a broadside of new policy leaves plenty of questions to be asked. This is a generational commitment, and if both sides of politics accept its contours then each will owe it to the nation to hold the other to account on implementation: cost, timelines, capability, workforce education, and a sea-change in the way our defence bureaucracy has traditionally done business.

And a priority question should be about sovereign capability. It is well and good to familiarise Australia with the most sensitive military technologies of our powerful friends – but how, in parallel, can we ensure Australia can act alone when need be, or expand our influence on allied strategy?

Delicate diplomacy lies ahead. The relationship with France is in for a difficult time. Paris is understandably aggrieved over the cancellation of the massive deal to build conventional submarines, however much Naval Group may have been taking the customer for granted.

This is doubly disappointing, as Australia and France – indeed the whole EU – have a real convergence of interests in a rules-based Indo-Pacific region that is dominated by no single power. We need to keep that awareness alive, conscious that Japan was realistic in finding shared strategic goals with Australia after its own disappointment (albeit at pre-contract stage) in an anticipated submarine deal back in 2016.

If Canberra, Washington and London are not moving promptly with a major gesture to Paris – involving material security co-operation – they should be.

On the other hand, the sensitivities we should not be desperate to allay are China’s. Australia and its allies are basically seeking to retain or regain a defensive military edge that we have been losing to Beijing’s rapid military modernisation. It will be hardly credible for China to condemn as Cold War behaviour our intent to acquire a fraction of the naval power it has been accumulating for many years.

As for others in the region, India, Japan, Vietnam, Taiwan, and South Korea will likely welcome a stronger Australian navy. Indonesia and others in ASEAN will need reassurance, as in their own way will our anti-nuclear ally New Zealand and friends in the South Pacific.

But the die is cast. There’s no going back. In the contested new Indo-Pacific, AUKUS and the Quad will overlap as central to Australia’s security.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.


We’ve crossed a strategic Rubicon

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