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Trump, Chinese Assertiveness and Australia's Defence Strategy

Published 08 Mar 2017

Our guest speaker at Glover Cottages on Tuesday 7 March was Dr Adam Lockyer, senior lecturer in defence studies at Macquarie University and a former Australian army officer.

Adam observed that Australia had only been attacked once, an experience that didn’t lend itself to empirical testing. We therefore have to rely on defence theory in developing workable strategy, policy and doctrine in preparation for a future attack. What challenges should the Australian Defence Force be asked to prepare for? And how should it meet them? Much confusion surrounds the long-running debate on these questions, which can for convenience be reduced to an evaluation of the merits of four options: defence of metropolitan Australia, defence of the seas surrounding the continent, defence of the region (the so-called ‘forward defence’ strategy of the Vietnam era), and defence by fighting potential enemies anywhere in the world.

Each option has had its proponents in recent times, and each has its merits. In 1986 Paul Dibb proposed defence of Australia based on four concentric circles. More recently Hugh White has put forward self-reliant area denial by sea and air as a means of preventing enemy access to Australia. Ross Babbage advocates flexible deterrence, in which any challenge by an attacker would be punished aggressively. Aldo Koch recommends restructuring the ADF to favour the army, though this security-based approach leaves unanswered the question of how to deal with pirates, insurgents, smugglers, and other maritime threats.

Adam favours preserving the status quo of American dominance, especially where the alternative would be undermining the international rules-based order.

Adam outlined the shared objectives of the UK and the ‘low countries’ in their defence against Germany, comparing them with the current situation of Japan and the Korean peninsula. They form an inner arc around China, whereas Australia is part of a wider Indo-Pacific arc. But China’s sphere of naval influence extends from the East and South China Seas to the Indian Ocean, through which its trade passes. To ensure the preservation of peace in these arcs, he recommended that Australia work more closely with Indonesia and Malaysia.

In a lively question session, Adam was asked about uncertainty surrounding American resolve to defend Asian countries and Australia, the erratic pronouncements of President Trump about Taiwan, Japan and the Republic of Korea, Australia’s defence policy vacuum, and what is popularly seen as the irrational purchase of extremely costly F35 strike fighters which do not have air-to-air superiority over fighters thirty years older, and a few equally expensive French submarines when the region is teaming with similar vessels. Adam said that his just-published book, Australia’s Defence Strategy: Evaluating Alternatives in a Contested Asia (MUP 22017) deals with the question of Australia’s over-reliance on the ANZUS treaty. He also thought that ┬ádespite Trump’s erratic pronouncements, nothing in the ANZUS alliance would change in the first four years of his presidency, or even in a second term: ‘it runs too deep’.


Report by Richard Broinowski