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Oh, for a Parliament of Owls

05 May 2022
By Richard Moore
Peter Dutton and Wiranto at the 2018 Sub-Regional Meeting on Counter Terrorism. Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta

It’s an indicator of how far diplomacy has fallen that the dominant discourse on Australia’s strategic circumstances is led by Peter Dutton. It calls for little more than additional military and intelligence capability to fight an almost inevitable war.

Russia’s Ukraine “special operation” is failing for multiple reasons, but critically, poor strategic assessments and an unwillingness to challenge the leadership have led to catastrophic misjudgements that will leave Russia on the outer as long as Putin holds power.  Australia too needs to be careful that prevailing orthodoxies are not beyond challenge.

Colleagues in academia and think tanks report a prevailing and paralysing fear of “Munich syndrome.” They worry about being shown, years from now, to have naively misjudged the aggressive intentions of competitors and adversaries.  Some are struck dumb, and we are all rendered dumber as a result, risking serious strategic errors.

What sort of errors?  Principally, those of binary thinking: hawks and doves; with us or against us; triumph or defeat. The range of possibilities is so much bigger and the likely outcomes, so much messier. Surely Iraq and Afghanistan taught us that?

Twenty years ago, John Howard argued Australia didn’t need to choose between the US and China.  Things change. Both Liberal and Labor governments were slow and naïve in recognising the degree of infiltration of the polity and institutions and those of Australia’s neighbours.  But now Australia has woken up, the choices it must make don’t end with just siding, unambiguously with the US.

The big risks now is the belief that Australia has a permanent US security guarantee, come what may, and that China will forever buy as much as can be dug out of the ground.  The new version of “don’t have to choose” is “we have chosen and that’s that.” But it’s not.

The US may or may not go the distance in terms of defending its primacy in East Asia, especially if Donald Trump – or an acolyte – returns to the presidency. Even under calmer, more careful leadership, American strategists will carefully weigh its interests and will be rightly cautious about entering a conflict with another nuclear armed nation, even over Taiwan.

A flashpoint that sees the US step back, rather than initiate a full-scale conflict, could potentially leave Australia as the most strident, anti-CCP country in East Asia, with few like-minded friends and neighbours. That would be a strategic disaster.

Under this scenario, a strategy of being loud and assertive as the default position in Australia’s relations with China and with pushing regional countries to adopt an Australian view of the world would not deliver the best national interest outcomes. This suggests Australia needs to proceed carefully, choosing issues and nuancing responses.

And then there’s economic interests. They are currently quarantined in a surreal bubble, seemingly not part of the strategic calculus. Australia is heavily reliant on China for exports (40 percent in 2020) and for the standard of living.  Chinese attempted economic coercion has failed to date because punitive measures hitting coal, barley, and wine have been outweighed by China’s voracious appetite for iron ore.

Will that state of play continue? Almost certainly not. Several economic trends alone will reduce China’s demand for Australia’s resources, but this will be greatly exacerbated by deliberate diversification away from Australia as a supplier, even at significant cost.

This is not to argue that Australia should acquiesce as a result. Far from it. But there is a  need for a much more vigorous approach to diversifying economic relations with populous, fast-growing countries in East Asia. The India effort is a start, but progress is likely to be modest, slow and insufficient.

Australia needs to be looking to deeper, broader economic integration with economies that have complimentary structures, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. This is hard stuff that Australia has attempted and given up on before, having underestimated what it takes to proactively build a range of regional alliances based on shared interests. These are the things policymakers should be discussing and planning for, not just increased defence spending and better military tactics, important as these are.

Peter Dutton is right that to avoid war, sometimes you have to prepare for it.  But there’s so much else that can and should be done to deter aggression and reduce the chances of conflict, without surrendering sovereignty.

Avoiding bellicose rhetoric is a useful start, as is discouraging the view that conflict is inevitable.  Building strong and deep regional relationships is crucial and helping countries expand their economies and strengthen their institutions, giving them more strategic room to move has to be a major part of the story.

Reducing foreign policy to a contest between hawks and doves serves Australia badly. Instead, Australia should cultivate a Parliament of Owls and a foreign policy where defence serves the national interests, rather than defining them.

Richard Moore was a senior official in DFAT and AusAID, and oversaw the design of DFAT’s new performance framework in 2014.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.