Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2019

Australian Foreign Affairs #4 (2018): Defending Australia , edited by Jonathan Pearlman

Our politicians are back from holidays and busy trading barbs with each other in preparation for the election due later on this year.  At this stage, neither of the major parties have anything on their websites about foreign policy or defence, but you can bet that (apart from securing the defence vote with a shopping list of weaponry), the campaigns are going to focus on the domestic hip pocket nerve and the culture wars.  If any of our politicians are seriously thinking about our changing region and the policy changes that are needed, then they’re not telling voters about it.  (Yet.  A good scare campaign is a useful campaign weapon if the national mood veers towards a change of government).

What kind of issues should our government be tackling?

This is the blurb for the most recent issue of the Australian Foreign Affairs Journal:

The fourth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the challenge of defending Australia at a time of regional uncertainty and fast-changing military technology. It explores the nation’s main vulnerabilities and the capabilities needed to secure against them, including the consequences of a nuclear arms race in Asia.

    • Michael Wesley examines the state of Australia’s security as Asia’s power balance shifts.
    • Patrick Walters probes the overhaul of Australia’s expanding intelligence agencies.
    • John Birmingham analyses Australia’s weapons capabilities as the military expands its reach.
    • Stephan Frühling explores Australia’s options for developing nuclear weapons to protect its maritime approaches.
    • Jane Perlez discusses the West’s misjudgement of Xi Jinping, China’s leader for life.
    • Matthew Thompson examines Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous rule in the Philippines.
    • Tess Newton Cain reports on mining in the Pacific region.

The issue begins with a striking piece of information:

Australia’s military has fought almost continuously since the nation was founded in 1901.  More than 100,000 soldiers have died in more than twenty-five separate conflicts, and 2400 are currently on active duty in at least seven countries.  These various wars and operations are, with one exception, linked by a convenient thread: they have all occurred elsewhere. (Editor’s Note, p.3)

(The exception is the Japanese bombing of Australia’s northern coastline and the submarine raids in Sydney Harbour in WW2.  Neither of these involved landing enemy troops here.)

Update 9/7/19 The editor’s claim that with one exception conflicts involving Australia’s military all took place elsewhere rests on a technicality. Australia did not have a national defence force until Federation.  But there was well-documented military action against the Indigenous population on Australian soil during the frontier wars, notably in Tasmania.  See here, and here.

We send our defence forces overseas, and we spend lots of money on lethal weaponry, but can anyone born after WW2 remember even a rudimentary air raid drill in a major city? We haven’t a civil defence program since WW2 because we haven’t feared being attacked.  We haven’t feared being attacked because of our geography: we can’t defend our landmass, but Australia has been difficult to attack effectively:

…its major population centres, economic heartlands and government infrastructure are hard to strike and occupy.  Australia has ‘strategic depth’ unlike that of any other country on earth, in that an attack that comes from its northern or western approaches would have to cross thousands of kilometres of uninhabited and inhospitable territory before reaching its goal of the continent’s south-eastern corner.  A direct attack on Australia’s south-eastern coastline faces no less daunting logistical challenges: water-borne forces are vulnerable to defensive action by opposing navies and to shore-based firepower.  Any hostile country intending to mount a direct amphibious attack on Australia’s south-eastern coast would need to establish sea control and command of the air, while suppressing shore-based defence systems, an almost impossible task in waters thousands of kilometres from possible bases of supply. (Michael Wesley, in ‘Dangerous Proximity’, p.12)

Add to that Australia’s history of relying on alliances with great and powerful nations (the UK till WW2, and then the US) and it’s easy to see why domestic defence has long been a low-key political issue in this country.

But things are changing.  Long-range precision-strike capabilities mean that geography is no longer the deterrent that it was.  And it’s not just that there are challenges to US authority in the region, it’s also that an unpredictable president doesn’t make any of its allies in Asia and Southeast Asia feel confident about the extent and durability of Washington’s commitment to their security. Though for a long time, Australia’s military capabilities have been superior to those of countries in our neighbourhood, that’s not true any more either.  Though all eyes lately have been on China, the rise of India and the growth of the Indonesian economy mean Australia needs to rethink its complacency.

According to Australia’s 2016 White Paper (the most recent), half the world’s submarines will be operating in the Asia-Pacific region within the next two decades, as will at least half of all advanced-combat aircraft.  Meanwhile, changes in technology, such as the development of cyber capabilities and drones, make it cheaper and easier for weaker countries to attack those with superior weaponry.  (Editor’s Note, p.5)

Australia, says Michael Wesley, has lost its technological edge.  And the logic of the US alliance has shifted too: from whether they will come to our aid if we need it, to whether Australia will come to America’s aid if there’s a stoush with China in the South China Sea.

It is even distinctly possible that if what is required to defend Australia impedes Washington’s efforts to preserve its strategic influence in the Pacific, the opacities of the ANZUS alliance will come to the fore.  (Wesley, p.19)

What Wesley suggests is that Australia ought to develop new strategic partnerships with India, Japan and Indonesia, to complement the US alliance.  And crucially, we must get past our current dialogue-of-the-deaf with China, engaging Beijing in a sustained conversation about the emerging power balance in the region.  (p.23)

Patrick Walters’ chapter about “Spies, China and Megabytes’ is a seriously creepy chapter, as it reveals aspects of intelligence operations that — while aiming to protect Australia, for example, from cyber-attacks to steal intellectual property, especially defence-related intellectual property — also have a Big Brotherish feel to me.  The spurious claims made by scurrilous politicians to link counterterrorism operations with refugees make me uneasy too.  Yes, there appears to be evidence that China has been engaged in highly dubious activities, from penetrating the Bureau of Meteorology and the ANU computer network to a sophisticated strategy for influencing the views of the Australian body politic via the media, government and the Chinese diaspora here, but must we have the Home Affairs behemoth? The 2017 Independent Intelligence Review apparently didn’t include that in its recommendations, and nor was the shift of ASIO from the Attorney-General’s department to Home Affairs.

John Birmingham’s chapter ‘Weapons of Choice’ depressed me with its analysis of the eye-glazing defence expenditure that, in an ideal world, could be better spent on improving people’s lives.  Even more depressing is his concluding paragraph that suggests that all this military spending…

… does nothing to protect the infinitely vaster and immeasurably more vulnerable non-military infrastructure, which is more likely to be targeted in the opening micro-seconds of the next war.  (John Birmingham, ‘Weapons of Choice’, p.70

I note Birmingham’s advice that simply installing software update patches as they are released by providers such as Microsoft does go a long way towards securing IT systems.  But if my experience of penny-pinching reactive-not-proactive IT support in schools is typical, then there’s not much hope of timely updates in government departments, universities and the like, not to mention small business working with intellectual property that foreign sources would like to steal.

Stephan Frühling’s chapter ‘A Nuclear Armed Australia?’ puts a finger squarely on the issue:

Ultimately, the role of nuclear weapons in the defence of Australia is inseparable from questions about the nation’s identity, and the kind of country Australia wants to be in the new world order.  (Stephan Frūhling, “A Nuclear Armed Australia’, p.73

Indeed.  Things are bad enough as they are, with the suspension of the nuclear weapons treaty this week, (blame attributed to Russia on the ABC website and to the US at the Guardian) without contemplating a nuclear arms race in the geologically unstable region to our north if Australia joined the nuclear club…

(It’s only a week or so since I visited the Black Mist Burnt Country exhibition which …

… is a national touring exhibition concerned with the British atomic tests in Australia in the 1950s and ‘60s. It revisits the events and locations through the artworks of Indigenous and non-Indigenous contemporary artists across the mediums of painting, print-making, sculpture, photography, video and new media.

Even the testing of these weapons is a danger to future generations, even if the weapons are never used.)

Much food for thought, as usual, but nothing in this issue makes me feel confident that anyone is on the ball.

There also book reviews (see the last three dot points above) and the usual correspondence about the previous issue.

The next issue, which will land in my letter box this month, is called Are We Asian Yet? History v Geography

Authors: Michael Wesley, John Birmingham, Patrick Walters and Stephan Frühling
Series editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title: Defending Australia
Series: Australian Foreign Affairs Issue #4
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, October 2018, 144 pages
ISBN: 9781760640774
Source: Personal subscription

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. What depressing reading. Arms races create arms races. The real problem is in your last sentence: Are we Asian yet? Not even one bit! We make no attempt to be friendly to Indonesia and Malaysia and we take no care at all of the Pacific Islands


    • Yes, it will be interesting to see how the next issue treats this question. It seems to me that at policy and program levels things are worse now than they were when Keating was in power and schools were supported to teach Asian languages. But at the local level, people-to-people, while I know there are racist incidents, our cities are home now to many Chinese and Indians in particular, but also many from other countries in Asia like Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Samoa and so on. So I am hopeful…


  3. […] Reading this made me search my own posts to see if I had made, or quoted the same sentiment.  I had, and have updated this post to acknowledge its falsity: Australian Foreign Affairs #4: Defending Australia, edited by Jonathan Pearlman. […]


  4. […] Australian Foreign Affairs #4: Defending Australia, edited by Jonathan Pearlman […]


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