Lowy Institute

Commenting on Paul Keating’s speech about China’s strategic responsibilities in Asia, Michael Green asks how, under my model of an Asian concert of powers, America should respond to China’s Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). It is a good question.

China’s move is a clear attempt use the threat of force to push Japan towards concessions over the Senkaku/Daioyu Islands. In Chapter 8 of The China Choice I argue that a concert requires agreement between the great powers on basic norms of conduct, including especially a prohibition on the use or threat of force to settle disputes.

I also explained that a concert could only last as long as the parties were clearly willing and able to uphold those norms against any of their number who tried to violate them, with force if necessary. So if there was a Concert of Asia today, the appropriate US response to China’s ADIZ would be full military support for Japan in resisting Beijing’s implied threat.

Moreover, I think this should be America’s response to China’s ADIZ now, when no concert yet exists, because China’s action would otherwise set a very risky precedent. So there is probably less difference between our views on the current situation than Mike might think.

But we probably differ about where we should go from here. Like most of the US policy community, Mike seems to believe that China is not really serious about challenging US primacy. Faced with firm US responses to provocative acts like the ADIZ, China will back off and accept the status quo. There is thus no need for America to consider changing its basic posture in Asia to avoid escalating strategic rivalry with China.

I think this is mistaken. Beijing seems committed to fundamental change in the Asian order. And it probably believes that America will back off once it understands China’s resolve; it would be foolish to declare the ADIZ otherwise.

This means both sides underestimate the other’s resolve, and hence also the need to compromise in order to avoid a collision. This makes the risk of war much higher that many people realise.

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To lower that risk, both America and China must compromise. China must accept the kind of restraints Paul Keating spelt out in his speech. America must accept that it cannot play a sustainable role in a stable Asia without relinquishing primacy and building a new and more equal relationship with China. So unlike Mike, I think America should do more than just stand up for Japan. To get the process rolling America should also start talking to China about a new basis for their relationship.

Michael might respond that America could never negotiate with a country that behaves as China is doing. But our Chinese colleagues might say that America would never negotiate with a China that didn’t behave this way, and they are probably right. US attitudes suggest that China has to threaten the current order in this way to get America to take its demands to change the order seriously. That does not excuse the Chinese action, but it does help to explain it.

Michael might ask whether China can be trusted to behave better once such a deal is done. I think there is a chance it will, if the deal gives it enough and the high costs of pushing for more are made unmistakably plain. And if not, then the Concert would collapse and we would just be back where we are now, but with the benefit of knowing that a deal was not possible.

My argument is not that I’m sure it will work, but that it is worth a try. That’s because the alternative is not the perpetuation of the peaceful status quo, but escalating strategic rivalry and growing risk of war.

Which brings us back to Michael’s response to Keating. He says he cannot understand why prominent Australians like Keating urge Americans to step back from primacy in the face of China’s challenge. Let me suggest three reasons. First, they take China’s challenge to the regional order seriously. Second, they don’t assume that primacy is the only possible basis for a strong US role in a stable Asia. Third, they clearly understand that the alternative of escalating rivalry between the US and China would be a disaster for everyone.

Lastly, I think Michael is wrong to say that only Australians think like this. We Australians speak more bluntly, but if Michael listens carefully he will find that many others in Asia say the same thing.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence.


James Goldrick has raised two very important issues in his latest contribution to our conversation about maritime strategy for Australia*. The first concerns the circumstances under which serious threats to Australia’s trade routes might occur. I had earlier argued that serious powers were most unlikely to attack one another’s seaborne trade except in a major war, because they all depend on one another’s economies, and on their own seaborne trade which is highly vulnerable to retaliatory attack. In short, they are deterred.

James worries that I am here making the same mistake as Norman Angell a century ago, who argued that economic interdependence made major war more or less impossible. I’ve spent quite a lot of the last few years arguing against the widely held modern version of Angell’s view that economic interdependence between the US and China makes strategic rivalry and conflict between them highly improbable (my reasons are set out in The China Choice, pp.53-56), which is why I’m gloomier than most about Asia’s, and Australia’s, strategic future.

So I’m not arguing that major wars won’t happen. I’m suggesting that serious attacks on trade won’t happen except during major wars. And I think that hypothesis is borne out by the historical record since 1800, though I’d be very interested in whether James, who knows vastly more naval history than I do, can think of some contrary instances.

Why does this matter? Two points. Firstly, it suggests that what ultimately keeps our trade safe outside major wars is not our capacity to defend our ships, but our capacity to attack others’, which is what provides the deterrent. Hence my view that forces optimised for sea denial are a better investment than those optimised for sea control.

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Secondly, it suggests that during major wars, when seaborne trade and supply would be massively disrupted anyway, the deterrent provided by sea denial capability would lapse. The task of defending shipping would then become very hard, because it would require the establishment of sea control. And as I argued earlier in this exchange, deep-seated technological and operational asymmetries make sea control against capable maritime forces dauntingly difficult.

This brings us to the second of the two issues James raised. I absolutely agree with him that keeping Australia, especially its armed forces, supplied in a major war is a cardinal question. But I do not share his confidence that the Navy we are building, or any navy we could build, can solve this question, given the daunting difficulty of sea control. Nor do I share his confidence that our allies’ navies can solve it for us, even if we are talking only about convoying small shipments of especially vital materials.

This is a critical point. To justify investing in forces for sea control, we need to establish not just that sea control is desirable, but that the forces we plan to build will deliver it where and when we need it. If the Navy can make a compelling argument that the kind of fleet it has in mind would achieve the sea control required to keep Australia supplied in a major war, I would very strongly support building it. I’ve never seen that argument made, or even attempted.

And what if we cannot keep ourselves supplied in war? This raises a very deep question indeed: is our island continent defendable if our great and powerful friends no longer rule the waves? This question has haunted Australian strategic thinking ever since Pax Britannica started to fray in the 1880s, but arguably it confronts us more starkly than ever in the Asian Century, when the economic sources of maritime power are so much more evenly distributed than they have been throughout our history.

I think perhaps Australia might still be defendable, even in a major conflict, but only if we address a whole range of issues that we have hitherto been happy to ignore, including the issue of wartime supply. But I don’t think spending billions on ships that can’t do the job counts as addressing this issue successfully.

This is not because I have a prejudice against big ships. I work hard to avoid prejudices for or against particular kind of capability. The only good reason to invest in any element of armed force is that it contributes to achieving the operational outcomes which most cost-effectively support Australia’s strategic objectives. This exchange with James has been all about whether the bigger ships now being built and planned for the RAN satisfy this criterion. I don’t believe they do.

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Scott.

* Ed. note: The exchange began on the Fairfax opinion pages with an op-ed by Hugh White, a response from James Goldrick, and a reply from Hugh White, before moving to The Interpreter with James Goldrick's piece.

2 of 12 This post is part of a debate on Australia's consular conundrum

Alex Oliver's new Policy Brief on the Consular Conundrum tells some great stories to highlight a key problem, and comes up with some very good ideas about how to fix it (I wish I'd come up with the idea of a consular levy on passports or air fares when I looked at this issue a few years ago).

But Alex also wisely places the consular issue in the broader context of DFAT's workload and the question of the priority that ministers, and ultimately voters, place on the different functions we expect our diplomats to perform. If we assume that they are rational actors, the fact that ministers and voters have been willing to see resources swing so sharply from what one might call 'real' foreign policy to consular work shows that they value the later more than the former. 

If we in the foreign policy community think this is wrong (and I certainly do), then it is incumbent on us to explain why it is wrong. Part of that is to look at it from the consular side, as Alex does. But it is perhaps equally important to come at it from the foreign policy side, and explain why exactly we need to put more resources back into traditional diplomatic tasks.

This is something we don't do very well. Arguments for increased funding for diplomacy (including Lowy's excellent Blue Ribbon panel of a few years ago) tend to assume that diplomacy has an intrinsic value: diplomacy is good and more diplomacy is better.

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I'm familiar with this style of argument from long decades in and around defence policy, where arguments for bigger defence budgets typically take the same form. But such arguments seldom work, and nor should they. Ministers should only agree to spend more on diplomacy, whether by shifting money back from consular work or by increasing the DFAT budget, if they can be persuaded that there are high-priority policy objectives that could be achieved with the extra money, and which would justify the cost.

Those of us who think DFAT needs more money therefore need to explain as precisely as we can what we think needs to be done that is not being done now, why it matters to Australians that it should be done, and how spending more on diplomacy would do it. Above all, that is what DFAT itself needs to do, and has not done (so far as I can see) for a very long time.  

This is in fact what a real Foreign Policy White Paper would be all about. It would be interesting to try and draft one.

Photo by Flickr user ~David.


Sam is quite right to hear echoes of Hedley Bull in Peter Varghese's point about the role of rules and institutions in managing strategic relations. This does indeed make Varghese much more than a crude realist. But that does not mean Varghese is putting as much faith as Sam perhaps suggests in the existing flora of regional institutions like APEC, the EAS of the ASEAN to manage the big strategic issues which his speech describes.

Elsewhere in the speech was this passage: 

The primary burden of managing strategic stability in Asia will fall on bilateral relationships and smaller networks of relationships among the major powers of the region. And of foremost importance among these relationships will be the US-China relationship.

This is spot on, and also very reminiscent of Bull.  Rules and institutions are not necessarily multilateral, or broadly inclusive. The biggest issues tend to be managed by the smallest groupings. Certainly, stable strategic relations between the US and China will need to be based on some new rules and understandings, but the understandings will be negotiated among the region's most powerful states, not in anything that looks like the EAS.

I do not presume to claim Varghese as a convert to my idea of a Concert of Asia, but this is the core idea behind my argument that a concert-like set of understandings among Asia's major powers is the best hope for stable region. The highly inclusive model of Asian regionalism that as evolved over the past few decades won't do the job, for reasons I explore briefly here.

Photo by Flickr user bingpoint-uk.


Peter Layton's response to my post on Kevin Rudd's Pax Pacifica ends our blogging year on an appropriate note, reminding us of how momentous the issues are that we face in Asia's strategic future. Two quick points in response.

First, I don't think the evidence justifies Peter's hope that Rudd is any less 'realist' than I am. Rudd has often described himself as a realist, and even as a 'brutal realist' in his famous wikileaked comment to Hillary Clinton.

Both Rudd and I argue that Asia needs to build a new order to accommodate China's power and manage the rivalry that occurs when power shifts between states. It is true that Rudd says we should build that order through region-wide multilateral forums, while I put more faith in smaller groupings of great powers. But that is a difference of process, not outcome.

Which brings us to the second point. Whatever Rudd's views may be, Peter raises a serious question about the kind of outcome we should be after in Asia. Should we aim for Peter's more optimistic outcome, which is a regional order that does not have conflict in its DNA? Or should we content ourselves with the less ambitious goal of managing the reality of rivalry and the risks of conflict as best we can?

Well, these are not mutually exclusive alternatives. One might say that the first step towards eliminating strategic rivalry, as they have done in Western Europe, is to manage it effectively. My realist order might be the best, or only, way to reach Peter's post-strategic nirvana. And meanwhile, the Senkakus shows how serious and urgent are the issues to we need to manage. In this situation, as Voltaire said, the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

Photo by Flickr user theogeo.


One less noted development in Australian foreign policy this year has been the evolution of Kevin Rudd's ideas on the future of the Asian order and the US-China relationship. Since an address to the Asia Society in New York in January, Rudd has delivered a series of speeches around the world in which he has set out a pretty robust and clear model for the future Asian order, which is very far indeed from the flaccid evasions of the Gillard Government.

The latest and in some ways most interesting of these was given at the Brookings in Washington, DC this week. There is lots of interesting stuff here, but the most important is his core message about the future of the US-China relationship and what to do about it. He sounds clear warnings about the trajectory of that relationship, and argues that fixing this requires the negotiation of a new order in Asia: 'a new Pax Pacifica which is neither a new Pax Americana by another name, nor a Pax Sinica.'

What is most significant about this is Rudd's clear acknowledgment that the status quo of US primacy is not sustainable, and that there is a third alternative between the US primacy and Chinese primacy which both powers need to strive to foster if escalating strategic rivalry is to be avoided. Moreover he says that America should take the initiative in trying to reach this accommodation with China.

Some may detect an element of partiality in my analysis. Indeed there is: the view Rudd is putting forward here seems to me very close in its essentials to the argument about the future US-China relationship that I have developed over the last few years. That means it is very far indeed from the Government's declared policy of determined optimism. Rudd deserves credit for this. He would deserve more credit if he contributed these views more robustly to the debate here in Australia.

Photo by Flickr user CeBIT Australia.


As usual, most commentary on North Korea's rocket launch last week focuses on the politics and diplomacy of Pyongyang's delinquency. But it is worth exploring the strategic implications more specifically. These are significant, but not straightforward.

The apparently successful launch of a three-stage rocket makes it rather clearer than before that North Korea has both the capacity and the intention to build an intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM). It is now prudent to expect that in perhaps as little as a decade, if North Korea survives in its present form, it may well have an operational ICBM capability. This would give Pyongyang the capacity to deliver a small number of probably relatively low-yield nuclear warheads onto American cities. 

The key question, therefore, is what this would mean for strategic affairs in Northeast Asia over coming decades.

The first thing to say is what it doesn't mean. It does not mean North Korea has any rational options to initiate an unprovoked nuclear attack on the US, because that would certainly produce a totally devastating US response. Nor does it make much if any difference to Pyongyang's capacity to deter a nuclear, or regime-threatening conventional, attack on North Korea. Its existing medium-range nuclear delivery options bring plenty of high-value targets within range of its nuclear forces today, so Pyongyang already has the capacity to deter military action which potential attackers would fear might cross Pyongyang's red lines.

But an ICBM capability would undermine the deterrent umbrella extended by the US to its Asian allies.

Extended deterrence depends on the credibility (to both the adversary and the ally) of US threats to respond to any nuclear attack on the ally with a US nuclear attack on the adversary. Such credibility depends a great deal on whether the adversary has the capacity to hit back at the US. As long as North Korea has no credible capacity to target America itself, a US retaliatory strike on the North carries relatively low risks for the US itself. 

But if the North can hit back, the costs for the US go up dramatically, and the credibility of the US threat goes down. In a crisis, everyone will be asking whether stopping North Korea doing whatever it wants to do is important enough to America to risk a nuclear attack on Honolulu or LA.

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Of course, America can fix this if it can destroy North Korea's ICBMs early in the crisis. This would be easy as long as the missiles are as exposed and vulnerable, but of course if Pyongyang is serious about an ICBM force it will do whatever it can to make them more survivable, and would probably succeed to some extent at least. Moreover, conventional strikes against North's ICBMs would not be risk-free for the US even if they were likely to succeed, because Pyongyang could credibly threaten nuclear retaliation with its medium-range forces. So we should not assume that the North's ICBMs can be simply blown away. 

How serious is this? That depends on how seriously we see the risk of North Korea adopting an aggressive rather than defensive strategic posture over the next few decades. The more likely it is that Pyongyang might try to invade the South or attack Japan, the more worrying it is that US extended deterrence might be weakened by North Korean ICBMs. And if the argument presented here is correct, then ICBMs only make sense for the North if it does harbour aggressive intentions, because they do not substantially increase the North's capacity to deter on attack on itself. 

On the other hand, North Korea is a weak state surrounded by strong neighbours. Unlike Iran, for example, it has no serious chance of being able to extend its territory or political clout at its neighbours' expense – with or without ICBMs. This makes the ICBM program look like a bad investment for Pyongyang.

And what of North Korea's neighbours? Clearly, weakened US extended deterrence means higher incentives for Japan and South Korea to build nuclear forces of their own. But I doubt Pyongyang's moves add much to the already growing incentives for Japan at least to build a deterrent capability of its own. It worries about China, and China already has ICBMs, so US extended deterrence against China is already weaker than most people assume.

Photo by Flickr user oracle monkey.

3 of 7 This post is part of a debate on What's the purpose of Australian foreign aid?

Jeni Whalan's post on the issues that should get more attention in Australia's aid debate is full of good ideas. But can I suggest we add another issue to her list of things that need to be debated: what is Australian aid trying to achieve?

The need for us to think about this question more deeply is clear enough from this passage in Jeni's post. She says participants in the aid debate need to...

...establish a few initial parameters. For starters, aid is not benevolent charity, but neither is it an extravagance that Australia can't afford. More aid does not necessarily produce better development, but aid is neither dead (the case from the political right) nor a neo-colonial instrument of oppression (the case from the left).

So, this tells us what aid is not. But what is it, then? What are the objectives of the aid program? In particular, if it is not charity, not something we altruistically do for others, then presumably we do it for ourselves. So we need to know as clearly as possible what it is supposed to be doing for us before we can begin any useful debate about whether it is working.

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Now Jeni would probably file me away in the category of what she calls 'aid sceptics (who usually have little other engagement with development policy)'. I plead guilty to the second charge, but I'm not so sure about the first. I don't see myself as an aid sceptic. I can easily be persuaded that aid is good policy and worth spending money on. But first we have to know what it is for.

I am sceptical that we can rigorously debate how to spend the aid budget until we are clear about what aid is trying to achieve. And I am sceptical that we can rigorously debate the size of the aid budget against other government spending priorities until we can compare the cost-effectiveness of aid against other forms of spending in achieving overarching national objectives. Which of course means we need to know what the overarching objectives are that aid is supposed to support. Can I suggest that this question needs to go at the top of the list of issues to be debated?

Photo by Flickr user Bethan.


John Blaxland and Albert Palazzo are quite right: there was a clear risk in 1999 that escalation in East Timor could have led to serious combat. I'd disagree that this was something understood only by those in the field, and not by those of us in Canberra. On the contrary, some of us in Canberra were deeply, and I believe correctly, concerned about the risk of escalation, which was a central issue for us throughout the crisis

But more to the point, I do not think the risk of escalation quite addresses my doubts about the argument that East Timor was a near-run thing because of post-Vietnam cuts to the ADF's capabilities. So let me clarify.

The 'near run thing' claim can be interpreted in two ways. One is that the ADF's capabilities were nearly inadequate for the operation as it actually unfolded. That seems to me clearly wrong. That is not to say that the forces deployed did not do a good job. I think they did, but the job they actually did was well within their capabilities. As it should have been, considering there was no fighting.

Here I think the analogy that Bob Breen draws in the passage quoted by Peter Dean, between East Timor on the one hand and Long Tan and Kokoda on the other, is hard to sustain. Those who served in those earlier campaigns – or indeed in Afghanistan – might use stronger words. It is important to keep the operation in East Timor in perspective.

There is a separate argument that the operation revealed deficiencies in logistics and equipment. Of course it did, just as every military operation does.

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As always, these deficiencies tested the ingenuity and adaptability of the ADF. But they did not threaten the success of the mission. And they cannot simply be blamed on budget cuts, because of course they also reflect choices about how the remaining funds were spent over the years before the operation. And we could have a long debate about that, of course.

The second interpretation of the 'near run thing' claim is the counterfactual argument that, had the operation met serious resistance from the militias or from TNI (and had there been no coalition partners), then the capabilities of the ADF would have been inadequate to achieve the mission. But that had nothing to do with the post-Vietnam cuts to Army. Even with the Army at its Vietnam-era peak, Australia could not have defeated TNI or a determined militia in East Timor. So the lessons of East Timor have little to teach us about the wisdom or folly of those cuts.

Which brings us back to the bigger issue. As I said last week, I agree that today's defence budget cuts carry real strategic risks. But I do not think that the best way to caution against the cuts is to argue, as those citing the 'near run thing' in East Timor do, that defence cuts in the past had bad consequences, therefore we shouldn't cut Defence today.

No one believes more strongly than I do in the value of history in informing strategic policy, but even good history will only get us so far in deciding our future defence needs. The only effective way to argue for future levels of defence spending is to analyse and describe as clearly as possible the strategic risks we face in future, the military options we would need to meet those risks, and the forces those military options would require. Australia's defence community, both inside and outside Government, has not yet seriously tried to do this.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.


Bob Carr must be pleased, but also a little embarrassed. Bob Zoellick, Republican foreign-policy heavyweight, has used a line from Carr as the peg for a substantial essay in the latest issue of Foreign Policy about the future of American power. Unfortunately, the line was one that Romney used briefly in the presidential campaign to attack Barack Obama, so perhaps he would prefer to see it forgotten now that Obama is safely back in power. I wonder if Hillary and Leon teased him about it at AUSMIN?

But there is another, more substantial reason Carr should wish that the line would be forgotten. What he said is so obviously wrong. Here is the line as Zoellick quotes it:'The United States is one budget deal away from restoring its global pre-eminence.' Carr is saying that the challenge to US global primacy comes from its fiscal problems, and if only the federal budget could be fixed, American leadership would be secure indefinitely.

I think this is clearly wrong. What challenges US primacy is not a fiscal issue but an economic one.

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Of course the federal deficit is a major problem for the US, but the challenge, especially in Asia from China, is being driven by a shift in strategic weight, which in turn is driven by a shift in the relative size of the two economies. Compared to this really fundamental change in the distribution of power, America's fiscal problems are relatively insignificant. America would still face a fundamental challenge even if its budget was in healthy surplus.        

No budget deal in Washington can turn around the trends driving the rise of China, because in the end it's not about America. It's about China. Carr's mistake matters because it encourages Americans to think the opposite, which in turn reassures them that they do not have to adjust to the power shift by rethinking their role on the world, and especially their relations with China.

The really worrying thing is that he seems to have convinced Zoellick, for one, that what he said is true. This is what Zoellick’s whole essay is about, and he is among the brightest and most influential of Americans. Of course it helps that Carr's message is something Americans very much want to believe. Which is no doubt why Carr said it.

Photo by Flickr user peregrinari.


I share Jeffrey Grey's and Albert Palazzo’s concern that the trajectory of the defence budget carries strategic risks which are perhaps not properly understood by those making the decisions. But I'm not sure that their use the 1999 East Timor crisis to support their case is historically accurate. 

Both Jeffrey and Albert suggest that East Timor was a near-run thing because of the cuts to capability in the decades before it. If what they mean is that the military operation that we undertook in East Timor nearly failed to achieve its objectives because the combat capability of the ADF had been eroded since Vietnam, then I disagree.

East Timor did not test the combat capability of the ADF in East Timor at all because there was no combat. This was no accident. The ADF only went to East Timor because the Habibie Government, and TNI, allowed it in. Without Indonesia's agreement there would have been no UN resolution and no international coalition, and without all three of these things we had no military options in East Timor and wouldn't have been there.

Of course I can't be sure that the Howard Government might not have sent our forces in anyway. But I am sure it would have done so against the advice of its military and civilian advisers, and I am sure it would have failed. 

Moreover, I think this had nothing to do with the post-Vietnam cuts to the ADF. Even at its Vietnam-era peak, the ADF alone would never have been able to win a campaign in East Timor against TNI, or even against TNI-backed militia. If I recall the numbers correctly, there were 30,000 TNI troops on Timor alone at the time. Not since 1945 has Australia had an Army that could have taken them on.

So while I agree that Australia's defence policy is in very bad shape, I don't think East Timor is the best place to look for solutions.

Photo by Flickr user fmgbain.


James Goldrick's thoughtful response to my last post raises lots of important issues. Let me touch on two of them.

First, James says that my argument for sea denial over sea control focuses too much on high-intensity conflicts and especially power projection in such conflicts. 

James says we need to be able to use the sea for trade as well as power projection and of course I agree. He goes on to say we therefore need maritime forces that can maintain sea control to allow that trade to continue. That is a different claim. Whether it is true or not, or the extent to which it is true depends on what kind of threats we believe our seaborne trade must be protected against and what that means we need.

One can argue we need to be able to protect trade against low-level threats such as piracy and we therefore need some small warships capable of dealing with such threats; something like the present ANZAC ships, in fact. On that I'm sure James and I agree.

The question is whether we need to be able to protect our trade against the kind of bigger threat that could only be posed by a country with modern maritime forces. This matters to our force structure because ANZAC ships (or rather, as James reminds us, a complex system of systems in which ANZAC ships are the most capable surface ship element) would not be able to achieve sea control sufficient to defend any serious fraction of Australia against the forces of a capable maritime power. If we need to do this, we need a much bigger and more expensive navy.

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So two questions arise. First, how seriously do we need to take such high-end threats to our trade? They used to be a major issue in bygone times, and they loom large in classic conceptions of naval strategy which remain very influential today. But that was based on the experiences of an era of 'national' trade, when it made strategic sense for European powers to attack one another's colonial traffic.

It is now a very long time since trade worked that way and the globalisation of the past few decades has pushed us further from that model still. This is a big topic, but let me just baldly assert that economic interdependence makes threats to trade from substantial maritime powers extremely unlikely except in a general war in which all trade would be massively dislocated. Short of such a war, for example, who would gain from attacking Australia's overseas trade, or anyone else's, and who would lose?

If I'm wrong, how could we best respond to such attacks? No conceivable Australian force structure would allow us to protect even a tiny fraction of Australia's trade from attack by a substantial naval power. But any adversary would be in the same position. His trade would be just as vulnerable to our attacks as we would be to his. So our best defence is attack. That means we should invest in sea denial to protect our trade, not sea control.

Second, and very briefly, James says we will need sea control to mount and sustain a sea denial campaign. He may well be right. I'm not sure that sea denial against a major adversary is achievable for Australia; support and replenishment for our forces is one of the key question marks. If sea control is in fact unachievable for Australia against a major Asian power operating in our maritime approaches, then Australia may prove to be undefendable against such an adversary.

 I'm not arguing that sea control would not be nice to have, but before we invest in it we need to know that the aim is achievable. If it's not, we need to ask what can be achieved without it. My point about sea denial is that it's better than nothing and I suspect that is the alternative.

Finally, the underlying point about this debate goes to the way we think about designing our forces. We cannot make robust decisions about what kind of ADF we need unless we get the clearest possible idea of what exactly it needs to be able to do, and what exactly is the best, most cost-effective, way to do it. I think it is important that Navy does much more to explain in specific operational terms what the capabilities it wants to acquire will be able to do, where and against whom, and then explain how that serves Australia's strategic objectives cost-effectively. 

 Photo Lauren Black/ADF.


Many thanks to James Goldrick for his responses to my recent Monthly discussion of maritime strategy in Australia's defence. James' recent retirement from the RAN is a loss to the ADF, but a gain to public debate, because he has long been the ADF's most learned maritime strategist. So I welcome his critique of my argument that sea denial should be the prime role of Australia's maritime forces. But I'm not sure he's made the case for sea control.

The debate has two elements, one about whether we need sea control and the other about how we can get it. They are quite separate issues, of course, because in strategic policy as in life we can't always get what we need: just because we need sea control does not guarantee that we can get it.

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My position is that we will most probably not be able to achieve sea control against a major or even middling Asian power and that ultimately sea denial is enough for our most important strategic needs. James argues that we need sea control and that we can get it.

First we need to clarify the context. Sea control is easy when no one is seriously trying to take it away from you, so James is right to suggest that we can and do achieve it in normal peacetime conditions, or against adversaries that lack substantial maritime forces of their own. But these circumstances are not relevant to the choices we have to make about the ADF's more advanced maritime capabilities, because we do not need those capabilities to achieve sea control in peacetime or low level stabilisation missions. Our investment in maritime forces is driven by the demands of operations against highly capable adversaries. That is what we need to focus on.

The second question then is what can we sensibly expect to achieve against such adversaries over the next few decades? My pessimism about our ability to achieve sea control is based on what seems to me to be the profound asymmetry between the resources needed for sea control and sea denial. James is more optimistic.

A blog post is not the place to explore our differences in detail, so let me just pose to James some simple questions:

Looking ahead 10 years, would the capabilities we are now planning provide sufficient levels of sea control – from our own efforts, without relying on the US – for an Australian government to, for example, dispatch Australia's new amphibious ships full of troops through waters which China was actively trying to deny to us? 

Would doubling the scale of our forces make any significant difference?

 Likewise could any conceivable Australian force structure provide the sea control required to protect Australia coastal shipping, or convoy Australia's international trade, against a determined major power adversary?

If there is a fair chance that the answer to these questions is no, then it is unwise to spend such a large share of Australia's defence budget on capabilities which only make sense if the answer is yes.  Complex though the issues might be, advocates of sea control have to assure us that it is going to work and explain how.

And what if a country of Australia's strategic weight cannot achieve sea control against a major power? My argument is that sea denial still does a great deal for us. It would allow us to prevent even a major power projecting force against us or our neighbours and allow us to retaliate in kind for attacks against our shipping. It might not be as good as sea control, but it's a lot better than nothing and it is likely to be all we can achieve. As things stand we are building a navy which will not be capable of doing either.    

Photo by Flickr user Capt. Tim.

5 of 7 This post is part of a debate on Hugh White's 'The China Choice'

Ian Hall has raised some excellent points in his latest post in our debate about whether the US exercises primacy in Asia, and what that means for how it should respond to China's rise. Five quick points in response...

First, Ian doubts that America has had the power to impose primacy on Asia. I agree. I say in The China Choice somewhere that US primacy in Asia has depended as much on Asian countries' acquiescence as on America's power to impose, which is why America only gained primacy after China acquiesced to it in 1972. And of course, that is in the nature of primacy, which is the point of Hedley Bull's definition.

Second, I therefore don't agree with Ian that the US posture in Asia is a form of offshore balancing. I take offshore balancing to be what Britain supposedly did in relation to Europe in the era in which Europe's strategic order was characterised by a balance of power system. It stood aloof from the struggle for preponderance on the continent unless or until one side or the other seemed likely to win, when it intervened to prevent that by supporting the weaker side.

I'm not sure Britain ever really did act that way, but it is a plausible model which, I suggest in the book, the US could adopt in relation to Asia. But it would be very different from what it has done these last four decades, or indeed for the last century and more. America has been intimately and continuously engaged in managing the strategic balance in Asia by suppressing strategic competition between its great powers. Nothing 'offshore' about it.

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Indeed I think the 'offshore' label is confusing. The US has been an offshore power in that, as Ian reminds us, it has never (since the Boxer Rebellion) been a major strategic force on the mainland of Asia. But from its maritime position it has, with Asia's permission, actively shaped Asia's strategic order. So America has been physically offshore, but not offshore in the sense of 'disengaged'. 

Third, Ian doubts that the US has been an effective rule-giver in Asia. I can see where he is coming from, and there may be an interesting debate about how far the US has actually shaped the Asian order over the past forty years. But what matters for the future of US-China relations is not the reality, but perceptions: how the US sees its role, and how China sees the way the US sees its role. Here I think it is clear that the US sees itself as having designed, built and maintained the liberal order in Asia, and it wants to keep on doing that. China sees the US as seeing its role that way, and wants that to change.

Fourth, and in the same vein, I'm not sure Ian's account of the US-India relationship quite captures the way Americans see it. My impression is that Washington has cultivated New Delhi precisely because it has expected India to support its vision of America's leadership in Asia against the challenge from China. I think America is wrong to expect India to behave this way, but that's the way they see it – and that's what is driving US policies, and China's too.

Finally, and most importantly, Ian says America can't share power with China because China's intentions are too uncertain and its political system is too opaque. The debating point here is that Ian's conclusion undercuts his earlier argument that the US does not exercise primacy and is already sharing power. 

But the deeper point really gets to the heart of the argument I set out in The China Choice. Many things about China make it difficult for Washington to share power with Beijing, but 'can't' is a big word. The question is, what will it cost not to share power with China? Recognising the costs and risks of rivalry is the core to the whole issue. I think the costs are grave.

Photo by Flickr user chidorian.

3 of 7 This post is part of a debate on Hugh White's 'The China Choice'

Many thanks to my ANU colleague Ian Hall for his post over on his own blog about my new book, The China Choice. Ian raises two concerns about the way I use the concept of primacy to characterise the place in Asia that America has enjoyed for the last forty years and at present seems determined to maintain.

First, he says that I do not define 'primacy' in the book in any precise way, and he is right. So let me try to explain here what I mean by it. As I wrote the book I was working with a definition I framed last year in response to a similar query posted here on The Interpreter by Stephan Fruehling.  The definition I offered Stephan was as follows:

A relationship between a country and an international system in which that country has a qualitatively different and greater role than any other country in the system in setting norms of behaviour, determining when those norms have been breached, and taking action to enforce them.

In fact, I had something like this in the early draft of The China Choice, but perhaps unwisely I sacrificed it to save space. Then, soon after the final text went to the publisher, I found myself re-reading The Anarchical Society for a speech on Hedley Bull I was doing at Sydney University. I came across a definition of primacy which I'm sure Ian, as one of Australia's foremost experts on Bull, will know well. It's in Chapter 9, p.214 of my edition, and Bull says:

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A great power's preponderance in relation to a group of lesser states takes the form of primacy when it is achieved without any resort to force or the threat of force, and with no more than the ordinary degree of disregard for the norms of sovereignty...

I think this and the surrounding text captures rather better what I had in mind, because it embodies both the idea of preponderance and the element, so critical to the US position in Asia since 1972, of willing acquiescence by lesser states. On this definition, my catch-phrase 'uncontested primacy' becomes a tautology.

Second, Ian doubts that America has exercise primacy since 1972, or claims it today. I think this boils down to a question about whether the US has exercised and still seeks enough preponderance to qualify as primacy in the way Bull defines it. I think it does, because while it has not been able to set the rules unilaterally, it has claimed, and been conceded by others, a uniquely large role in setting the rules.

But if that doesn't satisfy Ian's conditions for primary, I'm happy to use another word. The key point for my argument is that, whatever we call it, the role America has claimed and still claims in Asia is one that China will not continue to accept as its power grows.

Photo by Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar.