A version of this post appears on the CSIS Asia policy blog, Cogitasia

Is Canberra about to revolutionise its military to confront Beijing, alone if need be? You would be forgiven for thinking so, if you had read Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030, the startling new report from prominent defence analyst Ross Babbage.

The reality is more complex. Yes, the rise of China is markedly altering Australia's security outlook and the shape of its future defence force. But this change is not as fundamental or as single-minded as certain dramatic newspaper articles and blog posts would suggest.

Babbage's report implies that China's growing military power could one day pose a direct threat to Australia's national security, even to its democratic way of life, and that therefore Canberra needs a complete defence policy overhaul.

It also leaves the impression that senior Australian security bureaucrats are comfortable with the thrust of its recommendations. Yet former Defence Deputy Secretary Paul Dibb and others have disputed this, and no representative of the Australian Government is on record as having endorsed the report's radical conclusions.

In recent decades Australia has developed a balanced, if overstretched, military, intended to adapt to diverse contingencies. Professor Babbage calls for much of this to be jettisoned in place of rugged attack capabilities designed somehow to cripple China, were this authoritarian great power ever to use its military to coerce Australia.

This is extraordinary stuff, much of it outside the boundaries of normal Australian strategic debate. Australia, the paper argues, should seriously consider a range of drastic options. These include to:

  • Buy or lease from the US 10-12 nuclear-powered attack submarines, even though Australia can barely man two of its six conventional subs, will struggle to put together its intended new fleet of 12 conventional boats, and harbours viscerally anti-nuclear public sentiment.
  • Work with the US to develop a 'prompt global strike' capability, such as with conventionally-armed ballistic missiles.
  • Develop a massive cyber-attack capability, involving large numbers of civilian reservists.
  • Begin a long-term infiltration of Chinese society, and use this fifth column to severely disrupt the Chinese government in the event of a conflict.
  • Plan ways to threaten or incapacitate the Chinese leadership as a last resort in wartime.
  • Reshape the army almost exclusively for long-range special forces missions.
  • Build a fleet of 'arsenal' ships for conventional missile barrages — a concept considered and rejected by Washington years ago.

To be fair, some of Babbage's other proposals — such as increased US access to Australian bases, or Australian involvement in US-Japanese ballistic missile defences — are consonant with the way Canberra already seems to be moving.

In general, Canberra's security community has — rightly — become more focused on the way China is changing Asia's power balance, and what Australia and other US allies and partners can realistically do to cope with this changing situation. The 2009 Defense White Paper, driven by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, planned for a substantial and costly expansion of Australia's strategic weight against regional uncertainty, though it looks relatively low-key and affordable alongside Babbage's new maximalist wish-list.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Professor Babbage's report either represents Australian policy or the way that policy is likely to develop, at least in the near term. Professor Babbage led the external advisory panel for the 2009 White Paper, has considerable government experience, and was recently honoured, deservedly, for his long contribution to Australian strategic debate and education. But it is important that readers, domestic and foreign, appreciate that his report is the work of an independent scholar and policy entrepreneur, published by the non-government Kokoda Foundation.

Does it speak, instead, for the people? The paper asserts that Australian opinion could readily be persuaded to support something like the huge, currently uncosted upgrade of firepower it advocates. This remains untested.

It is true that Australians have traditionally been anxious about their unique strategic environment, and have at times accepted defense budgets considerably higher than the current 1.9% of GDP. And the 2010 Lowy Opinion Poll showed a rise in fears of Chinese military might, with 46% of respondents saying it was likely China would become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, up five points since 2009. (Mind you, the poll also shows that most Australians feel about the same slight warmth towards China as they feel towards Russia, India and Indonesia.)

But are we ready to pay? Australian tax dollars are set to come under increasing strain from a growing welfare burden as the population ages and infrastructure degrades, and nobody yet knows what the future policy trade-off between, say, submarines, hospitals and a national broadband network will look like. Moreover, in the wake of devastating floods and bushfires, and with a government fixated on an 'all-hazards' approach to national security, the prospects of a defence budget boost devoted exclusively to high-end warfighting remain distant.

Still, perceptions matter, and any false impression that the Babbage paper equals policy will have ripples in the region. If part of the strategy for dealing with a rising China is to try to minimise the paranoia in the policy debates within China, then provocative public proposals for capabilities to sow civil strife and figuratively behead Beijing's leadership could have precisely the wrong effect.

Admittedly, the Babbage paper also acknowledges, even advocates, the need for diplomacy, engagement and a stance of not seeking to confront China. But these elements of the proposed strategy hardly seem to mesh with others.

The Babbage report also rightly notes that a strategy to deal with rising Chinese power and assertiveness should involve security and diplomatic cooperation with multiple regional countries, from Japan to India to South Korea to Indonesia, not to mention Vietnam. After all, these states have every reason — indeed, perhaps more reason than Australia — to be troubled by China's strength.

It follows that, in almost any conceivable scenario in which Canberra found its and Beijing's security interests at odds, Australia would hardly be alone, even if for no other reason than the deep reliance of Japan and India on Australian resource exports.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that Australian acquisition of 'game-changing' offensive weapons could have all sorts of unintended side-effects, not least in the way Indonesia might see things.

None of this is to say that Australia cannot or should not do more to support the US and other partners in the region as they seek to balance China's military modernisation. Babbage rightly poses the question of how Australia should plug into the Pentagon's concept of AirSea Battle (though I have difficulty with Babbage's assumption — shared by others — that conflicts would not escalate to the nuclear level and might drag on, World War Two-style, for years).

The question of how to prevent China from becoming destabilisingly dominant in Asia, without generating fresh instability, remains devilishly difficult. Of course, doing nothing is not an option (I emphasise this because page 58 of Babbage's paper mis-attributes to me the suggestion that Australia would be best off 'standing aloof' from a US-China conflict, a point that is made nowhere in my cited publication). And it is not impossible that some great future crisis might yet prompt Australia to put military priorities first.

Ross Babbage has at one level done his country a favour by confronting policymakers with a limited menu of unpalatable choices. Some of the ideas — for instance, nuclear propulsion for submarines, enhanced US access and logistics arrangements, and Australian cyber and space efforts — deserve a closer look. But Australia's Strategic Edge 2030 should be read as provocation, rather than policy.

Photo by Flickr user MATEUS.