Jack Georgieff is the 2013 Thawley Research Scholar in International Security at the Lowy Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington DC.

The notion of 'self-reliance' that lies at the heart of Australian defence strategy is woefully under-analysed in our national discourse.

What exactly does 'self-reliance' mean for Australia's armed forces? If we compare the 2013 DWP definition to its 1987 predecessor, the notion of self-reliance has undergone root and branch redefinition to the point that it is worth questioning its relevance to current policy.

Self-reliance was at the core of the 1987 Defence White Paper. Paragraph 1.1 states that the government policy of defence self-reliance 'gives priority to the ability to defend ourselves with our own resources.' In paragraph 1.7, it says that the government's defence policy 'is to develop self-reliant solutions to our unique strategic circumstances.' It acknowledges the importance of the US alliance, but emphasises Australia's military independence to defend itself if needed.

By contrast, the 2013 white paper defines self-reliance thus in paragraph 3.36:

Australia's defence policy is founded on the principle of self-reliance in deterring or defeating armed attacks on Australia, within the context of our Alliance with the United States and our cooperation with regional partners.

The 2000 white paper was a prelude to this, labelling self-reliance 'an inherent part of our alliance policy' whilst simultaneously stating that self-reliance means Australia must be able to defend itself. This mixing of self-reliance and the US alliance set the tone for successive white papers.

The juxtaposition is stark. In just over a quarter of a century, the main rationale for Australia defence policy has transformed from expectations that Australia can defend its territorial sovereignty on its own, to one that relies on the alliance with the US to maintain self-reliance. In other words, 'self-reliance' has become 'alliance-reliance'. Little debate has taken place over this. A one-liner referring to self-reliance in the Defence White Paper is merely deluding ourselves and the US that we are not free-riding off of their unrivalled military might.

Ben Pronk advocates scrapping the measure altogether, calling self-reliance something we 'can't achieve'. Hugh White echoes Pronk somewhat: 'We haven't really escaped the old dilemma between defending ourselves and relying on distant allies; we have just enjoyed respite from it, and now the holiday is over.'

Examination of Australia's self-reliance does not expand much beyond this. If an Abbott Government proceeds with a new white paper in 2014 or soon after, a complete re-evaluation of self-reliance would not go amiss. This task is made more urgent as Australia finds itself in a rising neighbourhood with changing geostrategic dimensions. Peace is not guaranteed in the Indo-Pacific, as Rory Medcalf has pointed out in recent months.

So where to from here? Is self-reliance still viable for Australia in a neighbourhood of increasing geopolitical and geostrategic uncertainty? It is, with some big caveats.

The status quo leans too heavily on the US and is a substitute for the low funding that has occurred under the Gillard Government. To truly achieve self-reliance as envisaged in the 1987 white paper, the Australian Defence Force must be properly funded at 2% of GDP – merely an aspiration for the ALP and Coalition at present. Given that such a huge boost in funding is unlikely in the near future, the notion of self-reliance may need to be thrown out entirely of Australia's defence posture.

By confronting the fiction we find ourselves believing, we gain clarity at home and with our allies abroad. Yet in the context of a geostrategically uncertain region, that may be all we gain from such honesty.

Photo by Flickr user M i x y.