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Australia’s defence priorities have oscillated between protecting the country from invasion and joining foreign allies abroad in the hope of future support. Scott Morrison has opted for the latter, following a map drawn up by John Howard. By Brian Toohey.

How fear of abandonment informs Australia’s defence strategy

Prime minister John Howard (left) with US president George W. Bush in the Oval Office on September 10, 2001.
Credit: Reuters / Lamarque

Australia was last invaded in 1788. The British dispossessed the original owners and defeated protracted resistance. No other country has since attempted military takeover. In Japan’s case, most professional historians accept it never planned to invade Australia in World War II because it was too difficult.

Today, a growing number of Australians worry that China’s economic and military power means it could invade. The Lowy Institute says its 2021 polling shows a “conspicuous” rise to 63 per cent of respondents who see China “as more of a security threat to Australia” – 22 percentage points higher than in 2020.

No one knows if Australia will be invaded for the first time since 1788. The record suggests Australians are prone to being overalarmist. In his book Fear of Abandonment, former diplomat Allan Gyngell says Australians often fear its big protector will desert them.

To counter this, Australia usually adopts one of two main defence doctrines. When anxious, they support a “Forward Defence” posture, committing forces a long way from Australia’s shores, joining a global power in distant wars in the hope of being rescued later if needed. This was the pre-eminent doctrine until 1969. The alternative “Defence of Australia” doctrine keeps an alliance with a global power but focuses Australia’s armed forces on preventing hostile threats to the nation via the archipelago to the north. This dominated from 1969 to the early 2000s.

The Howard government took a different approach in its 2007 “Defence Update”. This stated, “We must be the sole guarantor of our own security. It is not healthy for a country to become dependent on another for its basic defence. Further, if Australia was ever to be directly threatened, our allies may well be engaged elsewhere, and unable to assist. This may sound unlikely, but it was a hard-learned lesson from the Second World War.” Subsequent governments ignored this thoughtful document.

Before Federation, Australians held fears of abandonment and were eager to please their British protector by joining colonial wars. Troops were sent to the brutal 1899-1902 Boer War, where British forces were trying to seize territory held by the descendant Dutch settlers called the Boers. There is evidence that some Australian troops shot unarmed civilians who had surrendered.

In 1900, Australia committed forces to help defeat the Boxer Rebellion in China. By the time they got there, one fort had already surrendered. They then joined an international column that the Australian War Memorial says “left a trail of looted villages behind them”. In the 1885 war to restore British colonialism in the Sudan, the New South Wales expeditionary force got there after the battle was lost.

None of these colonial war enemies posed a threat to Australia. By Federation, all the wars were deeply unpopular. The 1903 Defence Act banned the dispatch of expeditionary forces using conscripts. Large numbers still volunteered for World War I, but none knew a classified British report said there was no German threat to Australia.

Throughout the 1920s and ’30s Australians put their faith in the large British base at Singapore to defend Australia. As part of the Forward Defence doctrine, Australia sent 15,000 troops to help defend the island, which surrendered to the Japanese on February 15, 1942.

The notion that the United States then came to Australia’s rescue is widely considered to have a powerful influence on public opinion today. However, in his book John Curtin’s War, John Edwards quotes General Douglas MacArthur as telling the prime minister in 1942 the US had “no sovereign interest in the integrity of Australia” but in “its utility as a base from which to hit Japan”.

Following the Coalition’s 1949 election victory, in 1950 Australia was the first country to join the US in the Korean War. The push to get the Americans to sign a security treaty then gathered pace, despite then prime minister Robert Menzies privately describing a formal alliance as a “superstructure on a foundation of jelly”. The 1951 Australia, New Zealand and United States Treaty (ANZUS) had no security guarantee and never has. In 1984, the US, supported by the Hawke government, kicked New Zealand out of ANZUS because it banned visits by nuclear-powered or -armed ships. New Zealand has
no regrets.

Article 1 of the ANZUS treaty obliges the parties to refrain in international relations from the “threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the UN”. But the US and Australia repeatedly engage in wars of aggression. President John F. Kennedy was a rare exception in one instance. Following a British request for Australian troops to fight in Indonesian Borneo, Kennedy told Menzies he could see no reason to risk war with Indonesia. The refusal undermined claims that ANZUS was an insurance policy on which Australia had paid premiums by committing troops to support the US in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Neither country had any intention of invading Australia.

Reflecting on Kennedy’s rejection, then foreign minister Garfield Barwick wrote a top-secret memo to his department saying, “In practice, each of the parties to the ANZUS treaty is going to decide whether to take action under the treaty according to its own judgement on the situation that exists … The government is of the opinion that discussion of the [treaty’s] meaning is almost certain to narrow its meaning.” In 1999 then prime minister John Howard suffered a further US rejection when he said he wanted “American boots on the ground” in East Timor to support Australian troops subduing Indonesian-trained militia groups.

Although Indonesia posed no threat to Australia, in 1965 British and Australian troops repeatedly crossed into Indonesian Borneo. This undeclared war ended a year later, yet it was kept secret from the Australian public until 1996.

The US and Australia ignored ANZUS when they entered the Vietnam War. An international conference in Geneva in 1954 divided Vietnam in two and resolved that a general election to unify the country must be held by 1956. In a momentous act of foreign interference, the US ordered the South Vietnamese to abandon the election and the war escalated. President Dwight Eisenhower later said he had to stop the election because the North Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, would have won easily. If so, the small, impoverished country would have been spared the horrors of relentless assault from more than six million bombs, more than the total dropped in World War II, plus napalm and dioxin, the latter still causing distressing birth deformities.

When announcing the initial deployment of combat troops in April 1965, Menzies told parliament the takeover of South Vietnam would be a “direct military threat to Australia … a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and the Pacific Oceans”. Then Labor leader Arthur Calwell correctly told parliament that the nationalist and communist regime in North Vietnam was not a Chinese puppet but part of a country with a “1000-year history of hostility to China”.

At the height of Australia’s participation in the war, in August 1969 then Coalition Defence minister Allen Fairhall announced a 5 per cent cut to military spending. He said he could safely do so because a communist victory in Vietnam posed no threat to Australia. Forward Defence was scrapped and the government focused on defending the nation closer to home.

This Defence of Australia approach underpinned the policies of Labor and the Coalition until John Howard restored the Forward Defence doctrine by joining the US in the illicit 2003 invasion of Iraq, based on phoney intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. Apart from creating millions of refugees, the war let terrorist groups flourish in Iraq where none existed before. Howard also supported the US’s failed war in Afghanistan, where Australian special forces allegedly committed nauseating war crimes.

The Morrison government is preparing to join another Forward Defence war alongside the US: this time against China, should it attack Taiwan. An often overlooked difficulty is Australia’s official position is its One-China policy, which means the government “does not recognise the ROC [Taiwan] as a sovereign state”. Before Australia gave diplomatic recognition in 1972 to the People’s Republic of China as “the sole legal government” of China, Taiwan maintained the fiction that it ruled the whole of China from its capital Taipei. Although Taiwan’s constitution still makes this claim, its elected government is more circumspect. It has not declared independence and no major country recognises it as a state. Only 15 small countries do. In contrast, 139 states recognise Palestine.

Following the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Challis chair of international law at Sydney University, Ben Saul, said it was important to ask if a war over Taiwan would be legal. He recently wrote in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, “The conventional legal answer favours China. Only a state has the right to use military force in self-defence against an armed attack by another state – and to ask other states to help it to defend itself.”

If Taiwan is not a state, it has none of these rights. Saul adds, “In a world with a plurality of different political systems, states are not permitted to use force simply to protect democracy or ‘freedom’ abroad. The US backed Taiwan even when it was a military dictatorship until the 1990s; its defence has never really been about freedom.”

Saul says every state has a sovereign right to maintain authority over its own territory and people, including by forcibly suppressing separatism. If Taiwan is Chinese territory, he says, “Western interference in China’s internal affairs to assist Taiwan would be an illegal use of force against China and criminal aggression. Current US arms sales to Taiwan would also be illegal force and a prohibited intervention against China – just like Russia funnelling weapons to separatists in Ukraine.”

Saul says international law may offer theories that favour Taiwan. One is that Taiwan is a stabilised “de facto” state. A second is that states must peacefully settle dangerous international disputes, including disputes with a de facto state. The third is that Taiwan’s “people” have a distinct identity entitled to self-determination. But he says all these pro-Taiwan arguments are based on contested assessments of state practice, sometimes wishful thinking and limited case law or United Nations resolutions.

Others argue that Australia should not go to war without a vote in parliament or the UN, plus an international diplomatic effort to maintain the peace. One reality is China will not offer full independence to Taiwan any more than the US would do the same for a potentially hostile island close to its mainland. Melbourne University’s deputy vice-chancellor international, Michael Wesley, says in an Australian Foreign Affairs essay that Australia should shape the US alliance to be “less about fighting a seemingly inevitable war, and more about preventing an entirely avoidable one … In the fervid dread about China, the challenge of Asia has dragged Australia and the US into a military mindset, to the detriment of the diplomatic and developmental arms of their statecraft.”

One possibility is a new nuclear arms control agreement that could include China as an equal party with Russia and the US. The Pentagon estimates China’s warheads numbered fewer than 250 in 2020 but are expected to reach 1000 by 2030. The US has 5500 warheads and Russia 6250. Serious cuts would reduce the risk of an accidental nuclear launch, which former Foreign Affairs minister Gareth Evans says has been avoided only by “dumb luck”. However, the US is spending $US1.3 trillion on new ballistic missile submarines, long-range aircraft and land-based missiles. Russia can’t afford to keep pace. China’s intentions are unclear, despite wild media claims it is testing new weapons that “defy the laws of physics”.

More encouragingly for arms-control advocates is the fact the Biden administration is considering adopting a “no-first-use” policy for nuclear weapons or a “sole purpose” test that confines these weapons to deterring a direct attack on the US. China has long had a no-first-use policy, strengthened by keeping warheads separately from land-based missiles. But the “fear of abandonment” has risen among US allies such as Australia. They have protested to Washington that the change would mean they could no longer shelter under its nuclear umbrella.

Many China hawks look forward to China’s economy collapsing. John Edwards, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, says, “There’s no doubt China’s long run of ‘miracle growth’ ended over a decade ago. With its level of productivity per worker not much more than a quarter of the US level, China still has plenty of room to make gains despite a declining workforce. This suggests China’s growth rate – though much slower than its miracle period – will continue to exceed that of the US and Europe for at least another decade.”

There are some signs that neither China nor the US want a war. President Biden badly needs to make genuine headway on fixing America’s many domestic problems. He does not need a destructive and highly expensive new war in Asia. Although he did say the US would defend Taiwan, senior officials have since “walked that back” by talking about helping Taiwan arm itself against China.

China says it wants to bring Taiwan on side peacefully. It argues its rapid arms build-up reflects how it’s surrounded by potential enemies, including the US, which has been in many more aggressive wars and spends much more on its military.

President Xi Jinping has plenty of domestic issues to occupy him rather than try to invade Australia as well as Taiwan. News service CNN recently reported that intelligence officials monitoring the situation “have not seen anything yet to suggest China is preparing for a military invasion”.

In this context, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to buy eight nuclear attack submarines to deploy close to China’s shores is a dangerous extension of the Forward Defence doctrine embraced by Howard. The first of the submarines – almost certainly from the US – is unlikely to be operationally available until after 2040 and the last not until after 2060. By then, they will be obsolete, despite costing well over $100 billion.

Because they will be powered by highly enriched uranium, Australia should declare the details to the International Atomic Energy Agency, but the US will not provide the required data. Nor will it supply Australia with the computer source code needed to operate the submarines independently.

As an extension of this deal, Australia will almost certainly agree to let the US base major military equipment such as aircraft carriers and nuclear bombers in Australia without any veto over their aggressive use. This would violate Article 1 of the ANZUS treaty.

For those who want to move beyond an earlier Anglo-Saxon era, the most jarring aspect of this arms build-up is that it is the product of an undisclosed agreement between Australia, Britain and the US. Australia is part of Asia, but the agreement is confined to three Anglophile countries. Although the Hawke–Keating Labor government’s Defence of Australia plan is still relevant, Labor is now backing an arms build-up that critics fear will not make Australia any safer than the earlier, failed Forward Defence deployments. Despite all of this, it seems likely that 1788 will remain the only time Australia was invaded.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 13, 2021 as "Forward defence".

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Brian Toohey has been a journalist for 50 years. He is the author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.