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In any case, it's time to strengthen the army's specialist capabilities

By Des Moore - posted Wednesday, 13 November 2002

Some suggest two schools of thought are ranting about where Australia's defence priorities should lie: one wanting primacy for the defence of Australia and the other to develop "long distance power projection capabilities or expeditionary forces capable of taking on a major enemy".

In reality, all agree on giving first priority to defence of Australia. The disagreement is over how best to defend, against what threat and from whom - and where.

Traditionalists perceive that defence is about beating off invasion and other lesser violations of our territorial integrity, with the main (unspoken) potential threat being Indonesia. Hence the "concentric circles" view that Australia's national interests diminish with distance.


Reformists argue that defence is also about our political independence; that our territorial integrity becomes threatened if our security circumstances worsen badly enough; security and defence, though different, are connected by time; and that the Tyranny of Proximity is a furphy, since what happens on the other side of the world can be – often has been – more momentous for us than what happens right next door.

For reformists, Australia is best defended not by waiting until an invasion force is upon us or in the 1000-mile air-sea gap, but by taking appropriate action further out in space and time to avert deteriorations in our security circumstances.

That doctrine of Preventive Defence is Australia's historical way of warfare. We sent combat forces to far-away places in two world wars, and in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf, not because Australia was in immediate danger but because our security circumstances were threatened.

Take the two world wars. If Germany had won either, it would have intimidated us to change our policies to suit its needs; and if that had been resisted, it would have enforced a change in government – a loss of territorial integrity and political independence.

All that is true too of the Cold War, substituting the USSR for Germany. And although the Gulf War was not as immediately momentous for Australia, had Iraq been allowed to dominate the Arabian peninsula, with all its huge oil resources, and had Israel, to protect its existence, started a preemptive war with Iraq, the consequences for Australia, as for the whole world, would have been dire.

Where nowadays might our security circumstances deteriorate so badly as to require us to look in time to our territorial defence? Only in North Asia, if China's political ambitions were to grow commensurately with its economy, and if the USA were to retire from the Asia Pacific region, or even in an act of pre-emptive capitulationism surrender to China a condominium of power and influence over the region.


None of these things is at all likely. But they are possible; which is why if, as a preliminary, a rampant China were to attempt the unprovoked takeover of Taiwan, Australia should join the USA in resistance. Likewise if North Korea, perhaps with China's acquiescence, tried to take over South Korea or intimidate it into compliance with Pyongyang's wishes.

What about nearer to home, in the tendentiously termed "our region", the "arc of instability"? In reality, no country in that region, not even Indonesia for at least many decades, is likely to have the capability or intention to attack Australia. Our only defence interest in the region is that countries there should not fall under the sway of China; for if they did, our security circumstances would be seriously affected.

Of course, we have political and economic interests in the stability and good governance and economic growth of regional countries; but the days are long past when gunboat diplomacy could be employed to contribute to such things.

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This article was first published in The Age on 1 November 2002.

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About the Author

Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and a former Deputy Secretary, Treasury. He authored Schooling Victorians, 1992, Institute of Public Affairs as part of the Project Victoria series which contributed to the educational and other reforms instituted by the Kennett Government. The views are his own.

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