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
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
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
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.