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A different defence policy

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 17 June 2021

I wrote an essay like this for the National Times some fifty years ago. Nothing has changed. If I could find it in my papers I could just run it again.

I grew up under the shelter of the Royal Navy. The war brought in a new defender, the United States. Increasingly we bought US weapons apart from submarines. All this was formalised in the ANZUS Treaty of 1951. The essence of ANZUS was that an attack on any of the three parties would be seen by them as an attack on them all. This has led us into a series of military engagements by us on the side of the US, though without any attack on the US. New Zealand has opted out without doing anything in particular, other than not allowing nuclear-powered or armed ships into its harbours. We seem to stagger on.

Things are rather different today. Japan has rearmed, and China has emerged as a Great Power. While China is our principal trading partner, it is able to show its displeasure at what our Government does by making things difficult for Australia economically, imposing bans on its imports from us. We don't seem to know what the right policy should be, and some of our wise men are calling for us to prepare for war.


If there were no ANZUS Treaty the US would still regard Australia and New Zealand as important players in the southwest Pacific, and want them onside. In my view that enables us to craft a defence and foreign affairs set of policies that make sense to us. Other countries do this. Why don't we? I asked one of my Danish friends many years ago what his nation's defence policy was. 'Oh,' he said, 'it's an envelope. Inside the note paper says, "We surrender".' The Swedes have their own defence policy, make their own ships and planes, and make it clear that they are not going to surrender lightly. In fact, Sweden's policy is one of armed neutrality, and it hasn't been in a real war since 1814. It does some partnering with NATO, but that is all.

It offers a model for an Australian defence force. Australia is, in my book, just like Sweden, and it is two and half times bigger in terms of population, and very similar in terms of wealth per head of population. It is certainly big enough to defend itself, but its position in Big Power politics should be one of neutrality. It is big enough and wealthy enough to design and make its own planes, ships, tanks and the rest. And it should increasingly be doing so. Does that mean an increase in the defence budget? Of course it does. Does it mean higher taxes? Yes, that too. Though what follows is not the main purpose, building our own materiel will encourage technological and scientific innovation, and lead to advances in education, especially in STEM.

I do not think that China has any plans to invade Australia. I think we are seen as a noisy insect, one that needs to be slapped down every once in a while. But an armed neutral Australia would be a different kettle of fish. Our neutrality would be tested, but if, for example, we stop seeing the South China Sea as something with which we have a real strategic interest - we don't, this is Big Power games - China would quickly see that we mean what we said. We would not be buying weapons from either the USA or China, but developing our own, and we have the wealth and the brains to do so.

Given all that, I expect that we would find the trade embargoes we have been subject to trailing off. Or, to put it another way, I can see no reason why China would not see the advantages to itself in normalising trade relations. Why haven't we done all this already? Partly because the shadow of the second world war still hangs over us, and after that the Cold War, and throughout the ease with which Anglophone countries do business with each other. There are longstanding cordial relationships between our military people and the Americans.

Who would be opposed to my sensible suggestions? Well, just about everybody who is currently in power or in the armed services. There are so many apple-carts that would be overturned. Of course, such a change would not occur overnight. Just to bring back the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation and begin the design of a new aircraft that suits our needs would be a start, followed by comparable moves in terms of trucks, tanks, weapons, corvettes, and so on. After all the submarine we are building, though French, is being built to give South Australians some hope for their economic future. South Australia was for a time the headquarters of defence science and technology. It could be again, though with an enterprise an order of magnitude larger.

What we don't have at the moment is anyone enunciating the reason for such a change in policy, yet its virtue, I think, is pretty clear. Why? Because it all looks too hard, and there is no obvious payoff in the short run. If push comes to shove, however, and the Big Powers get really angry with each other, we might quickly realise that armed neutrality, with a strong defence force that is about defence, not attack, is the way to go.


I'm sure that when I wrote the earlier essay on this subject I finished with a lament about our failure to see things in the long term. So why don't I do it again. In my years at the ANU I found only a few people who were interested in the long-term. One was Fred Gruen, an economist, but much more a well rounded social scientist. Another was Bob Gregory, another well-rounded economist/social scientist. There were a few who called themselves 'strategic studies' people. They certainly did look at the long term. Those in anthropology often had a long-term interest in their tribe, island or whatever it was they were studying. But that was it, really.

Australia seems unable or unwilling or both to look well ahead and make the right decisions, as far as knowledge allows. It is not built into our parliamentary system, where the focus is always on the next election, gaining power, or holding on to it. And we the people don't seem to care. It is as though Australia will always be there, as the world's luckiest country. I don't think so, but I have no solution as to how to get us out of this apathetic torpor.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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