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Australia is a very close ally of the US - but is the US asking too much?

Australia as a colony, and then after independence, operated as part of the British armed forces, sending substantial number of troops to World War I and II to fight in Europe. However during World War II, the collapse of Singapore saw Japanese forces attack the mainland Australia. Only the US was able to offer military support, and from this moment on, Australia military was reconfigured to ally with the US rather than British Armed Forces. The military bond between the US and Australia is so close, that Australia reintroduced conscription during the Vietnam war. Even today songs like “Khe Sanh” and “I was only 19” that describe the trials and tribulations of Australian soldiers in Vietnam are well known.

After the Vietnam war, for years Australian defence policy was centred on a “large country to the north” aka Indonesia. Military fears were driven by the invasion and annexation of West Papua by Indonesia in 1969 that saw a number of Australian journalists perish. Papua New Guinea was ruled by Australia until 1975, meaning that Australia was already protecting a land border against Indonesia. As an Australian military map shows, only Indonesia is close enough to possibly invade the populated East Coast. A military policy focused on stopping a potential Indonesian threat was both logical and sensible.

The isolation of Australia with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of democracy in Indonesia has led Australia to have defence policy of “strategic warning time”, which in essence meant that Australia had 10 years to respond to any real military threat. The most recent review argues that this period is over, and Australia needs to commit to a much more rigorous defence strategy. In particular it is looking to work much more closely with other nations in the Indo-Pacific region to counteract the influence of China. The landmark agreement of AUKUS where Australia will acquire nuclear submarines from the UK. The problem is that Australia now seems to be investing heavily to protect itself from its largest trade partner (memorable parodied here).

Given the distances involved, and China’s dependence on Australian raw materials, the likelihood of China invading Australia seems very low. Australia already spends around 2% of GDP on military, which is enough to make it the dominant power in Oceania.

Militarily Australia looks like its spends more than enough to resist any possible invasion, and to project power near its borders. So what exactly is the aim of Australia’s more robust defence posture, and the AUKUS treaty. The most controversial feature of the AUKUS treaty was Australia cancelling the contract to buy Collins class submarines from France, and buying nuclear powered submarines from the UK. There is much debate over whether these submarines are actually better, for Australia, but it is very clear that the nuclear submarines can travel much further than conventional submarines.

The conclusion I make from all of this is that Australia has decided to participate in the potential defence of Taiwan. The reunification of Taiwan to the mainland has been government policy since the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. If that is the unstated aim of this policy, then the question has to be whether this is correct strategy. If the aim is to bolster Taiwanese defences, then it would make more sense to bolster spending in areas near a potential conflict. Why not have Australia send more military equipment to Taiwan? Or why not give Japan nuclear submarines? The AUKUS plan has Australia building 8 submarines coming into service in 2030s and 2040s. Given the current mismatch between Chinese and Taiwanese navies, what is the point?

Plainly Australia’s military plans are sending a political signal, but at the cost of US 10bn a year for 30 years. Other problems included the lack of nuclear industry in Australia means developing the know how to deal with nuclear material from scratch, as well as making mainland Australia a legitimate target if China did invade Taiwan. While the Vietnam war is still remembered in song, the failures of British military strategy in World War I are remembered even more keenly in Australia (ANZAC day is a more important that either Australia Day or Federation day - and commemorates the loss of Australian and New Zealand soldiers lives in a badly planned military campaign in Turkey). Some historians saw the debacle in Turkey in World War I was the true beginning of Australian independence from Britain. Confused strategy regarding Taiwan could have the same effect. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating has already spoken out against this new military strategy, and he makes a valid point. As the parody video linked above makes clear, Australian military strategy would benefit from clearer objectives, and perhaps refraining from throwing money at projects until it can clearly state those objectives.

Capital Flows and Asset Markets
Russell Clark