From time to time, commentators from Australia's defence policy community decide to campaign for greater defence spending. Calls might arise from a government policy paper, a change in government, an unanticipated re-election of a government, the failure of a domestic company with links to defence, or the publication of a new book. Rarely are they due to a genuine need for more spending.
We're seeing that today. An immediate impulse has been a book by Australian National University professor Hugh White, How to Defend Australia, arguing that the current defence budget of $40 billion a year needs a $30 billion top-up.
Others - notably the Australian Strategic Policy Institute - have made similar calls in the past. The institute's position should be taken with a grain of salt; although it describes itself as an "independent, non-partisan think tank", most of its funding comes from the Defence Department. The institute is independent, and plays a valuable role providing analysis and insights; however, a think tank rarely bites the hand that feeds it.
The framing of the argument for more spending in How to Defend Australia is not as a firm position but as a choice we must make "or accept being a lot less secure". If that were the choice, the proposals would make more sense; but it's a shaky foundation. The basic premise - that more spending on defence makes us more secure - is questionable. Although most people in the defence community find it self-evident, it's highly dubious; on reflection, even people within defence accept that more spending doesn't buy more security if it's misapplied or wasted.
Defence spending gives rise to its own security problems. A more warlike military capability for Australia means nearby countries will be likelier to see Australia as a potential aggressor, and incline them to increase their own defence spending. Moreover, defence spending has a large opportunity cost: if we spend on defence, we have less public money available to spend on other things, such as education, industry or infrastructure that improves security. So if by increasing defence spending we decrease these other activities, we may, in net terms, be less secure.
The argument that armed forces lead to security is also curiously old-fashioned. It harks back to 19th-century strategists like Prussian general and writer Carl von Clausewitz (who died in 1831). His book On War said "war is the continuation of politics by other means" (often quoted as "diplomacy by other means") - a doctrine that made sense 200 years ago.
It's no coincidence that Western European nations all experienced war every few decades until economic union - and have had none since.
In the modern interconnected world, economic links are more important guarantors of security. Today, trade and TV shows are the dominant ways countries pursue "diplomacy by other means". The concept of armed warfare between nation states is so last century (noting that non-state violence remains a security concern).
It's no coincidence that Western European nations (including England, Ireland, France, Germany, Spain, Italy) all experienced war in various combinations and permutations every few decades until economic union - and have had none since. The European Union, with free movement of goods, people, ideas and cultures, and integration of national economies, has made war in Western Europe inconceivable. Incidentally, this is a further reason why Brexit is a dumb idea - a discussion for another day.
Recent calls for increased defence spending often focus on a perceived, but unlikely, threat from China. Yes, China is now a major economic power. It's the world's second-largest economy after the United States and likely to be the largest soon; in fact, by the "purchasing power parity" measure used in the CIA World Factbook, it's already has the world's largest economy. Economic growth has been accompanied with a commensurate increase in the size of Chinese armed forces.
That said, capacity to exercise force is not the same as threat. China is an authoritarian one-party state, but a logical and analytical one. High-level decisions are taken following careful assessment of costs and benefits, and detailed analysis, with the Chinese national interest as the ultimate goal.
Since its foundation, the People's Republic of China has had little tendency to focus its military outwards. Its strategic concerns have been dominated by a preoccupation with internal cohesion and secure borders. It's ability to project its military over very long distances remains, and is likely to remain, far less than that of our major ally, the US.
The same can't be said of China's economic interests. These have expanded globally through trade and, in recent years, through infrastructure investments in the "belt and road" program designed to secure China's supply lines. This is not the same as a military threat - while there are strategic implications from the trade relationship, the trade links are less rather than more likely to give rise to military action.
The cost-benefit of using military force against Australia simply doesn't add up. It would put at risk Chinese national prosperity and the very links that "belt and road" aims to cement.
Australia is a major trading partner with a large Chinese population. More than 1.2 million Australians have Chinese ancestry, with more than half a million born in China. If China wants something from Australia, it would be vastly less disruptive simply to buy it. Chinese-owned companies (which, in a one-party system, are in one way or another mostly linked to the state) already invest heavily in Australian farms and other industries. Australian universities have become highly dependent - in risk-management terms, far too dependent - on income from Chinese students.
Other threats are even less likely. Indonesia, our closest large neighbour, is a growing economy - it will be the world's fourth largest in less than 20 years. It could develop a capacity to threaten Australia, but would only do so if Australia was dumb enough to threaten Indonesian sovereignty (which we would do by building up armed forces in hostile way). A more effective approach, which will make Australian and Indonesian citizens happier, will be stronger social, economic and cultural ties.
A similar logic applies to any other country that may be a potential threat. Security will be built more effectively through other means, whether it's trade, democracy promotion, or social and cultural ties. The more we spend on armaments, the less we have available to spend on those other means.
It's not as if the government has been cutting the defence budget. Defence spending has grown steadily in real terms: the Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted that this year's budget "continues to follow the trajectory of solid real annual increases set out in the 2016 defence white paper." The last six years of budget papers confirm this real spending growth.
Writing in the Financial Review in May 2018, Peter Robertson and Jingdong Yuan, economics and international relations professors respectively, noted: "Defence spending is a nationwide insurance policy ... not unreasonably expensive if it delivered what it promised ... but does it deliver? Regrettably, it is impossible to know ... good policy will either be one that is cost-effective [or] high cost but provides good coverage. At the moment, we have neither." The debate today has not answered the question; we still don't know if defence delivers.
One of White's most absurd arguments is a rather equivocal chapter on Australia acquiring nuclear weapons - rebutted not only by anti-nuclear advocates such as Sue Wareham but also defence insiders. Sometimes, you can judge a policy by the company it keeps. Middle powers (outside the large five of the US, Russia, France, Britain and India) with nuclear weapons are Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and, previously, apartheid South Africa. Is this the type of country we want to be? Nuclear weapons would make Australia the pariah of the South Pacific. It's tempting to guess the nuclear chapter was an elaborate bait and switch by White; so outrageous as to distract from other unrealistic spending proposals.
The institute's Peter Jennings expertly demolishes White's other spending suggestions (despite agreeing on a "need to lift defence spending", a qualification obligatory in the defence policy community).
A holistic approach to national security - seeing trade, education and communications as fundamental components - delivers better results than focusing on defence alone. A defence white paper is best when it includes people outside Defence - economists, international relations, social policy or trade expertise (disclosure: I was part of such a group that helped draft the 2000 defence white paper). Trade-offs and alternatives outside of traditional defence spending should be considered and analysed properly.
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