Australia cannot rely on a coalition of regional alliances to counter China's ambitions and underpin security, defence strategist Hugh White argues in a new essay.
Professor White has cast doubt on a pillar of the federal government's new defence strategy, which emphasises building relationships with Indo-Pacific partners to counterbalance China's growing influence.
It was unlikely a NATO-style network would emerge in the region, he said in the essay, 'Great Expectations: Can Australia depends on its neighbours?' published in Australian Foreign Affairs on Monday.
"In the more contested and militarised environment of coming decades, in which the government itself acknowledges that Australia faces an increased probability of high-intensity conflict, it would be very risky to expect that Australia can look to an alliance of like-minded neighbours led by the United States as the basis for its security," Professor White said.
"Nor, in the likely event that Washington steps back from any major role in Asia, can we prudently expect to rely on such an alliance without the United States."
Professor White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, said the interests of Indo-Pacific nations didn't converge enough to sustain a coalition counterbalancing China.
The region's geography would also limit the value of an Asian NATO to member nations, some of which could defend themselves with their own navies, he said.
Professor White questioned the willingness of nations to contribute to each other's defence in a confrontation, or to support US efforts to limit China's regional heft.
"Asian countries will pay dearly if they dare to support US efforts to contain China," he said.
"Countries are unlikely to take on those costs and risks unless they feel existentially threatened by China's ambitions - the way Western Europeans felt threatened by the Soviets during the Cold War - rather than anxious and uneasy, as they do now.
"And even if their anxieties grow, they will not commit to an effective alliance unless they are reasonably sure that others will commit too. Neither of these conditions seems likely to be fulfilled."
Australia must instead look to build military self-reliance and could grow its fleet of submarines beyond numbers to be delivered under the nation's defence program, Professor White said.
The federal government should also direct diplomatic efforts towards near-neighbours it could assist in a confrontation, including Indonesia, he said.
"Canberra could lay the groundwork for future cooperation and mutual support by starting a frank, serious and private conversation with Indonesian leaders about the strategic challenges both countries face over the decades ahead."
The government announced a $270 billion, decade-long defence spend in July, however Professor White said it had not committed to substantially increasing military spending.