There's been a lot of talk recently about so-called "grey zone" warfare. The implication has been that this is both (a) new and (b) somehow insidious and improper, when nothing could be further than the truth. These are exactly the same techniques used by the west to such advantage during the Cold War and today's problems are exactly the same ones faced back then.
Unfortunately we now appear to have forgotten how to wage such "wars" and it appears there's the need for a refresher on exactly what this sort of unconventional conflict actually is. So let's see how the strategists of yesteryear might have tackled some of our current dilemmas, and then measure these against the policies of our government today.
Obviously one of the most critical tasks is to ensure we have lots of allies in the region. The last thing the navy wants, for example, is to suddenly discover a potential enemy (China) has built a $204 million shipping base near Daru, to the north of the Torres Strait and just a few kilometres from Australia's border. The very prospect of this occurring has been enough to send its opponents apoplectic - so how might it be stopped? By buying more frigates?
Hardly! What the locals want is not a trickle of money coming from a foreign fishing fleet harvesting their resources, but rather some money to build their own, sustainable, industry. The investment required is, for a country like Australia, puny, in comparison to the return. And what is Australia doing? Well, a health clinic was built there a couple of years ago, but that's it. No sign of any ongoing effort at engaging locals and no suggestion of any alternative proposals from our side.
Let's put this down as a loss.
And how about winning over the minds of people in the Pacific? Imagine if it was possible to broadcast views and opinions into the very homes of those living on the islands, helping them to see the world the way we do and explaining issues clearly and effectively. Well, we used to, but that was before the government sold off the transmitters to a Chinese company and dismantled Radio Australia so it could save a couple of million dollars a year.
This was a vital link that connected the islands, linking them to form communities that shared our values. Long time correspondents like Sean Dorney became trusted interpreters of what was happening in the world. And today? That expertise has been squandered leaving commercial networks to provide a pathetic imitation of the public service news and information services of the past.
Another huge loss.
Similarly, every time a foreign student arrives in this country the ultimate aim and purpose is not simply to fleece them of as much money as possible to allow the continued under-funding of our university sector; nor even (simply) to "educate" them. The real objective should be to create positive experiences and feelings towards Australia among young people at a critical period of their lives. By simply treating this as a huge industry which attempts to extract as much money as possible we squander a massive opportunity, burning off the very individuals who might be expected to nurture some warmth for our community.
During the cold war the Colombo Plan paid for foreign students to come here. At least we've finally recognised the benefits of study flow both ways and are assisting young Australians to travel to Asia. Such programs urgently need to be increased. They contribute a reservoir of depth and knowledge to this country that's incalculable, something far greater than the ostensible "knowledge transfer" measured in certificates or described by a brief mention on a CV.
Battles are lost by mistakes. Wars, however, are lost long before those moments of crisis by a lack of intelligence and failure to understand the full dimensions of conflict. Spending money on ships and aircraft won't redress such basic failures today: there are far more positive things we can do to interact with our region.
Take Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation and, incidentally, a huge island barrier to anyone wanting to get to this country. This critical bilateral relationship should be the focus of every effort to protect this country. Instead the febrile minds of so-called experts are busy conjuring up a so-called "Quad" (an alliance with the US, Japan and India), something that will only ever exist in the imaginative minds of its boosters. By staking everything on an empty premise - that a phantom can be conjured into existence simply by being talked about - the pretence that we can snuggle back into security will be rapidly ruptured the moment this pretend alliance is tested.
But why would Delhi trouble itself about what happens in the South China Sea, and would Washington really go to war over a remote, undefined frontier in the Himalayas? Fear of Beijing is not enough to align otherwise disparate interests. Giving more space to this empty construct simply wastes your time and mine.
The only people who seem to think our security problems will be resolved by spending more money on the forces are the arms manufacturers who stand to gain the most from such redirection. Yes, there's a need for targeted and new focus on equipment, but there's no way Australia's forces will ever again be able to over-match those of our neighbours. We need to find security within our region, not outside it; as a part of a community, and not by yelling at other nations.
Neither the government nor opposition has shown any indication they understand the complex challenges of this new world. Both instinctively cleave to the old black-and-white divisions of the past. It's time to realise "grey" is not the bland option.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.