The defence of Australia is a global enterprise

The Age, 13 October 2003

Neglecting our wider security will force us to capitulate or to fight on our beaches argues Des Moore

Kim Beazley, Labor’s long-ago defence minister, with former helpers Paul Dibb and Hugh White, have been drumming up support for his long-ago view that Australia’s security interests necessarily diminish with distance, and that our region must therefore be "in" and foreign adventurism "out". They misappropriate the phrase "defence of Australia", implying intentionally that those with wider perspectives are most interested in toadying to America.

That is a travesty: every true Australian supports the defence of Australia.  But defending Australia on its beaches, and in our maritime approaches, takes a dangerously narrow view of against what or whom, and where and how best, to use our military force.

The Beazleyites’ absurd "concentric circles" view - that what happens closest to Australia is most important- is manifestly untrue.  In two world wars and the Cold War (when we accepted being a nuclear target because of the joint Australia-US facilities) our enemies were on the other side of the world. 

And they were not just Britain’s or America’s enemies. Had our enemies won, Australia would have been required to change its policies and almost certainly its government.

A general truth has thus eluded the Beazleyites:  security in the broad, and defence against invasion or armed intimidation, are different things - but are connected, by time. 

Neglect of our wider security circumstances will force us into either preemptive capitulationism or fighting on our beaches and out a bit to sea.  Yet that is the worst place to defend Australia: far better to preserve our territorial integrity by fighting much further out in time and space.

The Beazleyites originally came to their short-sighted view by believing, wrongly, that Indonesia was our most likely enemy and that the USA, in the wake of the Guam Doctrine and its withdrawal from Vietnam, could not be relied upon. 

These are still their (suppressed) views, which explains their regionalist and so-called self-reliant approach.

In reality Indonesia has never had either the capability or intention of making an enemy of Australia, for that would be its complete ruin - not because of any damage we could inflict but because Indonesia would seriously damage itself, not least by arousing deep and widespread political and investor opprobrium. 

And it is inconceivable the US would abandon us - provided our own policies had not drawn down just retribution on our heads - for abandonment would not be in America’s own worldwide interests.

What other country might threaten us?  Only China; and as Peking is closer to Dublin than to Canberra, it is far from being in our region.  Moreover, though it is different enough in its governance and values, it is not our inevitable enemy.

Australia does have an identifiable enemy: Islamist terrorism supported or anyway allowed by states, some of them failed or rogue.  Already we have rightly sent combat forces to two far-away places, well outside our region, to help reduce the terrorist threat.  We cannot frame a defence policy on the assumption we will not need to do so again.

But if serious fighting were involved, that would necessarily be in association with the USA.  The Beazleyites don’t like that, identifying instead the possibility that terrorists will take over the failed states in ‘our region’; and they point approvingly to what we are doing in PNG and the Solomons. 

But this is false confirmation of the Beazleyite concentric circles approach, since neither country is of genuine security interest to Australia - unless PNG dragged us into war with Indonesia by giving safe haven to West Papuan separatists. 

Moreover, we are quite deliberately not fighting in either country and are not engaged in regime change, but are engaged in a humanitarian effort of nation-building.

That that will prove beyond us, because it is beyond them, in a sense does not matter, since failure will not increase the terrorist threat to Australia. 

It is much easier for Islamist terrorists to target Australia from within, sheltering among and using our own Muslim population, than from neighbouring islands where, unlike in Australia, Islamists would stand out.

What Australia needs is a wide range of capabilities and forces (able to operate with US forces), so that we can:

  • Engage in continental defence if all else has failed.
  • Fight further out in time and space in association with the USA, including against the terrorist threat, because that would be the best way of defending Australia.
  • Undertake in our region not regime-changing interventions but co-operative interventions to help in nation-building - as unrewarding as that will turn out to be.

Des Moore is Director of the Melbourne-based Institute for Private Enterprise and councilor of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. These are his personal views.