Staying In Formation

25 March 2024
Staying In Formation - Featured image

A new book challenging our international alliances underlines the need to make AUKUS even more transparent and robust, urges former intelligence analyst Paul Monk.

There has been a good deal of sniping at AUKUS, despite bipartisan political consensus on it between the Coalition and the ALP. Not until now has there been a thorough critique of it. Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, has changed that with his book The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace (Black Inc. La Trobe University Press imprint, August 2023). His book, which has been getting a lot of publicity, should be closely read and keenly debated.

When Pat Conroy, Minister for Defence Industry and Minister for International Development and the Pacific, declared, at the ALP national conference, in August, that one is either pro-AUKUS or an appeaser of Beijing, some delegates asserted that debate on AUKUS must be allowed. Agreed. It must. But it is vital such debate be conducted with unusually high levels of rigour and transparency. The truth is not self-evident—as parties on both sides appear to assume—and the stakes are very high.

Distrust of China has grown rapidly in Australia in recent years, because the Chinese Communist Party, under Xi Jinping’s dictatorship, is opaque and authoritarian. For precisely that reason, it won’t do to dismiss criticism of AUKUS and the nuclear submarines decision as the craven stance of ‘appeasers’. There are appeasers in Australia, just as there are anti-American activists and agents of Chinese Communist Party influence. But that is why we need the case for AUKUS to be transparent and robust.

Roggeveen has done us a service by pushing us to think harder and make the case better than has been done thus far. He has laid out the clearest and best-informed critique of AUKUS to date and done so not in polemical terms, but in a well-informed and systematic cross-examination of the foundational assumptions of our national security policy and force structure.

He is a liberal conservative, he tells us, in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott, preferring “moderation over extremism, tradition over ideology, evolution over revolution, and a deep suspicion of utopianism”. His book, however, recommends the most radical adjustments to our foreign and defence policies that one can readily imagine. A well-informed colleague remarked to me that Roggeveen has carried “Hugh White and James Curran to their logically absurd conclusions, somewhere over the rainbow”.

Why would an intelligent conservative do that? Roggeveen would respond that his are logical conclusions, not absurd ones, and our circumstances dictate heading over said rainbow. He believes the rise of China and its ambition to dominate Asia are changing our security environment so fundamentally it has become utopian or delusional to believe AUKUS will ensure our security in the decades ahead. Rather than dismiss such claims, we would do well to respond to them with closely reasoned arguments.

Indonesia could not ever replace what the US has long provided.

Roggeveen’s premises are that China will come to dominate Asia, the United States will not find the will or the means to resist this development, and we and other US allies will have to look to our own defence. This cannot be done, he insists, by adopting an offensive posture towards China. From these premises, he deduces we ought to adopt a highly conservative, purely defensive military posture that does not threaten China, but would make Australia a very hard target for any Chinese invasion or direct attack.

He argues that “distance is Australia’s single biggest defence asset. Beijing is closer to London than to Sydney” and China could, therefore, only ever deploy a small part of its military capabilities against us. A combination of missiles, mines, cyber weapons, limited maritime denial capabilities, and not much more air power than we currently have would suffice to deter or defeat such a deployment, he believes. Our army does not need to be any more than a constabulary and does not require heavy armour.

This last point, long a bone of contention and a hobbyhorse of Hugh White’s for 20 years and more, should not go unremarked. The ALP government, under the Australian Strategic Review, has jettisoned the hardened army that former Chief of Army Peter Leahy worked for years to build. Pity our ‘constabulary’ if they ever have to take on an enemy infantry dug into defended positions without the heavy armour required for combined arms operations. They will take grievous casualties. My 2007 report to the Army on this subject spelled this out in detail.

As for distance, Tokyo is as far away as Beijing, yet the Japanese bombed Darwin and penetrated Sydney Harbour in 1942. Only American naval and air power defeated Japan, with marginal input from us. Yet, instead of betting on the US alliance system in the 2020s—along with Tokyo and Seoul, Manila and Taipei—Roggeveen urges, we should seek a close strategic relationship with the long neutralist and poorly armed Indonesia, which, he claims, is set to become a massive economic and military power in the next few decades. Is this even plausible? Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago, tenuously held together by the Javanese. Our foreign policy towards it since 1948 has been based on anxiety about its political culture, a desire to see it mature and prosper, and fear lest it become a hostile power on our doorstep. Cultivating it as our new great and powerful friend is a big, big call. It could not ever replace what the US has long provided.

In what Roggeveen dubs “the greatest diplomatic challenge Australia has ever taken on”, he urges we seek to encourage the major powers to “create a mechanism for achieving what they want without resorting to force”. Isn’t that what the United Nations, the G-7, and the World Trade Organization have been all about? Isn’t the driving concern globally now the fact that Russia, China, and other dictatorships want to overturn that world order? How does he think Russia could have been persuaded to refrain from the use of force against Ukraine?

He suggests Japan and South Korea may well go nuclear as US extended deterrence is withdrawn, and this does not appear to greatly concern him. Disturbingly, he also declares that, in the new order he envisages, “liberal principles and human rights will have no place”. In short, he sees the US pulling back, China becoming the hegemon, nuclear proliferation widening, and Indonesia helping us keep China ‘honest’—but with no basis for liberal principles, human rights, or shared values in our relationships with either of those titans. That, surely, is a dystopian future.

The financial costs of AUKUS will be dispersed over half a century.

So many uncertainties and challenges are entailed in going down such a path that one might have expected a professed conservative to recoil. Roggeveen does not recoil, because he has become convinced, over many years, from dialogue with Hugh White and the late Allen Gyngell, observing the rise of China and watching the US stumble, that “the centre cannot hold” and we really do need to think along radically new lines.

This is where his critique of AUKUS is anchored. The US is not, he claims, threatened by the rise of China and therefore has insufficient incentive to seriously contest Xi’s ambition to achieve primacy in Asia. If it does take China on and we take its side, the odds are we will find ourselves on the losing side. Moreover, he adds, if we acquire nuclear submarines with Tomahawk missiles and launch attacks on Chinese territory with them, we would risk severe Chinese retaliation.

Echidnas are easy prey and tasty bush tucker, so perhaps
an ‘echidna strategy’ is not such a wise defence gamble.
Photo: source unknown, AI colourised

If we escalate, he argues, we lose. Best, therefore, abandon any capabilities that would even make it possible for us to escalate, or threaten to do so. We would, presumably, for the same reasons, close the US bases on our soil, starting with Pine Gap and Nurrungar, thus compromising US global operations well beyond our shores or maritime territories. Ideologues may want to do this, but the collateral damage to our global ties would be very serious.

Undeterred, Roggeveen argues all this not only should be done, but that it would be far less expensive, in budgetary terms, than AUKUS. Contrary to the commonsense claim that if we went it alone we would have to double or treble our defence expenditure, he argues that if we spend on defence and denial capabilities and give up long-range strike ambitions we could reduce our expenditures, while improving our survivability—and spend more on health, education, and welfare.

Even if one granted all his arguments, how long would it require to make these radical adjustments? Paradoxically, he cites as an illustration of how rapidly we could move, the about-face by Germany, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 22 February 2022, when, as he puts it, within four days, Chancellor Olaf Scholz “overturned two decades of German foreign and defence policy”, declared “implacable opposition” to Putin’s war of aggression and announced a massive boost to German defence spending. What Roggeveen does not pause to discuss is that Scholz did exactly the opposite of his own call on Australia’s leaders. Scholz put Germany on the front foot, whereas Roggeveen urges we put ourselves on the back foot. Nor does he mention the decisions by Sweden and Finland to seek NATO membership in the wake of Putin’s blatant aggression. Had those states, long neutral, reaffirmed their neutrality in the wake of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Roggeveen might have used their behaviour as a model. They did the opposite of what he urges we do.

Moreover, Germany is a major industrial power with the whole of the EU and NATO behind it. Roggeveen is urging that we, a largely deindustrialised and isolated state, effectively jettison what security alliances we have, set out to create an imaginary one with a large neighbour with whom, by his own account, we neither have nor can reasonably aspire to develop shared values, and totally rejig our defence, diplomatic, and intelligence establishments, their cultures and their operations, while giving up any commitment internationally to universal human rights or the fostering of democratic norms. This, to repeat, is anything but a conservative vision.

Even if one was to grant his broad premises, which are contestable, this looks very like pre-emptive acceptance of cultural and geopolitical defeat. What he hails as ‘independence’ has the character of isolationism and an abandonment of our historic ties and commitments to other states in Asia as well as to the US. The costs of such things to our morale and political cohesion would likely be high and enduring.

The financial costs of AUKUS loom large, because of the price tag on the nuclear submarines. But that cost (several hundred billion dollars) will be dispersed over half a century. If we do what Roggeveen urges, in what time frame would he expect the proposed changes to occur? What would be the crucial benchmarks for the success of his strategy? Here he is vague. Suppose we abandoned AUKUS (cancelling yet another submarine deal), then found the relationship with Indonesia was not developing on the lines he envisages while China was becoming more aggressive?

Even as The Echidna Strategy was coming off Black Inc’s printing presses, Japan and South Korea were working closely with the US to buttress security understandings—not jettison them. Both were also making unprecedented statements about how much importance they attach to Taiwan not being invaded by China. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock recently spoke to the Lowy Institute, urging international solidarity against the authoritarian regimes—especially Russia and China. Would it truly be strategic wisdom to cut ourselves off from all this and gamble on the ‘echidna’ strategy?

Would it truly be strategic wisdom to gamble on the ‘echidna’ strategy?

Much appears to hang on speculation as to whether Xi’s China can be deterred from the use of military force, starting with Taiwan. Surely, if diplomacy and conservative strategy have any validity, this is where they should be getting applied right now. To cast all existing capabilities and allies aside in the name of a highly speculative foreign policy and wholly innovative defence policy would, on the face of it, jeopardize the efforts of others, send a dubious message to the dictator in Beijing, and reduce our existing capabilities and professional cadres to disarray.

Convinced that the changes he calls for are necessary, Roggeveen closes his book on a rhetorical high note:

For the vast majority of Australia’s politicians and foreign policy commentators, the prospect of a diminished US alliance and a more independent Australia remains

inconceivable, even disloyal. For a small minority, it will generate excitement. Neither response is justified. Australia can stand alone, but although that will free us from many of the burdens and moral contradictions that come with the US relationship, it will impose others. And it won’t abolish power politics. In fact, it will force Australia to play that game more attentively and sometimes more ruthlessly than before.

More ruthlessly? There’s food for thought. He cites the American founding fathers as having stated that a radical change (of government, as in the American Revolution against the Crown) should only be made “with the utmost caution and solemnity”. That, he comments, “is the proper spirit in which to approach an end to the US alliance”.

Quite: with the utmost caution and solemnity. If there is a case for ending the US alliance, he has come closer to making it than anyone else in Australia so far. That case should now be carefully debated, not dismissed. What is needed is a set of very closely reasoned papers on the assumptions and scenarios on which his book is based. This begins with projections about the foundations, extent and prospects of Chinese economic growth and military power. And time is of the essence, because as Hal Brands and Michael Beckley have argued, in Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict With China (2022), the critical years are immediately ahead of us: between now and around 2030. Beyond that, uncertainties increase.

In one of the most perceptive passages in his book, Roggeveen quotes Adam Smith as remarking “there is a great deal of ruin in a nation”. He comments that two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the Global Financial Crisis, and other debacles did not stop the US in its tracks. Therefore, he deduces, we should not expect crises within China to derail its rise. It is an astute point. But crises in China in the 19th and 20th centuries did derail it, and in any case, internal crises could well shape its foreign policy in the years ahead.

Rather than insisting dogmatically on our commitments, we need to think better than ever about such matters. We owe Sam Roggeveen a vote of thanks for directly and sharply challenging the conventional wisdom. That is not to say we should accept his prescriptions. What it does mean is we need to have policy planning, intelligence and defence red teams put to work on rigorous scenario analyses. Do we have such analytic capabilities in government? It is by no means clear that we do. But it is clearer than ever that they need to be developed, along with greater depth, skill, and sophistication in our diplomatic corps.

Paul Monk was head of the China desk in the Defence Intelligence Organisation in the mid-1990s, and is a fellow of the Institute for Law and Strategy (London and New York). His article ‘It Was China Built The Wall’ appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of the IPA Review, and is available online at

This article from the Summer 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by former intelligence analyst Paul Monk.

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