The Morrison government is accelerating and repurposing defence spending in a A$1 billion boost to support about 4,000 jobs and assist small and medium-sized businesses in the defence industry supply chain.
In several workforce initiatives worth about $80 million, up to 210,000 more days will be available to give supplementary employment to Australian Defence Force reservists, some of whom have lost civilian income. There are 27,000 ADF active reservists.
Five hundred more reservists will be recruited, which could help people with part time employment who have lost their primary employment due to businesses closing and the restrictions.
The ADF will slow or delay the transition of personnel out of the force for medical reasons, subject to medical advice. There will also be support for ADF partners to find work.
A $300 million “defence estate” program, supporting up to 2,200 jobs, will speed up work scheduled for defence facilities around the country. Some of the areas to benefit suffered in the bush fires.
The program will take in the RAAF bases East Sale, Pearce, Wagga and Amberley, as well as Jervis Bay and Eden, the Albury Wodonga Military Area, and Blamey Barracks. This builds on an announcement made in May.
About $190 million will be invested in bringing forward seven infrastructure projects in the Northern Territory, involving Robertson Barracks, RAAF Base Darwin, Larrakeyah Defence Precinct, and the Delamere Air Weapons Range.
Another $200 million will be spent on “sustainment of existing capabilities and platforms” including the upgrade of Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles, modernisation of ADF uniforms, and extra C-27J maintenance. The last will provide work for 23 former Qantas engineering and technical workers, and 14 ex-Virgin technical peronnel.
The uniform modernisation will speed up the delivery of “a contemporary, practical Navy uniform”.
Accelerating various projects to develop and deliver capability will cost $200 million and give work in the areas of manufacturing, construction and high tech.
About $110 million will be allocated to defence innovation, industry grants, skilling and micro credentialling and cyber training.
Scott Morrison, who will formally announce the package on Wednesday, said that like other parts of the economy the local defence industry was “doing it tough”.
“Supporting our defence industry is all part of our JobMaker plan – especially high-paying, high-skilled jobs that ensure we are supporting a robust, resilient and internationally competitive defence industry, ” he said.
“We will also support our ADF members and families, particularly any reservists who are doing it tough because of COVID-19.”
one of the most consequential AUSMIN meetings in decades.
Certainly, the Australian team went to unusual lengths to participate. Foreign Minister Marise Payne, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell and their teams will all have to quarantine for 14 days on their return to Australia.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted the commitment to travel to the US during the coronavirus pandemic, saying
not many partners will do that for us.
That effort appears to have been acknowledged in the comparative weight of Australian concerns and priorities in the statement released today following the talks.
Euan Graham, a senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at International Institute for Strategic Studies, told me this bears the stamp of “pretty proactive drafting from the Australian side”.
The statement reflects broader interests than in previous AUSMIN talks — including a strong section on COVID-19 — and omits any mention of the Middle East. Instead, it focuses heavily on the Indo-Pacific region — Australia’s region.
Payne stressed after the talks that while Canberra and Washington share many values,
We don’t agree on everything. We are very different countries. We are very different systems, and it’s the points on which we disagree that we should be able to articulate in a mature and sensible way.
She also emphasised the importance of Australia’s relationship with China, saying
we have no intention of injuring it, but nor do we intend to do things that are contrary to our interests, and that is the premise from which we begin.
Of course, this comes days after Australia’s strongest statement yet on the legality of China’s effective annexation of the South China Sea — a declaration that drew a rebuke from China’s Foreign Ministry.
The US team indicated its approval of the recently announced A$270 billion upgrade of Australia’s defence force – a shift in line with the Trump administration’s urging of US allies to become more self-reliant.
Morrison framed this upgrade within three aims: to more effectively shape the strategic environment, deter actions against Australian interests and respond with credible force when needed.
This also reflects, Graham says, a broader move to refocus Australian defence towards Southeast Asia, the Pacific and India.
The outstanding exception to this new focus, as reflected in the AUSMIN talks, is Taiwan.
The self-governing island is perceived to be coming under more imminent threat from Beijing, which claims it as its territory. The US and Australia affirmed Taiwan’s “important role in the Indo-Pacific region” and indicated their support for its membership in international organisations.
Rather than reflecting a hard defence and security focus, though, the AUSMIN statement prioritised the global response to COVID-19.
Graham believes this is “an Australian win” since the US has lagged in global leadership on the pandemic. The new funding pledged for post-COVID recovery in the Pacific is not massive — but the elevation of health concerns indicated this will now become more central to global security.
Overall, the talks indicate that as American concerns about the China challenge rise — among Democrats as well as Republicans — the Indo-Pacific is becoming ever more important, with Australia providing a crucial southern anchor for potential US force deployment.
They also make clear that while the US-Australia alliance remains rock-solid, Canberra will continue to plot its own course. It will approach issues like China trade, relations with the World Health Organisation and other multilateral agencies, and climate change in a strikingly different manner from the US.
Beijing, for its part, will continue to portray Canberra as an American “lapdog”, while at the same time seeking to do what it can to prise the alliance apart.
But this rhetoric is failing to win any policy traction, despite the instability of the Trump White House. Nor is China’s “deep freeze” of Australia. As Morrison has said, he’s “not waiting by the phone” for an invitation to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
This week, Chile reportedly chose Japan — not China — to build the first fibre-optic cable connecting South America with the Indo-Pacific, following the completion of a submarine cable between Japan and Australia this month.
All are members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump quit soon after his inauguration.
Such moves underline — as does the AUSMIN statement — the growing complexity and challenges of the post-coronavirus world, not only for Washington but also for Beijing.
The US naval exercises represent an enormous aggregation of firepower. Adding to tensions, the US deployment coincides with Chinese war games in the same vicinity.
These waters are becoming congested naval space.
This is the first time since 2017 that America has deployed three carrier battle groups into contested waters of the South China Sea and its environs. You would have to go back a further ten years for another such display of raw American naval power in the Asia-Pacific.
On this occasion, it is China that is being reminded of American capacity to assert itself in what has become known as the Indo-Pacific. This describes a vast swathe that laps at China’s borders from India in the west to Japan in the north-east.
Washington seems bent on conveying a message. However, it is not clear that China is in a mood to heed such messages in an atmosphere of escalating rhetoric.
In a response to the American naval exercises, Beijing’s official English-language mouthpiece, The Global Times, accused Washington of “attempting to show off its military capability, threaten China and enforce its hegemonic policies”.
The newspaper quoted Beijing “analysts” as saying:
The South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the People’s Liberation Army, and any US aircraft carrier movements in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.
This is not true, of course. But the fact such sentiments are emanating from Beijing’s security establishment is confronting, to say the least. When it comes to big-power rivalry, talk might be cheap, but words matter.
In China’s armoury, propaganda is a weapon of influence.
Perhaps the most interesting component of the Global Times assault on US regional “hegemonistic” ambitions is its characterisation of American meddling as that of a “non-regional country that lies tens of thousands of miles away”.
Leaving aside the usual propaganda from Beijing, these sorts of observations represent a continuing escalation in Chinese rhetoric and cannot simply be dismissed as more of the same.
China’s own characterisation of the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake”, in defiance of multiple territorial claims and counter-claims from its neighbours, represents a noose around the region’s neck.
This begs the question whether a regional arms race is under way and likely to intensify. Australia’s own announcement of increased defence expenditures on such items as long-range anti-ship missiles attests to concerns about China’s growing assertiveness.
Canberra’s commitment to lift defence spending above the 2% of GDP benchmark and equip itself with greater offensive capabilities represents a direct response to a perceived China threat.
In that regard, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, in which he described the Indo-Pacific as the “epicentre of rising strategic competition”, crosses a red line in Australian strategic thinking.
Morrison added “the risk of miscalculation and even conflict is heightening”.
This is indisputable.
As a snapshot of the region, the 11-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) increased military spending between 2009 and 2018 by 33% in real terms, according to the authoritative Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute (SIPRI).
This was significantly more than growth in spending in other regions. It’s directly attributable to concerns about a deteriorating security environment. Australia’s planned acquisition of long-range anti-ship missiles is part of a wider regional trend.
More weapons with greater range increase the risk of an incident. This may come about by accident but be built up into something much bigger – a shooting war or, more likely, a nasty memory that will haunt international relations for many years and lead to yet more militarisation.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates China’s defence budget in 2020 stands at US$261 billion. This compares with the US defence budget in 2019 of US$717 billion.
In percentage terms, increases in China’s spending outstripped that of its significant neighbours. This includes India, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
A lot more spending is on the way. By 2035, half the world’s submarine fleet will be deployed in the Indo-Pacific, according to Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper.
At the same time, China is pressing ahead with its own aircraft carrier fleet. It has two: one purchased off the shelf from Ukraine; the other built in China. The keel has been laid for a third at a Shanghai shipyard.
This is serious stuff. China is a nuclear state.
All this needs to be kept in mind as ill-tempered exchanges between Washington and Beijing over China’s responsibility for a global health pandemic, trade tensions, human rights abuses, bullying of Hong Kong, border skirmishes with India and increased pressure on Taiwan weigh on an increasingly strained relationship.
Arguably, tensions between the US and China are worse now than in 1989, when a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters ruptured relations. The difference between then and now is that China has a vastly larger economy and is an emerging superpower with a military to match its ambitions.
In 1989, China’s economy on a purchasing power parity basis was a fraction of the size it is today. Its contribution to world trade had not yet become supercharged.
What also is noteworthy is that, unlike 1989, China’s armed forces are no longer almost exclusively land-based. Chinese naval capabilities have progressed in leaps and bounds, along with its electronic warfare capabilities.
Hanging over a potentially worsening security environment, certainly an ill-tempered relationship between Beijing and the West, is widespread uneasiness over a deterioration in American global leadership.
In a presidential election year in which a wounded president is fighting for his political survival, risks of a miscalculation are real.
In other words, the security and political environment is treacherous at a moment when China itself feels under siege. As a consequence, China is lashing out at its perceived detractors, real or imagined.
This includes Australia, which has found itself under an almost daily barrage of Chinese invective following Morrison’s clumsy attempts to spearhead an independent inquiry into China’s responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic.
Typical of this sort of invective is the following, courtesy of the Global Times:
Australia is only a follower of the US, and its capability in the South China Sea will be limited.
The bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989 on pro-democracy protesters might be regarded as the low point in Beijing’s post-Mao Zedong relationship with the West, but it could be argued there is now a more worrying set of circumstances.
No country in the Indo-Pacific, with the possible exception of North Korea, can feel comfortable about China’s growing assertiveness. So it is tempting to say something will most likely give.
Australia’s defence industry is growing with over 4,000 businesses employing approximately 30,000 staff. An additional 11,000 Australian companies directly benefit from Defence investment and, when further downstream suppliers are included, the benefits flow to approximately 70,000 workers.
But the Australian part of Australia’s defence industry is small and getting smaller.
My analysis of contracts listed on the government’s Austender website shows that while the proportion of defence department contracts awarded to Australian operated firms is usually well above 60%, the proportion awarded to firms that are both Australian operated and owned is much lower, presently 11%.
It means that while Australians are being employed on defence department projects, the use of Australian firms that develop and own intellectual property is at a near-record low.
Other analysis of the same data shows that the value of the contracts awarded to Australian owned companies is increasingly lower than for foreign owned companies.
Despite the fact that in the most recent survey two of the biggest contractors declined to take part – the French-owned Naval Group Australia, which has the contract for the Future Submarine program, and the US-owned Raytheon – it has the advantage of including subcontracting relationships not shown in Austender.
Playing second fiddle matters
The survey finds that while the amount of work done by Australian-controlled companies has held up since 2015, it has been increasingly subcontracted to foreign-owned prime contractors.
This subordinate role has important implications for the health of Australia’s industry and national resilience.
For industry it means that Australia is denied the full economic benefits that would come from designing and running projects and owning the intellectual property.
For national resilience it increases Australia’s exposure to events outside its control.
If foreign-controlled firms withdraw, withhold or otherwise redirect assistance (or if they are directed to do so by foreign governments) it is harder for Australia’s industry to pick up the slack.
The supply chain interruptions caused by COVID-19 have highlighted these vulnerabilities.
Brent Clark, the national chief executive of the Australian Industry and Defence Network says he was “shocked to learn how many of our supplies are sourced from overseas and how quickly those supplies became hard to access as soon as overseas countries required them for their own purposes”.
He says the industry is not asking for a free ride, but it does want to be able to compete for contracts in a fair and equitable manner.
The announcement can be seen as a mix of the right stuff and political window dressing – deflecting attention away from Australia’s underlying weaknesses when it comes to cyber security.
What is the funding for?
Morrison’s cyber announcement includes a package of measures totalling $1.35 billion over ten years.
This includes funding to disrupt offshore cyber crime, intelligence sharing between government and industry, new research labs and more than 500 “cyber spy” jobs.
As Morrison explained
This … will mean that we can identify more cyber threats, disrupt more foreign cyber criminals, build more partnerships with industry and government and protect more Australians.
They key aim is to help the country’s cyber intelligence agency, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD), to know as soon as possible who is attacking Australia, with what, and how the attack can best be stopped.
Australia’s cyber deficiencies
Australia certainly needs to do more to defend itself against cyber attacks.
Intelligence specialists like top public servant Nick Warner have been advocating for more attention for cyber threats for years.
The government is also acknowledging publicly that the threats are increasing.
All countries face enormous difficulties in cyber defence, and Australia is arguably among the top states in cyber security world-wide. Yet after a decade of incremental reforms, the government has been unable to organise all of its own departments to implement more than basic mitigation strategies.
New jobs in cyber security
The biggest slice of the $1.35 billion is a “$470 million investment to expand our cyber security workforce”.
This is by any measure an essential underpinning and is to be applauded.
But it is not yet clear how “new” these new jobs are.
The 2016 Defence White Paper announced a ten year workforce expansion of 1,700 jobs in intelligence and cyber security. This included a 900-person joint cyber unit in the Australian Defence Force, announced in 2017.
The newly mooted expansion for ASD will also need to be undertaken gradually. It will be impossible to find hundreds of additional staff with the right skills straight away.
The skills needed cut across many sub-disciplines of cyber operations, and must be fine-tuned across various roles. ASD has identified four career streams (analysis, systems architecture, operations and testing) but these do not reflect the diversity of talents needed.
It’s clear Australian universities do not currently train people at the advanced levels needed by ASD, so advanced on-the-job training is essential.
Political window dressing
The government is promoting its announcement as the “nation’s largest ever investment in cyber security”. But the seemingly generous $1.35 billion cyber initiative does not involve new money.
The package is also a pre-announcement of part of the government’s upcoming 2020 Cyber Security Strategy, expected within weeks.
This will update the 2016 strategy released under former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and cyber elements of the 2016 Defence White Paper.
The new cyber strategy has been the subject of country-wide consultations through 2019, but few observers expect significant new funding injections.
The main exceptions which may receive a funding boost compared with 2016 are likely to be in education funding (as opposed to research), and community awareness.
With the release of the new cyber strategy understood to be imminent, it is unclear why the government chose this particular week to make the pre-announcement. It obviously will have kept some big news for the strategy release when it happens.
The government’s claim that an additional $135 million per year is the “largest ever investment in cyber security” is true in a sense. But this is the case in many areas of government expenditure.
The government has obviously cut pre-planned expenses in some unrevealed areas of Defence.
Meanwhile, the issues this funding is supposed to address are so complex, that $1.35 billion over ten years can best be seen as an incremental response to a radical threat.
Australia needs to do much more
According to authoritative sources, including the federal government-funded AustCyber in 2019, there are a number of underlying deficiencies in Australia’s industrial and economic response to cyber security.
These can only be improved if federal government departments adopt stricter approaches, if state governments follow suit, and if the private sector makes appropriate adjustments.
Above all, the leading players need to shift their planning to better accommodate the organisational and management aspects of cyber security delivery.
The update boosts defence spending from A$195-$270 billion over the next decade, with a commitment to see it through, regardless of the proportion of GDP it may reflect in the economically challenging months ahead.
The update promises increases for the three services (navy, army, air force), a satellite constellation, a bolstered cyber capability and plans for increased engagement with the neighbourhood. The intention is to bolster the ADF’s reach, precision, speed, agility and resilience.
This update is also intended to complicate the plans of any adversary seeking to cause us harm. Diversifying our capabilities is key to avoiding being limited by a shortage of force options.
China is the main motivator – but not the only one
China didn’t feature explicitly in the prime minister’s launch speech, but the dramatic growth in its military capabilities, coupled with an aggressive approach to cyber intrusions and its “wolf warrior diplomacy ”, is clearly a significant motivator for this surge in defence spending.
The plan makes clear, though, that other issues beyond great power rivalries are also contributing to the world’s sense of uncertainty, including threats to human security, pandemics and natural disasters.
Also implicit in the plan is the concern over heightened US introspection and waning relative influence, particularly in our region.
It is sometimes helpful to think of defence as being like a signposted home insurance policy and alarm system, designed to deter intruders and provide for potential calamity. The ADF capability, to date, has offered insufficient deterrence at a time when the prospect of (literal and metaphoric) fires and intrusions is growing.
The plan doubles down on regional engagement initiatives (a “neighbourhood watch” program, if you like). Key priorities here include better cooperation with maritime Southeast Asian states and the South Pacific, as well as other security partners further afield.
There is an underlying purpose to the ADF update: to ensure what Australia does is seen as being in the shared interests of the region, helping to bolster regional stability and security in these uncertain times.
It also may demonstrate a heartening increase in resolve to confront challenges in our region and stand with our neighbours as we have done in the past, instead of being focused on security challenges in the far corners of the globe, where our influence is commensurately less.
Greater resilience and preparedness
The update’s workforce plan projects incremental personnel growth in the hundreds, not thousands. And the service chiefs appear content. With unemployment spiking due to the coronavirus and related economic downturn, their recruitment and retention problems have faded for now.
The plan acknowledges the prospect of further “black swan” events, such as bushfires and pandemics. The ADF, however, is only a boutique force and while its utility and adaptability is impressive, there is little spare capacity in the event of a spike in crises – even with more soldiers and other staff.
Resilience featured prominently in the update, as well, reflecting growing awareness of Australia’s vulnerability arising from an overdependence on supply lines from abroad, notably refined petroleum products.
Deterrence is critically important
Critics may argue this update is a mistake and our words and actions may antagonise China – our largest trading partner.
But China is itself antagonising many countries, all of which have extensive trade ties with it. Even the Philippines, which has made concessions and reached out to China under President Rodrigo Duterte, has seen these efforts spurned. As a result, it has retained its ties with the United States.
It also points to the need to double down on consulting and collaborating with neighbours who are equally disconcerted by China’s belligerence and America’s evident retreat from global leadership. That seems to have been the point of much of the policy prescriptions in the Foreign Policy White Paper of 2017 – or what I call our Foreign Policy “Plan B”.
Meanwhile, China has built its robust, lethal and rapidly expanding military capability, structured to confront its very own trading partners.
Australia’s actions are not happening in a vacuum. Rather, Australia is appropriately and commensurately responding in an effort to bolster its own resilience and deterrence. After all, wars start when one side calculates the other’s ability to deter is insufficient and they feel confident of victory. Deterrence is critically important.
Scott Morrison will deliver a stark warning that Australia faces an increasingly threatening regional outlook and announce a pivot in its defence posture, when he releases the government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update on Wednesday.
The Prime Minister will declare: “Even as we stare down the COVID pandemic at home, we need to also prepare for a post COVID world that is poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”.
He will say the Indo-Pacific is the “epicentre” of increasing strategic competition, highlight “fractious” United States-China relations, and point to rising regional tensions over territorial claims, notably in the South China Sea and on the India-China border.
Australia’s defence policy is being adjusted to concentrate on our immediate region, and to equip the Australian Defence Force (ADF) with greater capability for deterring threats, including by significant new investment in longer-range strike capabilities across air, sea and land.
Morrison will announce the government will buy the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile from the US Navy, costing about $800 million. This missile has a range of more than 370 kilometres and is a significant upgrade from the current Harpoon anti-ship missile.
The very blunt language and unvarnished tone of Morrison’s speech, released ahead of delivery, reflect the heightening regional uncertainty, as China’s power and assertiveness increase, and American policy is unpredictable.
The update comes as relations between Australia and China continue to deteriorate, with Australia pointing to cyber attacks from “a state-based” actor and China accusing Australia of spying on it.
In his speech Morrison says the 2016 Defence White Paper gave equal weighting across three areas: Australia and its northern approaches, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and operations in support of the rules-based global order.
“In this update, the government has directed Defence to prioritise the ADF’s geographical focus on our immediate region – the area ranging from the north-east Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific,” he says.
“With the Indo-Pacific experiencing fundamental shifts and increased threats, our commitment will deepen.
“Our defence forces will need to be prepared for any future, no matter how unlikely,” Morrison says.
“The government has set three new strategic objectives to guide all defence planning, including force structure, force generation, international engagement and operations,” he says. These are to
shape Australia’s strategic environment
deter actions against Australia’s interests
respond with credible military force, when required.
Morrison says maintaining a “largely defensive force” won’t be adequate to deter attacks against Australia or its interests in the challenging strategic environment the country faces.
The ADF’s deterrence capabilities must be strengthened.
It needs “capabilities that can hold potential adversaries’ forces and critical infrastructure at risk from a distance, thereby deterring an attack on Australia and helping to prevent war,” he says.
To meet the new circumstances, “Australia will invest in longer range strike weapons, cyber capabilities and area denial”.
“We will increase the Australian Defence Force’s ability to influence and deny operations directed against our interests — ones below the threshold of traditional armed conflict, in what experts call the ‘grey-zone’.
“This will involve boosting Defence’s special operations, intelligence and offensive cyber capabilities, as well as its presence operations, capacity-building efforts, and engagement activities.”
Outlining the worsening risks, Morrison says: “We have moved into a new and less benign strategic era – one in which the institutions and patterns of cooperation that have benefited our prosperity and security for decades are under increasing strain.
“The Indo-Pacific is the epicentre of rising strategic competition.
“Our region will not only shape our future – increasingly it is the focus of the dominant global contest of our age.
“Tensions over territorial claims are rising across the Indo-Pacific region – as we have seen recently on the disputed border between India and China, in the South China Sea, and in the East China Sea.
“The risk of miscalculation – and even conflict – is heightening.
“Regional military modernisation is occurring at an unprecedented rate.
“Capabilities and reach are expanding.
“Previous assumptions of enduring advantage and technological edge are no longer constants.
“Coercive activities are rife.
“Disinformation and foreign interference have been enabled by new and emerging technologies.
“Terrorism and the evil ideologies that underpin it remain a tenacious threat.
“And state sovereignty is under pressure — as are rules and norms, and the stability these help provide.
“Relations between China and the United States are fractious as they compete for political, economic and technological supremacy,” Morrison says.
He says “the largely benign security environment Australia has enjoyed – roughly from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the Global Financial Crisis – is gone.”
The government’s updated defence funding will see investment in capability grow to $270 billion over the next decade. This compares with the $195 billion decade-long commitment in the 2016 White Paper.
Australia’s sharpened regional focus would have the ADF forming even deeper links with regional armed forces.
“Our new strategic settings will also make us a better, more effective ally.”
However, in a message that Australia no longer is as keen to be drawn into situations further afield, Morrison says, “We remain prepared to make military contributions outside of our immediate region where it is in our national interest to do so, including in support of US-led coalitions.
“But we cannot allow consideration of such contingencies to drive our force structure to the detriment of ensuring we have credible capability to respond to any challenge in our immediate region.
“It is in our region that we must be most capable in the military contributions we make to partnerships, and to our ever-closer alliance with the United States.”
The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu once said,
Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.
Looking at the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) today, it’s hard to say which of these tactics is most germane.
Getting the answer right will have enormous consequences for the United States and the future of the Indo-Pacific region. Underestimating the PLA breeds complacency and risks costly overreach. Overestimating the Chinese military grants it unwarranted advantage.
Similarly, for the Chinese leadership, miscalculating its military capability could lead to disaster.
As such, any serious appraisal of Chinese military power has to take the PLA’s progress – as well as its problems – into account. This was the focus of a recent study we undertook, along with retired US Army lieutenant colonel Dennis Blasko, for the Australian Department of Defence.
The PLA’s new-found might
By all appearances, the PLA has become a more formidable force over the past decade. The massive military parade in Beijing last October to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China showed off more than 700 pieces of modern military hardware.
One of these weapons, displayed publicly for the first time, was the DF-41, China’s most powerful nuclear-armed ballistic missile. It is capable of hitting targets anywhere in the US.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has also expanded its military footprint in the South China Sea. Military experts say China has used the global distraction of the coronavirus pandemic to shore up its position even further, drawing rebukes from neighbours. Tensions have heightened in recent days as the US and Australia have sent warships into the sea for drills.
In the past few years, China has also stepped up its military exercises around Taiwan and disputed waters near Japan, and last December, commissioned its second aircraft carrier, the Shandong, into service with the PLA Navy.
The most recent annual assessment of the PLA by the Pentagon acknowledges China’s armed forces are developing the capability to dissuade, deter or, if ordered, defeat third-party armed forces (such as the US) seeking to intervene in “a large-scale, theatre campaign” in the region.
The report also expects the PLA to steadily improve its ability to project power into the Pacific and beyond.
A recent study commissioned by the US Congress goes further, saying China’s strategy aims to
disrupt, disable or destroy the critical systems that enable US military advantage.
The report called for a “new American way of war”.
All of these highlight the increasing capabilities of the PLA and underscore the challenges China’s rising hard power pose to the United States and its regional allies. But what of the challenges the PLA itself faces?
Overcoming the ‘peace disease’
Interestingly, many of these problems are openly discussed in official Chinese publications aimed at a Chinese audience, but are curiously absent when speaking to a foreign audience.
Often, pithy formulaic sayings of a few characters summarise PLA shortcomings. For example, the “two inabilities” (两个能力不够), a term that has appeared hundreds of times in official Chinese media, makes reference to two shortcomings:
the PLA’s current ability to fight a modern war is insufficient, and
the current military commanders are also not up to the task.
Another frequent self-criticism highlights the “peace disease” (和平病), “peacetime habits” (和平积习) and “long-standing peace problems” (和平积弊).
The PLA was last at war in the mid-1980s, some 35 years years ago. Today’s Chinese military has very little combat experience.
Put more pointedly, far more soldiers serving in the PLA today have paraded down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing than have actually operated in combat.
Owing to these and many other acknowledged deficiencies, Xi launched the most ambitious and potentially far-reaching reforms in the PLA’s history in late 2015.
This massive structural overhaul aims to transform the PLA from a bloated, corrupt and degraded military to one increasingly capable of fighting and winning relatively short, but intensive, conflicts against technologically sophisticated adversaries, such as the United States.
But, recognising how difficult this transformation will be, the Chinese political and military leadership has set out a decades-long timeline to achieve it.
In Xi’s estimations, by 2020, the PLA’s mechanisation will be “basically achieved” and strategic capabilities will have seen major improvements; by 2035, national defence modernisation will be “basically completed”; and by mid-century, the PLA will be a “world-class military.”
In other words, this transformation – if successful – will take time.
At this relatively early point in the process, authoritative writings by PLA leaders and strategic analysts make clear that much more work is needed, especially more realistic training in joint operations, as well as improved leadership and greater communications integration across the services.
PLA modernisation depends more on “software” — human talent development, new war-fighting concepts and organisational transformation — than on the “hardware” of new weapons systems. This underscores the lengthy and difficult nature of reform.
‘Know the enemy and know yourself’
The many challenges facing the PLA’s reform effort suggest the Chinese leadership may lack confidence in its current ability to achieve victory against a strong adversary on the battlefield.
However, none of this means we should dismiss the PLA as a paper tiger. The recent indictment of PLA personnel for the 2017 hack of Equifax is a cautionary reminder of the Chinese military’s expansive capabilities.
Rather, it means a prudent assessment of the PLA must take its strengths and weaknesses into account, neither overestimating nor underestimating either one. Should strategic competition between the US and China continue to escalate, getting this right will be more important than ever.
So, is China appearing weak when it is strong, or appearing strong when it is weak? Much current evidence points to the latter.
But this situation will change and demands constant reassessment. Another quotation from Sun Tzu is instructive:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s declaration of “war” against the COVID-19 pandemic requires a mobilisation of all available resources to the front-lines of the response – and this includes a bigger role for our armed forces.
So far, the most visible force on our streets has been the police. In NSW, the police are now patrolling supermarkets to enforce civilised behaviour and order among panic buyers. A special police task force has also been set up in Victoria to enforce social distancing practices in public places.
The military can also be a highly valuable asset in a national emergency, yet governments usually only deploy armed forces when a situation turns critical, such as this summer’s bushfires.
We have clearly reached such a critical point in the coronavirus crisis. Desperate times call for a more coordinated and strategic response and much greater involvement of the Australian Defence Force.
Responding to unconventional threats
Modern military power is designed to respond to a comprehensive suite of conventional, asymmetric or unconventional threats. The latter includes chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, often referred to as CBRN.
Defence has a limited, but well-equipped, capability to respond to CBRN threats. The ADF has a specialised counter-CBRN unit, the Special Operations Engineer Regiment (SOER), which has been trained to respond to biological and bacteriological threats and operate in contaminated environments.
The Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group conducts specialised research and development to prevent and defend against CBRN attacks, including disease modelling.
In simple terms, the ADF can offer specialist epidemiological detection and decontamination capabilities. This includes the type of heavy equipment (such as CBRN-proof armoured personnel carriers) and protective gear that could be useful if the pandemic worsens.
This is in addition to a wide range of other functions the ADF can offer, from trained medics to transport logistics to policing functions.
The diggers move in
The ADF has been involved in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak from the early stages. For instance, the military offered its ground defence facilities, RAAF Base Learmonth and RAAF Base Darwin, to assist with the transfer of Australian nationals to quarantine stations on Christmas Island and Howard Springs.
But it wasn’t until the country moved into lock-down mode that it was asked to contribute much more.
ADF staff are also contributing clinical and epidemiological support to the Department of Health, while engineering maintenance specialists have been called in to assist the Victoria-based Med-Con medical supplier with the production of protective masks, sanitisers and other medical items.
Yet, this is likely to be just the beginning. For example, CBRN specialists could be providing much-needed training to police and other emergency services on how to operate in contaminated environments.
More defence medical staff, including mobile hospital units, decontamination equipment and emergency stocks of supplies, should be on standby to be deployed on short notice to worst-affected areas.
The military can also start assisting in ground logistical operations (for example, setting up quarantine areas and exclusion zones) and targeted emergency airlift (dispatching emergency medical teams to remote areas).
And if police resources become overstretched, military personnel could enforce quarantine orders or area shut-downs, though deploying soldiers on the streets may only be used as a last resort by the government.
If the government declares an even higher state of emergency, the military could also be called on to secure key elements of physical infrastructure (power stations, fuel depots, airports and sea ports, state borders and others), and protect key elements of supply chains.
What foreign militaries are doing
This is the strategy being embraced around the world as the pandemic worsens, with militaries being deployed in increasingly diverse tasks.
In the US, the military and National Guard are now undertaking a range of duties, such as
assisting civil authorities with enforcing quarantine orders by opening up defence facilities and providing mobile and floating hospitals to treat the infected
airlifting specialists, equipment and supplies to areas most in need and offering on-site logistical support and delivery of key items (food, medical supplies)
assisting in COVID-19 testing of civilians and research for a vaccine.
In the UK, up to 20,000 active defence personnel and reservists are in a higher state of readiness to respond to the pandemic, part of Operation Broadshare.
In Germany, about 3,000 military doctors and thousands of military reservists are also on standby, while France has mobilised 100,000 police officers and military personnel to enforce the country’s lock-down orders. A military field hospital also just opened this week in France to take the pressure off intensive care units.
In northern Italy, the military has been enforcing city lockdowns, in addition to transporting bodies of victims to places of cremation.
For a small standing force like the ADF, a pandemic is as much of a challenge as for the rest of the nation. But given the military’s resilience to stressful environments, a bigger role for our soldiers may be what we need right now.
As a scholar, under the auspices of the Military Intervention Project, I have been studying every episode of U.S. military intervention from 1776 to 2017.
Historically, the U.S. advanced from a position of isolationism to one of reluctant intervenor, to global policeman. Based on my research since 2001, I believe that the U.S. has transformed itself into what many others view as a global bully.
I do not use the word lightly. But if, by definition, a bully is someone who seeks to intimidate or harm those it perceives as vulnerable, then that is an apt descriptor of contemporary U.S. foreign policy.
The decline of traditional diplomacy
Venezuela is indicative of a larger problem facing U.S. foreign policy, which currently favors troops over diplomats.
What began as social, economic and political crisis under former president Hugo Chávez has continued into the presidency of Nicolás Maduro; who is now being pressured to step down through mass civic protests and constitutional challenges. The U.S. has struggled to respond effectively. Part of the difficulty is that the U.S. has not had an ambassador in Venezuela since July 2010.
Historically, as a reward for those with deep donor pockets, political appointees made up only 30% of U.S. ambassadorial appointments, leaving 70% of the posts to career diplomats. Under the current administration, that proportion is nearly reversed.
The professional corps of foreign affairs bureaucrats has also diminished. According to the Office of Personnel Management, under the Trump administration, the State Department lost some 12% of employees in the foreign affairs division. Its remaining diplomats are increasingly isolated from the formation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy, with foreign policy being established much more often by the executive branch, and then implemented by the Department of Defense.
From the perspective of conservative U.S. political elites, U.S. diplomacy has not suffered. Rather, its quality has shifted from often hard-headed and hard-won negotiations among career diplomats in possession of in-depth local knowledge – what we political scientists think of as traditional diplomacy – to what I have elsewhere referred to as “kinetic diplomacy”: “diplomacy” by armed force unsupported by local knowledge.
Examples from recent history
Looking at the overall use of U.S. armed force abroad, it’s clear that the U.S. has escalated over time as compared to both small and great powers.
In our database, we note every hostile incident. We rate each country’s response on a scale from 1 to 5, from the lowest level of no militarized action (1), to threat to use force, display of force, use of force and, finally, war (5). In some cases, states respond; in others, they don’t.
Over time, the U.S. has taken to responding more and more at level 4, the use of armed force. Since 2000 alone, the U.S. has engaged in 92 interventions at level 4 or 5.
Granted, the U.S. has become dramatically more powerful in military terms than Mexico, but power in the more traditional sense is not as critical in interstate relations as it once was. Increasingly, smaller states have been able to frustrate the objectives of larger ones.
With Mexico, for instance, the U.S. frequently resorted to the use of force. Often, Mexico didn’t even offer a response to armed U.S. action. From 1806 to 1923, Mexico engaged in 20 interactions with U.S. with varying levels of hostility, while the U.S. engaged in 25, and with higher levels.
Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. levels of hostility have continued to increase. In fact, during the Cold War, the U.S. was relatively less hostile. But once the Soviet Union and its bloc went bust, the U.S. began to engage its armed forces more intensely and more frequently.
Just as with Mexico, U.S. resort to force against Iran is consistently higher than Iran’s use against the U.S. While our database records 11 hostile engagements from Iran directed at the U.S. from 1953 to 2009, the U.S. intervened in Iran 14 times.
Of course, Mexico and Iran are relatively small powers compared to the U.S. But what of China?
As with Mexico and Iran, the U.S. resort to force is much more consistent and at higher levels toward China than vice versa. From 1854 to 2009, the U.S. intervened nearly twice as much in China as China did in the U.S. Our database records 17 incidents for China and 37 for the U.S.
Tanking US global reputation
Is kinetic diplomacy – bullying – an effective way to advance U.S. national interests?
In terms of the country’s global reputation, being a bully is not paying off. A February survey revealed 45% of global respondents viewed U.S. power and influence as a major threat to global security, with the largest shares originating in South Korea, Japan and Mexico – notably all U.S. allies.
The U.S. is seen as a threat not simply because it has expanded its use of armed force abroad over time, but because at the same time it has abrogated a number of its own core principles of legitimacy.