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Firing Line

In reply to James Brown's Quarterly Essay, Firing Line: Australia's Path to War.



Kim Beazley

On my desk sits a photo that was a departure gift from David Shear, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs in the Pentagon. It is of a Chinese warship, snapped from behind a group of waving American sailors on the deck of an American destroyer. The Chinese ship is shadowing the American one as it undertakes a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea. A note reads: “Kim – hope to see your guys doing this soon. With great respect and appreciation. Dave Shear.” Good-natured but pointed humour. It reflects the American expectation that Australians will emerge from calculation of our own interests, in the region of most vital importance to us, and where we are a substantial player, with a determination to demonstrate the validity of the rules governing the global commons. It would help if the United States not only upheld the rules established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but also ratified them. We have done so. In our most recent defence white paper, these rules influence how we equip our armed forces and how we see our responsibilities in the region. 

Our ally knows we struggle with decisions to utilise our military forces in support of political objectives in parts of Southeast Asia. If longevity of engagement confers legitimacy on operations, history affirms our right to be a participant in upholding the Law of the Sea in the region. Under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, and with the help of the US Navy, Australian forces conducted the last two amphibious operations of World War II in the zone, at Tarakan and Balikpapan. These operations preceded the Chinese territorial sea claim of the nine-dash line. As that claim incubated in the bowels of the Chinese government, having originated with its nationalist predecessor, Australia was routinely engaged in British struggles with a communist insurgency in Malaya and later in confrontation with Indonesia on behalf of the emerging Malaysian government. As the British withdrew east of Suez, Australia assumed the primary external role in the most longstanding, non-American-involved military alliance in the zone, the Five Power Defence Arrangement, covering Malaysia and Singapore. A RAAF officer still commands the air defence of the Malay Peninsula. Pursuant to this agreement, since the early 1970s Australia has conducted routine air and naval patrols in the South China Sea. The Five Power arrangement also sees permanent rotation of elements of Australian ground forces. These activities have the overt support of two of the South China Sea’s littoral states, Malaysia and Singapore, and the implicit support of most of the others. That included China at the time it was in intense disagreement with its Soviet neighbour. Less extensively supported, yet still by some, was Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam (our largest engagement in the zone after World War II).

Today, Australian officials are frequently told by their Chinese counterparts that we have no rights in the game of claim settlement in the zone and no business inserting ourselves in its processes. Our response is that our interest is not in a claim, but in the peaceful legal settlement of claims. Our history and commitments give us at least as much right to engage as anyone else. That we will is regionally acceptable.

From the American point of view, when it comes to external powers we are all there is. This is thoroughly understood by Australia’s political leaders. There is no question in their minds that militarising reefs and rocks in the South China Sea is not lawful and produces regional tensions. At the same time, they are aware that the complexities are little understood by the Australian public. They see the danger of accidental clashes. Moreover, there is a constant drumroll from semi-official Chinese media threatening action against Australian units. In one of the latest, on 30 July 2016, the Global Times argued, “If Australia steps into the South China Sea waters, it will be an ideal target for China to warn and strike.” Maybe. Were that to occur, it would be a real test of ANZUS. This would be an attack on the forces of one of the signatories going about its legitimate business in the Pacific. A substantial response would be required, although Chinese writers seem little concerned by, or else ignorant of, that fact. When it comes to balancing friendships and alliances, this is where the rubber hits the road. The issue is what is sufficient to maintain our position, how we advise our allies and friends on our response, and what theirs ought to be. The question arises: is our decision-making structured in a way that most effectively processes decisions about conflict? James Brown, in his eloquent essay, seeks to answer that.

Firing Line lifts the debate about our military strategy and planning as we contemplate how we will spend the $450 billion the white paper outlaid for future defence spending. And, more importantly, how we will use the force structure created. How we should contemplate and organise for the possibility of war. How we should calculate interests and possibilities. When engaged, how we will assess the relevant force levels, identify desirable outcomes and conclusions. We have got out of the habit of this thinking. In the 1980s, with the Vietnam experience behind us and the Nixon Doctrine with us, these issues were more on the table. Concepts of warning time were worked through at length. Levels of threat were identified, and decisions about force structure made accordingly. Command arrangements were adjusted to ensure effective planning. At the time, mobilisation studies of our national assets in pursuit of self-reliant strategies were all the go. This level of detail featured in none of the succeeding white papers.

The problem was the dominant focus on a single scenario: the defence of our approaches at a time when no regional power was likely to be able to mount a substantial challenge any time soon. Activities further afield were seen principally in the context of a political contribution to allies or UN-based missions. Our experience since then is that although tasks have been manifold, and successfully accomplished, they have not been subject to the same disciplined thinking. Where we have been in the lead, as with East Timor and the Solomon Islands, James Brown’s strictures on planning have been reasonably well met. Where we have not been in the lead, our decision-makers have been challenged. He has put forward a set of proposals which are certainly worth detailed thought. Central to that is how we advise our principal ally on how we match our interests with theirs and how we calculate costs and benefits in our region and more broadly. The Americans perceive us now as a highly valuable interlocutor, particularly on regional matters. This was made clear in US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s speech to the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, where he said: “The US–Australia alliance is, more and more, a global one. As our two nations work together to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight across this region, we are also accelerating the defeat of ISIL together in Iraq and Syria.”

Our ally views us very differently than was anticipated back in 1987. We are not just seen as a willing provider of another flag. We are perceived as adding real capability. Ours may be niche contributions, but they have real military value. In the Iraq War, we were assigned the task of preventing missile launches against Israel from Iraq’s western desert. In Afghanistan, at the height of the commitment, we had the task of handling the affairs of a difficult province, Oruzgan. That task expanded to assisting in neighbouring, and much more difficult, Kandahar. More recently, our re-engagement in Iraq includes leading in one of three major training bases established for Iraqi forces. We have had distinct views on how that struggle is pursued, some of it captured in what appeared to be a well-sourced article in the Weekend Australian of 23–24 July, although I think the headline “Obama ‘Too Soft’ in Fight against ISIS” overstated. It is a complex struggle fraught with internal political difficulties in Baghdad. The Pentagon, more than Obama – though he as well – has been sensitive to the Iraqi view that it is their fight and that excessive reliance on foreign forces is domestically, politically, counter-productive. We have been alert to this sensitivity. Differing perspectives have been nuanced rather than absolute, with Iraqi government views respected at all times. As appropriate, our position has been determined by our own analysis of what needs to be done in the struggle with ISIS. We should be under no illusion: our troops are in harm’s way. We are taking that responsibility seriously, with senior decision-makers deeply engaged. It is a fight not yet won. If and when James Brown’s suggested structure is considered, it will be a core case study.

Most Australian commentators write without a full appreciation of how deep our defence involvement is with the United States. In a sense, our public commentary reflects something of the “frog in boiling water” phenomenon. To use another analogy, we miss the wood for the trees. The last two decades has seen an accumulation of actions and judgment which has brought this about. This is not the place to look at that in detail. However, some points can be made.

On the intelligence side, there have been regular visits by the most senior American officials. They do not occur unannounced, and they reflect what one expert told me: that the volume of exchange with Australia is now the most extensive of the United States’ many exchanges. (I hasten to add I can’t directly verify this, but it wouldn’t surprise me.) The joint facilities, increased in number in recent years, with new facilities related to space awareness, are now of genuinely mutual significance. In my day in Defence, it was a matter of ensuring the Australian government had full knowledge of, and was in a position to concur with, how the facilities were used and how they operated. Now they form a critical element of our own intelligence order of battle and our operation in the field.

Our defence acquisitions have likewise ensured compatibility with the forces of our ally. We spend about A$13 million each working day in the US defence industry. Over 400 military sales and related activities are managed in the Australian embassy in Washington. The result of this can be seen most strikingly in our air defence – arguably the best we have ever had and decisive in our approaches. Full situational awareness comes from our access to satellite product and our over-the-horizon radar system. (The latter is an Australian product, but it started as a joint process and is maintained with American companies.) Our surveillance aircraft and early warning capabilities are American-sourced, along with our in-flight refuelling. Our strike and interdiction aircraft – Classic Hornets, Super Hornets and Growlers – are likewise all American, as are the F-35s on which we are now training. As to the future, members of our Defence Science and Technology Group are engaged in work on technologies identified in the so-called Third Offset Strategy that is the next phase in the American military’s technological revolution. 

Finally, it should not be assumed that we have been passive recipients of instructions as the Americans have “pivoted” to Asia. The Americans are thoroughly aware that we have long been advocates of their reorientation. I was tasked, after then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mid-2010 announcement of their intention to join the East Asia Summit, to report on how the Americans arrived at their conclusion. “Why, because of you, of course,” was the genial response of the first American official approached. He was referring to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s advocacy of an Asian community. That Australian position is much in mind as we discuss with them activities in the South China Sea. James Brown’s essay is timely indeed.

Kim Beazley

Kim Beazley was Deputy Prime Minister of Australia from 1995 to 1996 and Leader of the Opposition from 1996 to 2001 and from 2005 to 2006. He served as Ambassador of Australia to the United States from 2010 to 2016.


This is a reply to James Brown’s Quarterly Essay, Firing Line: Australia's Path to War. To read the full essay, login, subscribe, or buy the book.


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