Alert, but not alarmed: enemy not at the gates

FOR the past two centuries we have been consumed by recurring fears of invasion, although none have come close to eventuating. New fears are now coming to the fore, driven by the relative decline of the United States and the concomitant rise of China.

Australia needs to take a reality check on its fears. We are in a stronger position than we think and we are less threatened than we imagine.

Despite this strong position, our defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product is about three times greater than neighbouring New Zealand. Moreover, we have reacted to the rise of China with plans for expensive planes and submarines that will most likely never be used in the direct defence of Australia. We have also needlessly raised regional tensions by allowing the Americans to establish a military base at Darwin.

For a while in the 1970s and '80s, our defence planners were chastened after the Vietnam defeat and concentrated on the defence of the Australian continent. It was not a bad policy, but soldiers could not see much scope for action in defending the continent or participating in peacekeeping operations. They wanted to hone their skills and deploy their equipment in actual wars.

The Americans also wanted Australia to concentrate more on developing an expeditionary capacity, so that we could participate in their ceaseless conflicts around the world. Australian governments complied and sent our forces off to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now that our commitment to Afghanistan is winding down, we need to reassess our defence thinking before we are called to partake in another American war. We can start by making a cooler calculation of our circumstances and interests.

As the inhabitants of an island continent that shares no land borders with other nations, Australia is well placed to avoid conflict with its neighbours. This is because most wars are about territory and the position of borders.

Thankfully, our forebears managed to secure the whole continent for themselves rather than having to share it with another European nation. The colonies and their successor states subsequently held together as one federation. As a result, we have avoided the potential for conflict that a divided continent would create.

Despite this, we have feared being displaced, particularly by the rise of different Asian nations and by our slowness to populate and develop the continent. When we had just 5 million people, and the numbers across the north barely filled a sizeable town, it is not surprising that Australians feared invasion. There was also a conviction back then that practically all the continent was capable of being occupied.

Now we openly acknowledge that two thirds of the continent is arid or semi-arid and Australia will never support a population comparable to that of other continents. At the same time, we have experienced a fivefold increase in our population and some of the isolated settlements across the north have grown into cities.

Rather than huddling in south-eastern cities, and presenting a relatively empty north to the world, Australians have developed mineral and other resources in the tropics and established new settlements to support those developments. It has now become much more difficult for outsiders to argue, as they used to do, that Australians were not making adequate use of the continent.

Apart from having a more secure hold on the continent, there has been another fundamental change in our defence position. Instead of posing threats to our sovereignty, a range of powerful Asian nations now have a strong interest in protecting Australia as a secure source of raw materials and food and as a market for their excess consumer products.

Indeed, a potential invasion of Australia would probably cause more alarm in Beijing, Tokyo and New Delhi than it would in Washington. This dramatic change in our circumstances requires us to make a fundamental reappraisal of our defence policy and the amount that we spend on it.

The first thing we should resolve to do is avoid any future involvement in America's wars. These costly adventures from Vietnam to Afghanistan have been calamitous for all involved, including the US. Yet, as the NATO conference in Chicago suggests, there will undoubtedly be more calls for Australian forces to support the doomed attempt by the US to maintain a worldwide empire.

The next thing we should do is make a more realistic prediction of the likely future threats to our security. During the 20th century, there was much talk of protecting our sea lanes and maritime approaches. While we certainly need to be able to assert our authority in Australian waters, the idea of protecting our sea-borne trade routes and maritime approaches needs to be rethought.

The idea of protecting our sea lanes originated when Australia's trade was principally with Britain and Europe and the security of those trade routes was an economic necessity. It also suited Britain to have us concentrate our defence spending on the navy. But today, our trade routes are principally to China and other Asian nations, who were the source of the supposed earlier threat and now are just as concerned about keeping those trade routes secure. It is difficult to see from where any future threat might come.

There might be a theoretical risk from Indonesia, but any such risk is only going to be exacerbated by Australia starting a regional arms race with Jakarta. Instead, Australia needs to continue the sort of confidence-building and military co-operation that has been the hallmark of our recent relations with Indonesia.

With no serious threat to our possession of one of the most defendable territories on earth, it is time for Australia to set aside its historic fears of invasion and adopt a defence policy and budget that suits our circumstances rather than those of the United States.

The Age, Melbourne, May 21, 2012