Australia, it’s time for ‘the talk’: Time to take ourselves seriously.

By Stephen Kuper

Like any adolescent, there comes a point in time when our parents sit us down and have “the talk”. For Australia, that time has come, and rather than being a talk about the birds and the bees, this conversation will be equally awkward, embarrassing, and uncomfortable, yet necessary.

For many historians, strategic thinkers, and political decision-makers, the horrors of the Second World War could accurately be seen as the final, most painful stages of labour before the birth of the new world order.

As the fires of conflict finally subsided, bringing the conflict to an end across Europe and the vast expanse of the Pacific, men and women across the globe collectively breathed a sigh of relief, as the carnage and horrors of the previous six years were replaced by a renewed sense of optimism and hope.

Striding triumphant across the ashes of the formerly great imperial powers of Europe, the United States and the Soviet Union sought to usher in a new period of prosperity and optimism.

Sadly, the elation and optimism of the early post-war days came crashing down as an iron curtain descended across much of Soviet-occupied Europe and competition between the two superpowers began to take shape.

The economic, political, and strategic competition that would begin to take shape as the US and the Soviet Union eyed off one another across the globe would become known as the Cold War, a period of intense, often sporadically hot competition between the two superpowers.

This intense competition saw vast arsenals of weapons developed and fielded, proxy conflicts fought across the Asian, African, and South American continents and intriguing mutual games of espionage between the two camps, as former KGB officer Yuri Bezmenov explained, to engage in “ideological subversion” in an attempt to convince the other side of their opponent’s own benefits.

The competition between the ideologies of liberal democratic capitalism and the revolutionary doctrines of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao would come to characterise the latter half of the 20th century and set the stage for the world we find ourselves in today, particularly throughout the Indo-Pacific.

While the collapse of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the 20th century coming as somewhat of a surprise to many strategic thinkers and political leaders, the world embraced the “new world order” and the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism over the horrors of autocratic tyranny in this end of history, something we now know is fraught with hubris.

As the US-led world order completed a self-congratulatory lap of honour and took to expanding democracy across the world, particularly in the Middle East, the former Soviet bloc licked its wounds and began the long, arduous journey back towards relevance and a position of prominence on the global stage.

Today, the new revolutionary world order would not be led in major part by Russia, rather it would be spearheaded by Mao’s China, an economic, political, and strategic juggernaut that extensively studied the lessons of history and has never quite recovered from its “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of colonial empires, with its eyes on usurping the global status quo.

In the face of these challenges, Australia, like many nations around the world, is at the edge of a precipice of immense economic, political, and strategic change. The post-Second World War order, established in the dying days of the war and formalised with the Bretton Woods Conference and the formation of the United Nations, set the stage for the period of stability, prosperity, and growth which transformed the world despite periods of tumult.

Yet, despite these challenges and the long-awaited release of the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review (DSR), the Australian public is more broadly being left out of a critical conversation about the nature of the challenges facing Australia.

Ultimately, it is time for the Australian government to have “the talk” with the Australian people.

Let’s be frank in our conversations with the Australian people

With the release of the Defence Strategic Review and the preceding 2020 Defence Strategic Update and supporting Force Structure Plan, both sides of Australian politics have started, albeit rather tentatively, to shift the course of the public dialogue about the challenges Australia faces in an increasingly multipolar world.

However, the timid nature of the language in documents like the Defence Strategic Review ultimately does more to hinder a coordinated “whole-of-nation” response as the DSR seeks to begin coordinating.

Highlighting this point, Peter Jennings AO, speaking at the Defence Connect DSR Summit, explained, “It [the Defence Strategic Review] misreads the source of the risk, the source of the risk is China.”

Explaining further, Jennings said, “It misreads that we are just watching this (on the sidelines), but we are actually heavily invested in this [US-China] competition. I think that language is giving the government an opportunity not to talk about China … These three paragraphs would have to have been the three most talked about in the review.

“I am pleased that the document has said what we all know to be true, but there is plenty of transparency about what China is doing. (It can be found) In Xi Jinping’s speeches and writing, government documents; strategy running counter to the current global order,” Jennings told the audience.

It is important to highlight that in the coming era of multipolarity, Australia will face an increasingly competitive Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, separate to the People’s Republic of China, our immediate region is home to some of the world’s largest populations and fastest growing economies with their own unique designs and economic, political, and strategic ambitions for the region.

Nations like Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines in our immediate region, combined with other powers like Japan, South Korea, and Pakistan all have unique ambitions towards the region and their position in it separate to those of Xi Jinping’s China, presenting equally challenging circumstances for Australia’s own economic, political, and strategic position and security that need to be accounted for.

Yet, both the Australian government and the DSR only emphasise the challenges presented by Beijing and its designs for the Indo-Pacific, something that needs to be addressed directly and thoughtfully with the Australian public.

“Australians aren’t silly and are, to a certain extent, ahead of our politicians at the moment,” Jennings explained to the audience.

It can’t be all doom and gloom

One of the central points that is often overlooked by Australia’s strategic policy and political leaders when broaching this and similarly sensitive issues with the Australian public is the need to avoid a narrative of “doom and gloom” without presenting engaging solutions.

Rather, in the face of these challenges, we need to be equally presenting the opportunities that balance the challenges and we need to do so in an honest, direct manner.

Equally, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see a narrative that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

Final thoughts

There is no doubt that Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically, and politically in the face of rising regional and global competition.

Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual, yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.

While contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the sociopolitical and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia, this is particularly well explained by Peter Zeihan, who explains: “A deglobalised world doesn’t simply have a different economic geography, it has thousands of different and separate geographies. Economically speaking, the whole was stronger for the inclusion of all its parts. It is where we have gotten our wealth and pace of improvement and speed. Now the parts will be weaker for their separation.”

Accordingly, shifting the public discussion and debate away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

As events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political, and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power, or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?

 

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