Australia’s Strategic Update by the Numbers
The 2020 defence strategic update is analysis framed by numbers (and dollars), a melding of meanings and means and mental maps.
To follow the strategic accounting, see what the update counts. Find the strategy in the numbers.
As usual in Oz defence thinking, the United States is the country that Australia mentions the most—it’s referred to in the update 17 times, plus twice in the formulation ‘US-led coalition’.
Of the seven defence white papers Australia released between 1976 and 2016, the US was top of the pops in six. The only time it wasn’t the most discussed nation was in the 1976 document (just after the Vietnam defeat), when Australia talked more about Indonesia and the Soviet Union.
In the update (as in the 2009, 2013 and 2016 white papers), China supplants Indonesia to take second spot in the most-mentions hierarchy.
China gets nine update mentions, but in five of those it’s in the joined phrase ‘the United States and China’. And two of the China sightings are when the document refers to the South China Sea, talking about ‘militarisation’ and ‘coercive para-military activities’.
The update refers to Japan five times. Indonesia is mentioned once, but with four references to ASEAN that counts as five Indonesia sightings. India is mentioned three times; add four references to the ‘north-eastern Indian Ocean’ for seven India sightings.
If the 2016 white paper marked ‘the return of geography to defence planning’, as Paul Dibb remarked back then, the 2020 update is geography triumphant.
Consistent with Oz usage since the 2013 white paper, Australia’s region is the Indo-Pacific (25 mentions) but—back to the future—the area of primary strategic interests is Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. Dibb calls this ‘decisive refocus’ both a ‘radical shift’ and a return home to defence of Australia. Another wise owl, Geoffrey Barker, sees a new defence paradigm.
Turn to themes and memes. Through the seven defence white papers Australia’s defence thinkers have always worried about self-reliance and order. The r’s reign: rules and self-reliance and region.
In the 2016 white paper, ‘rules’ appeared 64 times—48 of those in the formulation ‘rules-based global order’. The rules repetition was a fearful chant about what’s fraying.
Come the 2020 update, the rules-based order gets three mentions, along with a further two references to rules and norms. The context is fretful discussion about how rules are strained, undermined by disruptions; stability is challenged; and pressures on governance in the global commons are causing friction.
Rules are trumped by threats in the update, with a total of 12 mentions of coercion or coercive activities, to achieve strategic or economic goals without provoking conflict.
As coercion is code for China, you could redo the count to argue that there are more update sightings of China than of the US. That’d be a notable shift in the way Australia orders its strategic thinking. Not so long ago, the rules-based order was also code for US leadership; unfortunately that bit of code has turned to gibberish under President Donald Trump.
China fires up lots of ‘c’ words in the US and Oz vocabulary. The US’s new ‘strategic approach’ to China is to compete, compel and challenge.The update’s discussion of the strategic environment uses ‘competition’ or ‘competitive’ a dozen times, with formulations such as ‘greater strategic competition’ and ‘major power competition’ between the US and China.
Facing coercion in ‘a more competitive and contested region’, Australia’s new defence meme is shape-shifting.
The heading ‘Shape Australia’s strategic environment’ is up first in the defence policy chapter and that thought becomes a chant, with 12 references to Australia’s intent to shape our strategic environment.
Doing the count (finding the topography in the typography) sifts for shifts in language and changes that are such big breaks they mark inflection points.
Along with shaping, the other new bit of vocab put in lights is another way of talking about coercion—‘grey zone’ activities (11 mentions):
‘Grey zone’ is one of a range of terms used to describe activities designed to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict. Examples include using para-military forces, militarisation of disputed features, exploiting influence, interference operations and the coercive use of trade and economic levers. These tactics are not new. But they are now being used in our immediate region against shared interests in security and stability. They are facilitated by technological developments including cyber warfare.
The definition of grey zone is one of two text boxes, a design feature that puts something up in lights.
The second box marks a big break, ditching 50 years of Australian strategic theology: Australia no longer believes it has 10 years’ warning time of a conventional conflict, based on the time it’d take an adversary to prepare and mobilise for war.
Previous Defence planning has assumed a ten-year strategic warning time for a major conventional attack against Australia. This is no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning. Coercion, competition and grey-zone activities directly or indirectly targeting Australian interests are occurring now. Growing regional military capabilities, and the speed at which they can be deployed, mean Australia can no longer rely on a timely warning ahead of conflict occurring. Reduced warning times mean defence plans can no longer assume Australia will have time to gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges.
Lucky is the country that has 10 years’ warning of war. Unhappy is the country that no longer has that comfort.
Order suffers. Coercion rises. Geography is back. War in the Indo-Pacific, ‘while still unlikely, is less remote than in the past’. The update is a sombre accounting.