Last month, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age issued their ‘Red Alert’. On the back of assembling five national security experts, they declared that Australia faces war with China within three years and sounded the alarm that we’re not prepared.
But the bulk of the debate has centred on the vices and virtues of military-based deterrence.
This week, we asked three experts for their take on the Red Alert prediction of conflict and its implications for Australia’s development efforts.
Australia’s recent grim fixation with the possibility of war with China obscures the wider task ahead for Australia: helping determine a favourable, yet peaceful, outcome of present great power competition. While war is a possibility, if it can be avoided other fields of activity – especially development assistance – may prove more decisive in determining the future of the Indo-Pacific.
Ultimately, China, the United States and their allies are competing over who controls the political and economic development of the Indo-Pacific. As the region’s developing economies seek to become more digitised societies over the next decade, the providers of their critical infrastructure and skills investment will likely determine the technology pathways of these societies for rest of the twenty-first century. Australia, alongside other like-minded states, therefore needs to be forthcoming with investing in the infrastructure and education of developing neighbours – especially in the South Pacific where Australia has the most opportunity to lead.
Indeed, keeping great-power competition contained to this realm of activity is one of the best hopes we have for avoiding war. Australia’s Ambassador to Washington, Kevin Rudd, has advocated for what he calls 'managed strategic competition': an accord or detente between China and the US that would see them continue to compete, but with mutually established guardrails that prevent needless escalation. It's an idea that the Biden administration is trying to find meaningful opportunities to pursue, including in the economic realm through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).
To contribute to managed strategic competition it will be key for Australia not to downscale development assistance to accommodate more defence spending.
Will is an Australian national security scholar and is currently a Visiting Fellow at Pacific Forum International. His specialisations include international security, Indo-Pacific strategic affairs, and Australian foreign and defence policy. With PhD in national security policy, Will is a Lecturer and Expert Associate at the ANU’s National Security College. At the Lab, we are excited by William's expertise across so many fields of foreign policy (which sees us also cross paths with him in our AP4D work) and you can catch him in action over the years on the National Security Podcast.
Red flag, red rag, red herring? An alarmist communique is not the issue, but the risk of an AUKUS-dominated foreign policy crowding out development and diplomacy is. The great-power peace of the last 80 years has facilitated the fastest development in human history. The question is, how to maintain it? Weakness invites war – and with Xi and Putin we need to be very well prepared. But without substantial and sustained countervailing diplomacy and renewed international cooperation, AUKUS may make war more likely, rather than less.
The West – and the US, in particular – deserves more credit for building and enforcing a global order that has provided the security, stability and predictability that underpins development. But the rules-based order runs on our rules – and a military-based Anglosphere alliance looks like the old guys trying to hang-on to their privilege. That plays very destructively into the authoritarian narrative.
Into the bargain, US foreign policy is littered with catastrophic failures – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. At each turning point, we have encouraged the catastrophe, rather than helping the US avoid it. Deeply enmeshed in US military and foreign policy culture through AUKUS, we risk doing so again.
The warning lights are flashing and we're struggling to get our strategy right. A military-dominated approach will be counter-productive and potentially disastrous for development. We must be much more active assisting the emerging middle powers of East Asia to take their place in the world – and to reshape it, confident that most of them also want freedom, openness and autonomy.
Richard features prominently in Australian development reform debate. He’s been with the Lab since the start and he is a relentless source of ideas. Richard’s knowledge of the Australian development program and Southeast Asia is unparalleled. At the Lab, we learn a lot from Richard’s experience, and love his quick wit, ambition and pragmatism.
Red Alert’s call for Australia to prepare for war drew an overwhelmingly negative reaction from the Australian public and specialists alike. The government’s AUKUS announcements earned a similar though less unanimous response, not least because they imply that Australia has chosen a side.
AUKUS is a response to a changing global landscape. Hopefully it’s part of a strategy that places deterrence alongside other initiatives in aid, diplomacy, cultural engagement and dialogue – but at the moment it seems to stand on its own. It reinforces the perception that Australia is pinning its security on ‘minilaterals’ like AUKUS and the Quad and on nuclear technologies rather than on its deep regional engagement and proven world-class ability to work multilaterally.
Australia aspires to contribute to a peaceful world but Red Alert and AUKUS undermine our ability to act for peace, especially in the Pacific. Pacific people have strong historical reasons to oppose nuclear powered warfare and have lived experience of being a theatre of war. While deeply valuing our friendship, Australian messaging and policy that presupposes the likelihood of conflict with another of their major partners may undermine our collaborations with Pacific people.
Peace and stability – a foundation for development – relies on dialogue, mediation, negotiation and transparency. But Australia’s ability to speak constructively in the language of peace seems to have atrophied. China is positioned as an opponent rather than a complex and challenging actor. We focus on strengthening our military but not enhancing our capacities in dialogue and negotiation. Our worldview seems to be ‘us and them’ and not ‘we’.
As conflict comes closer to home, it’s time for Australia to take up the peacebuilding toolkit.
James is the founder of Peacifica, where he leads research and advocacy on peace and conflict in the Pacific. With 25+ years of experience in the government and non-profit sector, he has chaired the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding and was a key player in the adoption of peace as a goal in the Sustainable Development Goals. At the Lab, we love James’ passion for promoting human rights, his deep knowledge of peace drivers in development, and the generous way he shares his knowledge.