A different defence policy

I wrote an essay like this for the National Times some fifty years ago. Nothing has changed. If I could find it in my papers I could just run it again.

I grew up under the shelter of the Royal Navy. The war brought in a new defender, the United States. Increasingly we bought US weapons apart from submarines. All this was formalised in the ANZUS Treaty of 1951. The essence of ANZUS was that an attack on any of the three parties would be seen by them as an attack on them all. This has led us into a series of military engagements by us on the side of the US, though without any attack on the US. New Zealand has opted out without doing anything in particular, other than not allowing nuclear-powered or armed ships into its harbours. We seem to stagger on.

Things are rather different today. Japan has rearmed, and China has emerged as a Great Power. While China is our principal trading partner, it is able to show its displeasure at what our Government does by making things difficult for Australia economically, imposing bans on its imports from us. We don’t seem to know what the right policy should be, and some of our wise men are calling for us to prepare for war.

If there were no ANZUS Treaty the US would still regard Australia and New Zealand as important players in the southwest Pacific, and want them onside. In my view that enables us to craft a defence and foreign affairs set of policies that make sense to us. Other countries do this. Why don’t we? I asked one of my Danish friends many years ago what his nation’s defence policy was. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘it’s an envelope. Inside the note paper says, “We surrender”.’ The Swedes have their own defence policy, make their own ships and planes, and make it clear that they are not going to surrender lightly. In fact, Sweden’s policy is one of armed neutrality, and it hasn’t been in a real war since 1814. It does some partnering with NATO, but that is all.

It offers a model for an Australian defence force. Australia is, in my book, just like Sweden, and it is two and half times bigger in terms of population, and very similar in terms of wealth per head of population. It is certainly big enough to defend itself, but its position in Big Power politics should be one of neutrality. It is big enough and wealthy enough to design and make its own planes, ships, tanks and the rest. And it should increasingly be doing so. Does that mean an increase in the defence budget? Of course it does. Does it mean higher taxes? Yes, that too. Though what follows is not the main purpose, building our own materiel will encourage technological and scientific innovation, and lead to advances in education, especially in STEM.

I do not think that China has any plans to invade Australia. I think we are seen as a noisy insect, one that needs to be slapped down every once in a while. But an armed neutral Australia would be a different kettle of fish. Our neutrality would be tested, but if, for example, we stop seeing the South China Sea as something with which we have a real strategic interest — we don’t, this is Big Power games — China would quickly see that we mean what we said. We would not be buying weapons from either the USA or China, but developing our own, and we have the wealth and the brains to do so.

Given all that, I expect that we would find the trade embargoes we have been subject to trailing off. Or, to put it another way, I can see no reason why China would not see the advantages to itself in normalising trade relations. Why haven’t we done all this already? Partly because the shadow of the second world war still hangs over us, and after that the Cold War, and throughout the ease with which Anglophone countries do business with each other. There are longstanding cordial relationships between our military people and the Americans.

Who would be opposed to my sensible suggestions? Well, just about everybody who is currently in power or in the armed services. There are so many apple-carts that would be overturned. Of course, such a change would not occur overnight. Just to bring back the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation and begin the design of a new aircraft that suits our needs would be a start, followed by comparable moves in terms of trucks, tanks, weapons, corvettes, and so on. After all the submarine we are building, though French, is being built to give South Australians some hope for their economic future. South Australia was for a time the headquarters of defence science and technology. It could be again, though with an enterprise an order of magnitude larger.

What we don’t have at the moment is anyone enunciating the reason for such a change in policy, yet its virtue, I think, is pretty clear. Why? Because it all looks too hard, and there is no obvious payoff in the short run. If push comes to shove, however, and the Big Powers get really angry with each other, we might quickly realise that armed neutrality, with a strong defence force that is about defence, not attack, is the way to go.

I’m sure that when I wrote the earlier essay on this subject I finished with a lament about our failure to see things in the long term. So why don’t I do it again. In my years at the ANU I found only a few people who were interested in the long-term. One was Fred Gruen, an economist, but much more a well rounded social scientist. Another was Bob Gregory, another well-rounded economist/social scientist. There were a few who called themselves ‘strategic studies’ people. They certainly did look at the long term. Those in anthropology often had a long-term interest in their tribe, island or whatever it was they were studying. But that was it, really.

Australia seems unable or unwilling or both to look well ahead and make the right decisions, as far as knowledge allows. It is not built into our parliamentary system, where the focus is always on the next election, gaining power, or holding on to it. And we the people don’t seem to care. It is as though Australia will always be there, as the world’s luckiest country. I don’t think so, but I have no solution as to how to get us out of this apathetic torpor.


Join the discussion 43 Comments

  • Colin Davidson says:

    Don, I thought this essay was interesting.
    Australia is large enough and has enough natural resources to have a strong and effective defence/diplomatic capability.
    But most of our strengths have been, and are being, wasted.
    You describe an ideal where Australia has a strong engineering capability. But the reality is that in the last 40 years we have done the following:
    a. Dumbed down our teaching profession, so that
    b. We are trailing the pack in mathematics, verbal and written communication, ability to solve technical problems and in the development of hand skills;
    c. and our universities have become places of unlearning, champions of the unenlightenment and unreason;
    d. and our politicians are now narrowly recruited from lawyers and political time servers. Virtually none of them has worked in any even vaguely technical job.
    d. this means that Australia’s engineering capacity is greatly diminished, and unable to develop many of the advanced products required for us to become sufficiently self-sufficient. Our defence department also got rid of engineering capacity about 20 years ago.
    e. At the same time we have lost the industry needed to develop and manufacture our defence needs. We have destroyed our electricity system, to the point where it is staggering from one near crisis to another, and is widely expected to ben in regular blackout from next year onwards. We have shut down all of our steel production with the exception, barely surviving, of Whyalla. We have shut down our aluminium production except for two smelters. Much of our small to medium manufacturing has moved offshore. We have no oil refinery in the West, and the two in the East are staggering.
    To reverse this, we need to:
    a. remove resources from the educators until they solve the education problem. Tie educational funding to educational results in English and mathematics
    b. Remove all government grants to universities
    c. Reintroduce technical colleges and technical trade training schools
    d. Spend the saved money on buying prototypes from Australian companies
    My conclusion is that in the short term (at least the next 20 years) we have no option but to hang on to the US coat-tails for grim death. And until we solve the engineering resource problems of people, infrastructure and experience, we will need to keep hanging on.

    • Neville says:

      Colin I agree with your ending that we must first “hang on for grim death” to the USA and our other western alliances.
      THEN we must have a Nuclear deterrent as the prime essential deterrent against an attack from future enemies. Sure we can build up our other defenses, but the Nuclear threat is the only thing that counts to fend off an invasion from any future enemy.
      Of course a northern coastline defense is essential , using conventional and nuclear missiles. Any other pathway to a proper defense of our country is just more silly fairy tales and AGAIN a waste of time and money.

      • Vern Hughes says:

        Colin, you’ve missed the crucial connection between security thinking and the malaise in our institutions – a lazy, complacent Lucky Country ethos underpins both. Dependence on the US for security without doing any thinking ourselves, is exactly the cultural mindset that has driven our de-industrialisation, and our failure to develop an entrepreneurial and innovative business culture. And with a lazy go-to-the-beach national mindset, who needs schools and universities that actually encourage serious thinking? These things are not isolated phenomena – they form a seamless culture of dependence on others and abandonment of responsibility for our own well-being. Sweden, as Don points out, is a practical, living example of a country that doesn’t do this – it is a country that actually thinks for itself, as we have seen so dramatically in the last year on COVID-19.

    • Tim Mather says:

      Thank you Don for your essay and Colin for the succinct summary of the current state of education in Australia. Skills Australia is currently attempting to rebuild the Vocational Education and Training (VET) system so effectively destroyed by Education Minister John Dawkins in 1987.
      For the first time in my memory we have liberal member Scott Morrison and labour shadow Tanya Plibersek discussing how to rebuild the VET system. The Universities used to teach how to think. They have not done that for decades. They are now filling student minds with knowledge but little thought given to how best to utilise that resource. The current budget restricting University funding is not going to solve these problems. Changing the restrictive thinking may help.
      We currently have massive infrastructure within the Universities with little available for VET. One solution would be to allow Certificate and Diploma courses to take place along side Degree courses on the same campuses. This would entail a slight increase in wages offset by greater utilization of existing infrastructure. An additional benefit would be that VET staff could demonstrate that skills are also required to solve problems not just clever academic thinking.
      I appreciate that this change will not solve the defence issues immediately but, as the expertise of technical people rubbing shoulders with academe broadens educators minds, we may develop politicians with broader perspectives who actually start to think beyond their own benefit.
      Sorry , that is probably too much to hope for in this day and age.

  • John Wilden says:

    Good essay Don.All too true.Colin,great comments which mirror my own thoughts, and no doubt those of many Australians.Our “Leaders” simply have no vision
    over all the ranges you mention.In my waning years I find myself despairing for the future of my children and theirs even more. Kind regards to you both.John.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    I agree with most of Col Davidson’s comments. The world has moved on. We could build Mirage fighters decades ago, but there is no way we could build the far more complicated F-35 or the electronic version of F-18, the Growler. Nor, it seems, can we build submarines without importing most of the necessary knowledge, sensors, weapons, missions control systems and communications – all of which makes the project one more of assembly, rather than actual build, and very much a ‘make work’ activity for South Australia.

    As with cars, we are better off buying from people who make these things well instead of trying to do everything our selves – a policy that some years ago was costed for defence as at least three times the amount now being spent for no better defence result.

    As for Sweden, they have a much smaller patch to defend and can act as they do because they know NATO and the US will act in ways that defend them too in most cases. We have vastly more area to worry about and neighbours with very different aims and abilities and no NATO umbrella.

    In a big fight, we could only contribute as part of a coalition led by the US. In such circumstances, operating US machines, plugging into their logistics system and being well practiced in working with them would be essential to making our best contribution.

    In other words, for all sorts of reasons, we are stuck with what we have.

    • Vern Hughes says:

      We are not ‘stuck with what we have’. This is the consequence of the dependence ethic that underpins the US Alliance. If you ask most Australians whether the country can defend itself independently, most will laugh our loud – they think the idea is so preposterous, so absurd, because in their experience they know we are a country that doesn’t make anything, doesn’t have an independent voice in the world, sells off its assets to foreign powers without hesitation, and imports other country’s people on an industrial scale so we can claim we are a growing economy – a country that does these things is clearly not much chop and can’t really be taken seriously in matters of defence. This is the Australian mindset – our cultural cringe – and it has been cultivated by decades of conscious policy decisions by successive Liberal and Labor governments. In this context, to say that we are ‘stuck with what we have’ is an extraordinary declaration of fatalism. The country faces a number of concurrent existential threats – fatalism is the last thing we need.

  • John Nicol says:

    Colin Davidson has knocked the nail on the head as did Don Aitkin. The Government should continuously invite applications for contracts to build military hardware, ships and aircraft in Australia. The invitation could go to capable overseas companies and also as open invitations to any Australian company old or potentially new, with promises of them being very well paid for their efforts. In this way we could reestablish the very necessary manufacturing capabilities which we need anyway and in particular in the event of any conflict.

    The fact that we have a stockpile of fuel which only lasts months not years is another disgrace.

  • Stu says:

    Don, once again you show us what we are going to miss come July and cessation of your thoughts on screen. Please get your son to look at some simpler mechanism for you to continue. We don’t actually need to be able to comment, with the moderation effort then required by you. But we will be the losers for not having your insight for inspiration and if we choose, discussion in other places.

    Please consider.

    Meantime all the best, I hope you are keeping well.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      When Don closes this site (I believe what he says), he might consider contributing to Catallaxy. We get the benefit of his opinions; he is relieved of the burdens of site maintenance and moderation.

  • John H says:

    Thanks for setting out a strongly argued case for armed neutrality – even if one doesn’t agree with the thesis it’s important to have one’s ideas contested. By way of comment, It may be that Sweden is reconsidering (some signs that popular support for NATO membership is growing, the left parties are still opposed to membership but seem keen on joint exercises). Another consequence for us, apart from spending a great deal more on defence, could be reintroduction of conscription/national service in a limited form (as Sweden has done). Not sure how welcome that would be politically. A difficulty in establishing defence industries could also be lack of skilled staff – we seem to have problems across the board on that, though as you say this is a long-term project. Hugh White set out an extended argument for self-reliance in “How to defend Australia” – any thoughts on his take? Hope all is well with you at the moment.

  • spangled drongo says:

    It’s hard to imagine that an increasingly woke country like Oz is seriously prepared to anything more than bend the knee to any threats from anyone, these days.

    We have been too PC for too many decades but while it is a bit late to do what is essential, it would still help a great deal if we just got on with it as per some of Jim Molan’s recommendations.

  • “It is as though Australia will always be there, as the world’s luckiest country …” I felt a chill. Your geographic position alone – next door to the largest military in the world – must make life on the beach more than a little worrisome.

  • Hasbeen says:

    What happened to my post. First it appeared, then disappeared.

    That was the one that mentioned that we are basically defenseless while we depend on imported fuel. Unless we harvest some of our large shale oil deposits & refine it here, a couple of months interdiction of our oil shipments has us in total collapse, & our population starving with no food in supermarkets.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I don’t know what happened. It’s not pending, or in spam or trash. Sorry, but I can’t explain or help.

  • Mike Dinn says:

    I spent ten years in Defence trying to get work into Australian industry, using offset commitments on overseas buys as leverage. There were two major difficulties. The RAAF considered anything Australian not worth bothering with. If British maybe OK. If US, must be the best. And the second problem was the “inferiority complex” of the Australian electronics industry. No confidence in its own competence – with a few minor exceptions.

  • Boambee John says:


    A good essay.

    One of the enduring discussions in Australia is the tension between the nationalists (defence of Australia, a la Paul Dibb, and others before him) and the imperialists/internationalists. The nationalists generally prevailed (with the two World Wars as obvious, and understandable, exceptions) until after the Second World War, when the internationalists took over. Their reign lasted through the 1980s, when the Dibb Report and Beazley White Paper, which attempted to re-focus on defence of Australia, were soon over run by the first Gulf War, Rwanda, Somalia, the East Timor intervention, another Gulf War, Afghanistan and miscellaneous middle east actions.

    Now seems to be a good time to again attempt to get back to the fundamental respinsibility of government, the defence of Australia. The public seems sick of pointless overseas interventions that produce no substantial results. Your essay needs a wider readership.

  • Vern Hughes says:

    David Martin wrote an excellent book “Armed Neutrality for Australia” in 1984. Four years later, a few of us who were inspired by the book formed the Australian Association for Armed Neutrality, with David Martin as our President, and a number of prominent Australians as Patrons. We worked until 1992 but found the opposition from both Left and Right too strong – the Left opposed a serious military capability for Australia with increased defence spending, and the Right remained deeply committed to military, political and cultural dependence on the United States.

    Today, the US is in decline and is deeply divided. It cannot be relied upon to come to the assistance of any of its traditional allies. The Left is in denial about the uncertain security environment in which we now find ourselves, and remains deeply uninterested in defence and security issues. The case for armed neutrality for Australia is stronger now than when Don wrote his article in 1971, or when David wrote his book in 1984.

    Armed Neutrality is the security policy of The Sensible Centre, a centrist political movement. We disagree with Don on one point – our geo-strategic situation makes a defence strategy of ‘maritime denial’ quite feasible (See Hugh White’s 2019 book “How to Defend Australia”). We estimate this defence posture would require an increase in defence spending from the current 2% to 3.5%, from $40bn to $70bn. We disagree with Don on a second point – we do not need to manufacture all or even most of our equipment and resources – we would be much better placed, for instance, to buy off-the-shelf submarines from Japan or Germany than to manufacture them for three times the cost. http://www.sensiblecentre.org.au/defence/

    The strategic and military rationale for armed neutrality, without dependence on an external protector, is more compelling than ever. But the cultural imperative for the nation is even more compelling – it is desperately important for Australia that we finally throw off the lazy, complacent Lucky Country ethos if we are to survive in the 21st century. Dumping the psychological dependence on an external protector is essential in making this cultural, economic and psychological jump into national maturity.

  • Peter E says:

    Our history shows the reality of our defense. We understand that the world is a small place and what happens anywhere else may well have implications for us. So we send forces to help allies in many a war that ties in with our values and democratic way of life in the reasonable hope that these allies will assist us if needed. Currently, there is a situation not all that distant from WWI, when an emerging Great Power sought to take its place at the top by force of arms. Aggressive powers will go to war if they think that they can get away with it. Our task now is to persuade any such power that it will not succeed. Attempted neutrality is not the answer.

    • Vern Hughes says:

      WWI will always serve as an illustration of the tragic stupidity for Australia of aligning ourselves with a Great Power in the northern hemisphere, and rushing to sacrifice young lives to curry favour with that power. We should never have been involved in this European war between imperialist powers. Our forbears should never have volunteered to be slaughtered at Gallipoli. We should have said, as the Scandinavian countries said in 1914, “no thanks, not our thing”, but the Imperial identity amongst Australians at the time was too strong to overcome. Our participation in WW1 at a cost of 60,000 lives and several hundred thousand permanently maimed came at a catastrophic cost to our national psyche – it punctured our national confidence as a young, innovative, independent-minded nation and turned us into an inward-looking, sullen, reactive nation for the following century. In truth, we are only now recovering from this self-imposed trauma. The Australians in 1914 who urged non-participation in a war between imperialist powers were truly heroic, but they suffered immensely from the pro-Empire group-think at the time, a group-think every bit as bad as the suffocating woke group-think of our time.

      • Boambee John says:


        WW I was an era in which the victors took territory from the losers (see the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk). Had Britain ended up on the losing side, Imperial Germany would have demanded territory (the Kaiser was very committed to the concept of a world wide Empire).

        Germany already had a Pacific colony in New Guinea. It seems likely that he would have wanted more, and northern Australia was even less populated then. The odds are that he would have claimed much of it. What could Australia have done to prevent that?

        • Vern Hughes says:

          Yes, John, WW1 was indeed “an era in which the victors took territory from the losers”. Imperial Germany’s territory in New Guinea was taken from it at the Treaty of Versailles by Imperial Britain and given to Australia to administer, and we continued administering it until 1975. You ask: What if Imperial Germany had won? Answer: exactly the same thing – Imperial Germany would have taken over Papua from Imperial Britain and either administered it themselves or given it to a local entity to administer for them.

          A wiser, more mature Australia in 1914 would have recognised the reality that nothing we did in WWI was ever going to shift the military balance one way or the other between the British bloc and the German bloc. Nothing. Not a jot. This is what it means to think realistically as a small independent nation knowing our place in the world. The Scandinavians did this in 1914 – we didn’t. We thought of ourselves as British, not Australian. That was a costly, fatal mistake which cost 60,000 dead and hundreds of thousands permanently maimed. These huge losses in Gallipoli and France and Palestine were incurred solely so we could prove to Britain that we were truly British – there was no other purpose for our participation. It was not, and was never going to be, of military significance in shaping the war’s outcome.

          The same thing happened again in Vietnam. And in Iraq. And in Afghanistan.

          This remains the critical difference between Australia and Sweden. They think of themselves as an independent nation. We don’t. We still haven’t learnt to think of ourselves as a small, minor country in world affairs, enjoying huge strategic advantages from being located at the bottom of the world, an enemy of no-one and a friend to all. It’s about time we learnt how to do it.

          • Boambee John says:


            Thanks for your response.

            I think your assumption that a victorious Germany would have settled for Papua (and the Solomon Islands, New Hebrides and New Caledonia) is optimistic. The Kaiser felt that Germany had unfairly missed out on the chance for a world wide empire.

            Do you really think that he would settle for a few islands in the Pacific, while ignoring Australia? Three million square miles of largely unoccupied land, with minerals, coal, gold and ample land for German colonists?

            Remember also, that much of the RN would have been claimed by Germany (remember the fate of the High Seas Fleet). I think much more for Australia depended on a German defeat, and again remind you of the Russian territorial losses under Brest-Litovsk.

            On the good side, a couple of million German colonists between what was left of Australia and the Japanese in 1942 might have been useful.

            I generally follow the nationalist line on defence (see my comment above re nationalists/internationalists), but recognise that there can be exceptions. The two world wars, in my opinion, were exceptions. The Kaiser and Hitler needed to be stopped.

          • Vern Hughes says:

            We do not know, from the vantage point of 2021, what might have happened had Imperial Germany been the victor in WW1. It is unknowable. What we do know, in 2021, is that Australian participation in WW1 was a catastrophe of monumental magnitude. We also know that in Vietnam, and in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, there were voices that said, as you have said in relation to the German Kaiser in 1914, that “the North Vietnamese Communists must be stopped”, and then “Hussein’s possession of chemical weapons must be stopped”, and then “Al Qaeda’s possession of a base in Afghanistan must be stopped”. And so we despatched military forces to these places just as we did in Gallipoli, and in each case, the result was a repeat of the same costly and futile exercise that we incurred the first time. Nothing was achieved by our military participation. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. There’s the case for armed neutrality for Australia – stop doing the same thing over and over expecting a different outcome, when what you get each time is catastrophe.

          • Boambee John says:


            As you say, we cannot know what the result of a German victory in WW I might have been. We can only look at the terms Germany imposed on Russia, and those the Allies imposed on Germany. The prognosis looks unfavourable.

            As for the recent wars you mention, few have had the importance, and except for Vietnam, none had anything like the scale of the two world wars.

            There is an argument for armed neutrality, but without a nuclear capability, including missile delivery systems, the course is risky.

            Does your armed neutrality concept include space for UN operations?

          • Boambee John says:


            Further to the first para of my comment above, the leaders of 1914 did not have the luxury of knowing the outcome. All they had was the historical record, which included France’s loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany after 1870, and the frequency with which colonies changed hands previously.

            Without the benefit of hindsight, what should they have done?

          • Vern Hughes says:

            Distinguish between the Imperial Powers (Britain, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Austro-Hungary, Russia) and countries like Australia. What should Australia have done in 1914? We should have done what Henry Lawson, William Lane, Mary Gilmore, Archbishop Mannix, Rev Frederick Sinclaire and many others at the time advocated – opt out of the Imperial designs of European powers and become what we are destined to be – an independent nation of Euro-Pacific people in the southern hemisphere, on the largest, driest continent on the planet (impossible for an invading force to traverse), enemies of no-one and friends to all.

            What should the Imperial Powers have done in 1914? Don’t care, not our concern. What should Australia have done? Stayed at home and built our economy, our industry, our institutions, and our culture, as the Scandinavians did in 1914 (and we didn’t). By the year 2007, Sweden had 6 car manufacturing firms exporting cars to the world in a population of 10m, we had zero.

          • Boambee John says:


            Unfortunately or otherwise, in 1914 we were part of an empire, and seen as such. A victorious Germany (its power boosted by prizes from the RN and French Navy), might not have seen us as an independent nation, but as an element of a defeated power, subject to exploitation.

            With that naval power, it would not have been a matter of marching across a desert continent, but of sailing into our major harbours and dictating terms under the threat of naval bombardment. Like it or not, Australia’s future depended at that time on events in Europe, to defeat an aggressive imperialist power.

            We cannot wish for a different past, but must look at the world as it was then.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Greg Sheridan explains it well:

    Australia’s defence strategy is a mistake of mortal consequence
    We are wasting ­billions on capabilities irrelevant to our biggest threat — China — and what should be an asymmetric strategy. And that’s not even the most ludicrous, frankly surreal element.


    • Vern Hughes says:

      Greg Sheridan has never yet seen a war he didn’t like. He campaigned for Australia to be in Vietnam, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, and was an extremist Cold War warrior. Most of his youth was spent defending the conscription of young men to go to Vietnam and when most young people thought it was madness. In recent years, he has acknowledged that our presence in Afghanistan has no strategic purpose other than currying favour for the US in the hope that they will protect us at some unspecified point in the future. He is now part of the let’s-declare-war-on-China brigade which is doing huge harm to some of our export industries. There are not many journalists about whom you can say “he has the blood of Australian lives on his hands” but in Sheridan’s case it is not inappropriate.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Dealing with the message instead of the messenger, China has had a massive military build-up and is now more aggressive internationally than at any time in its modern history.

        The Australian army should get longer-range missiles which it can carry and deploy wherever it likes, including to our own coasts, which can make it a supplement to the navy and air force achieving dominance in our air and sea approaches.

        • Vern Hughes says:

          One of the consequences of our alliance dependence for the last century is that the public debate on defence and security issues in Australia is mind-numbingly poor. There is no shared understanding of our geo-strategic location and the corresponding necessity for a defence strategy based on ‘maritime denial’, that is, preventing the maritime approach of any would-be aggressor. Hugh White’s latest book, ‘How to Defend Australia’, outlines this position in detail (2019). Instead, all kinds of furphies are thrown up in place of a focussed public debate – a nuclear weapons capability for Australia, a longer-range missile capacity, angst about the size of our army, the diversion of manufacturing every piece of defence equipment ourselves …. This is what happens when the defence and security debate gets reduced, in the popular mind, to “getting someone powerful in the northern hemisphere to look after us because we sure as hell can’t do it ourselves”.

          We should be crystal clear on this point – alliance dependence for a century has created a mind-set amongst Australians that we are a weak, helpless, vulnerable country, desperately in need of a protector because we are weak, helpless and vulnerable. Supporters of the US alliance should not be surprised that this is the mind-set they have created over the decades, and yet they characteristically complain that Australians aren’t interested in security matters.

          Greg Sheridan’s partisan advocacy of catastrophic military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and (if he gets his way) China cannot be passed over as ‘unfortunate’ or ‘unlucky’ any more. They have been debacles of the highest order, one after another, without learning a single lesson from them about the inevitable costs of attaching the nation’s security to one or other great powers in the northern hemisphere.

          Is China now an aggressor? One of the striking things about this sentiment is that it is being led by people who grovelled to China shamelessly over the last twenty years. The very people who wanted to turn a blind eye to human rights violations in China and its authoritarian culture, and who built up our economic dependence on China, often because they had vested interests in trade with it, are now the same people telling us war is inevitable.

          War is not inevitable with China. It is as it has always been, a great power with its own national interests with whom we should seek a stable relationship based on mutual interests, without either grovelling or war-mongering. The immature vacillation between grovelling and war-mongering is what happens when a country has not yet matured into an independent nation and instead chases rabbits down burrows.-

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    In considering the aftermath of wars of the last 100 years or so, I have often wondered “what if?”, whose answers are clouded by hindsight. What if there had been a diplomatic solution to the jingoism preceding 1914? Would we have seen the rise of Nazism? Probably not. But that’s not how it played out. Now what if Sweden (or Ireland, for that matter) been located between Germany and France in 1939, or had resources that Hitler wanted? Would that neutral stance have done either country any good? I don’t think so. We can’t extrapolate the solution for one situation across the board.

    Let’s go further: what if Hitler and Nazism had triumphed in Europe? How and for how long would that have played out? Would we have had the Germany or Japan we have today? For England did nearly go under. Australian pilots played a small role in the Battle of Britain, as did Canadian. Our War Memorial states that out of 537 Fighter Command pilots who died, ten were Australian, and from another source, 23 were Canadian. Assuming that count of those fatalities is reasonably comparable with a total contribution from both Australia and Canada, it is a contribution of about 6%. Not a lot, perhaps, but helped avert what would have been a disastrous outcome for England at that time. For us over here on the other side of the world? With a well-resourced German fleet thoroughly augmented by all the physical resources of the Royal Navy, allied with Japan? Hmm. How long would all that have taken, to play out to where we are today? Indeed, where might we be today?

    So, the question of neutrality and alliances is ever with us, as has been the case through all recorded history. Do we take a neutral stance, and respond only if invaded? What if our supply lines are cut? Shall we expect just to muddle along in our isolation?

    Another scenario is the former “yellow peril” doctrine, played out in the Malayan Emergency and again in Vietnam. Sometimes I wonder whether our response to the first one was correct; when I look at Vietnam today, I do wonder whether we got that one badly wrong, that we did not understand that Vietnam was anything but a potential outpost of China. The question here is whether we respond where nearby countries may be over-run, with ourselves as the next target.

    As I read the thoughtful and heartfelt discussion above, I am mindful that this 21st century is utterly different to the last, not only in technology with the power and reach it enables, but in how societies think, where that thinking is both enhanced and clouded by communications. We can’t apply last century’s paradigms to our present world, and its next thirty years.

    To me, alliances are even more important; we can’t wrap ourselves into the apparent safety of armed neutrality. Geography is less on our side now, here in Australia.

    As a postscript, assuming alliances, let’s consider defence equipment. Entirely local? When the commercial world prefers to draw on best of breed, why on earth would we think we can match the best of defence technology? We haven’t even had the political or civil courage to install nuclear generators, let alone build one. Forget it, buy best of breed, perhaps have some local manufacture, certainly have full maintenance capabilities. And be sure of inter-operability with allies’ equipment.

    Incidentally, the Peter Ridd case is being heard by our High Court this Wednesday, I believe. A different kind of battle, but so important. The Battle of Britain was for body and soul; the Ridd case is for hearts and minds.

  • Boambee John says:


    “Now what if Sweden (or Ireland, for that matter) been located between Germany and France in 1939, or had resources that Hitler wanted? Would that neutral stance have done either country any good? I don’t think so. We can’t extrapolate the solution for one situation across the board.”

    The answer to that question exists.

    Belgium in 1914 and 1940. Neutral both times, overrun both times.

    Armed neutrality can only work when the neutral is not in the path of conquest, is readily defensible (see Switzerland with its difficult terrain), or possesses an ultimate deterrent (Switzerland again, with its armed and trained populace, for other nations these days, strategic missiles with nuclear warheads).

  • kvd says:

    Swiss neutrality suited all parties for many reasons – and overrunning her offered no strategic advancement. Nothing to do with difficult terrain, or an armed populace.

  • spangled drongo says:

    I didn’t notice Sheridan’s partisan advocacy of military adventures in China. I think you are making assumptions.

    And are you saying China isn’t flexing its muscles and isn’t the world’s biggest threat?

  • Neville says:

    Not only is China a threat to world peace, it also acts on every level to attack any country that questions their vile CCP dictatorship.
    We know they use minorities as slave labor to make and sell so called renewables to the world but they’ve also been accused for the grisly practice of harvesting body organs from prisoners to sell to the highest bidder.
    But now they’re also using the UN to further blacken Aussie’s good name by declaring that the GBR could be endangered. We shouldn’t forget that the CCP dictatorship will never accept any reasonable criticism of their vile behavior and will always try and respond in this way.


    • Vern Hughes says:

      Gosh, Don Aitkin. As the comments roll in, your readers, it seems, get their information about the world from Sky News – which has an audience of about 40,000 in total overlapping considerably with the right faction of the Liberal Party. This is, in part, the reason Australian politics is in such a dreadful state – the memberships of both major parties are tiny and are manifestly unrepresentative of mainstream society, but these small segments of the population form the governments of the country. The National Party has a bigger but very geographically restricted membership, but represents less than 4% of national voters, and it has just re-instated Barnaby Joyce as its leader.

      The country really is in a dreadful state – we face an existential threat not from without, but from our own failed, myopic, insular political class and its ever declining and now very tenuous connection with reality.

      • spangled drongo says:

        How very tenuous is the connection with reality when people can’t deal with the message, only the various messengers.

      • Boambee John says:


        “your readers, it seems, get their information about the world from Sky News”

        If this is the best argument you have to offer, perhaps go read a good book.

        “our own failed, myopic, insular political class and its ever declining and now very tenuous connection with reality.”

        You sound like a grumpy old man. Perhaps a hot Bonox would help?

        • dlb says:

          “Sky News” …….cough! cough!

          Shame it and the ABC news website don’t come in paper form, then I could use both of them in the Cocky’s cage.

          • Vern Hughes says:

            Yes, indeed. Sky News and the ABC are both politically partisan propagandist outfits, sitting in place of what used to be called ‘journalism’. When the country’s media are effectively mouthpieces of the ideological Right and Left respectively, we get a dreadful public debate and almost no serious impartial news and commentary. There is a lot to do in Australian politics to sort our this appalling state of affairs.

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