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Defending Australia: The Deputy Sheriff Spending Spree

There are few sadder sights in international relations than a leadership in search of devils and hobgoblins. But such sights tend to make an appearance when specialists in threat inflation either get elected to office or bumped up the hierarchies of officialdom. The sagacious pondering types are edged out, leaving way for the drum beaters. As the Roman general Vegetius suggested with solemn gravity in the 4th century, “Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum,” an expression that has come to mean that those desiring peace best ready for war.

Australia’s drum beating government has told its citizens rather pointedly that “we have moved into a new and less benign strategic era.” It is something that the federal government has never tired of stressing ever since the White Tribe of Asia developed fears of genetic and maternal abandonment, being thousands of miles from Britannia but uncomfortably close to the hordes of Asia. To the north lay the colours black, brown and yellow, tempered, for a time, by the powers of Europe. Henry Lawson, who had a fear or two tucked under his belt, reflected on this sentiment in his patchy Flag of the Southern Cross: “See how the yellow-men next to her lust for her, Sooner or later to battle we must for her.”

Such flag-wearing rhetoric can be found in the latest announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to commit $270 billion to the defence budget over the next ten years. In real terms, this amounts to an additional increase of $70 billion from initial projections based on the 2016 Defence White Paper. His speech at the Australian Defence Force Academy gives the impression that Australia is thinking as an independent, autonomous agent, rather than a deputy sheriff for the Stars and Stripes. “The strategic competition between China and the United States means there’s a lot of tension in the cord and a lot of risk of miscalculation.”

Instead of committing to an easing of that tension, Morrison is keen to throw Australia into an increasingly crowded theatre of participants in the Indo-Pacific on the mistaken premise that things have dramatically changed. “And so we have to be prepared and ready to frame the world in which we live as best as we can, and be prepared to respond and play our role to protect Australia, defend Australia.”

That defence is, invariably, linked to that of the United States, which sees Australia as an essential cog in the containment strategy of the PRC. The idea that this new round of spending will assist Australia’s own independence from this project is misleading in the extreme. For one, the continuing stress on interoperability between the Australian Defence Force and its US counterparts remains a feature of spending decisions. Deputy Sheriffs know where and from whom to take their cues and stock from. Such weapons as the United States Navy’s AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) are on the list of future purchases. There is also the promise of underwater surveillance systems, and research and development in what promises to be another frontier of an international arms race: hypersonic weapons or, as US President Donald Trump prefers to call them “super duper missiles.” (Some $9.3 billion has been allocated for the latter.)

The prime minister also revisits a term that is impossible to quantify, largely because of its fictional quality. Deterrence, ever elastic and rubbery, only has meaning when the hypothetical opponent fears retaliation and loss. To undertake any attack would, to that end, be dangerous. For decades, this fictional deterrent was kept up by the vast umbrella of the US imperium.

The sense that this umbrella might be fraying is being used as an excuse to beat the war drum and stir the blood. Senator Jim Nolan is one, insisting that “we must share some of the blame [for the likelihood of regional conflict] because we have ignored our century-long history of national unpreparedness, and have relied blindly on an assumed level of US power which, since the end of the Cold War, exists at a much lower and dangerous level, and looks less likely to deter regional conflict.” Nolan nurses a fantasy that seems to be catching: that Australia aspire to “self-reliance” and have “confidence that we could adjust in time required to defend ourselves and so, with a bit of luck, deter conflict impacting directly on us. At present, we are severely deficient.”

Morrison similarly opines that, “The ADF now needs stronger deterrence capabilities. Capabilities that can hold potential adversaries’ forces and critical infrastructure at risk from a distance, thereby deterring an attack on Australia and helping to prevent war.” To imagine that Australia would be able to deter a power such as China, even with projected purchases, is daftly entertaining. The term simply does not come into play.

This incoherence is of little concern to the family of strategists that inhabit the isolated climes of Canberra. When money and weaponry is promised, champagne corks pop. Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute is duly celebrating, given his fixation with that one power “with both the capacity and the desire to dominate the Indo-Pacific region in a way that works against Australia’s interest.” He even has a stab at humour: “We’re not talking about Canada.”

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Broad policy commitments to bloated military expenditure are always to be seen with suspicion. They come with warnings with little substance, and only matter because people of like mind find themselves on opposite sides of the fence warning of the very same thing. If you do not spend now, you are leaving the country open to attack. That most important question “Why would they attack us in the first place?” is never asked. Even at the height of the furious battles of the Second World War, Imperial Japan debated the merits of invading an island continent which would have needlessly consumed resources. Australia, in short, has never been an inviting target for anyone.

The dangers of adding to the military industrial complex, then, are only too clear. Countries who prepare for war in the name of armed security can encourage the very thing they are meant to prevent. Purchased weapons are, after all, there to be used. The result is the expenditure of billions that would better be spent on health, education and, ever pressingly, on redressing environmental ruination.

We are then left with the desperate sense of a psychological defect: the need to feel wanted and relevant on the big stage. This was very much the case when Prime Minister Robert Menzies committed Australian troops in 1965 to stem the Red-Yellow Horde in the steaming jungles of Vietnam. The language being used then was much as it is now: to deter, to advance national security, to combat an authoritarian menace in a dangerous region. Little weight was given to the subtleties of a nationalist conflict that was not driven by Beijing. Half-baked and uncooked strategy was served in the messes.

In adding their bloody complement to a local conflict that would eventually see a US defeat, Labor’s Arthur Calwell, himself a self-styled white nationalist, made a sober speech in denunciation. Australia was committing resources to “the bottomless pit of jungle warfare, in a war in which we have not even defined our purpose honestly, or explained what we would accept as victory.” Doing so was “the very height of folly and the very depths of despair.” Australia now finds itself committed to a defence strategy against a mirage dressed in enemy’s clothes masked in language that resists meaning or quantification.

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  1. Ill fares the land

    In the simplest of terms, this is King Morrison of Marketeer spewing out a hawkish “big policy” announcement in the days before voters in Eden-Monaro go to the polls. It is to distract from the fact that the same King Morrison, after his return from Hawaii to give us comfort (he told us that he came back to alleviate our “national anxiety”), failed in every conceivable way possible to “protect” of look after those affected by bushfires. In fact, I would go as far as saying he managed to invent some quite novel ways of proving himself to be the most inept PM in our lifetimes. If the voters of Eden-Monaro can’t see through this latest extension of his manufactured “wartime Churchillian leader”, then I think this country may be doomed to corrupt, incompetent and above all, authoritarian governance.

    I would also add that since Australia acquires much of its military hardware from the US, we are also doomed to acquiring more “white elephant” military equipment (if the F-11 and the F35 are anything to go by) at a premium price. Our further descent into abject national mindless stupidity continues unabated

  2. DrakeN

    In order to confuse and control the general population fear of ‘others’ underfined and undefinable threats is a prerequisite in the armoury of political power.
    How easily the masses are lead to believe that the only way to mitigate those imagined threats is by military action.
    Our best defence is making ourselves too valuable to other nations for them to attack and/or invade – a variation on the Mutually Assured Destruction nuclear stand-off concept.
    Ensuring that any percieved enemy nation fears great loss to themselves as a consequence of political, commercial or military aggression is a much more certain deterrent than any sabre rattling can ever achieve.
    It can, in fact work towards that ‘enemy’ providing a degree of protection from less interested regimes.
    That kind of thing, though, is far too subtle for Australia’s level of political and diplomatic nous.

  3. Phil Pryor

    Over them last decade or so, estimates vary and may be imprecise, but, USA and Russia have about a range of 6,000 to 8,000 first class use now ICBMs with complex, “foolproof” delivery systems, of all types, with reserves of other, often obsolete variations. Thus, the Russians have complete last card power to eliminate us all, if the USA has not first, or in a short time frame response. It has always been likely that either side’s weapons will pass each other about midflight. NICE, and, we stalking skirmishing simple minded outpost for the USA are a huge TARGET with our bases, spy telescope and listening setups and general subservience to ultimate USA directions and policies. China will build up fast and big, undoubtedly. MAD is alive and well, finality in Mutually Assured Destruction. So Morrison intends to gun up so as to ward off, who?? Is it N Z? Papua- N G? Indonesia? We couldn’t oppose anyone else alone and a big coalition of ultimate war will see us wiped cleaner than a fairy’s arse. OR, is this an upgunning under USA direction to be able to murder and thieve as in Afghanistan or Iraq? Will we be sucked into a USA contrived brawl with, say, Botswana, or Nicaragua if USA desired resources are found there? Corporations lust and salivate for profitable scarce minerals and a monopoly position, so are we to continue as accomplices in more murder and theft for bonuses and private jets? Keep worrying…

  4. Jack Cade

    We will buy shit US weaponry or US- compatible weaponry, for use in US-provoked conflicts.
    If we are involved in a conflict that the US isn’t interested in, they’ll tell us to fook off and refuse to replenish our spent armaments just in case they can move in and do a trade deal with our adversary.
    With friends like the USA you inherit hundreds of enemies anyway, real or imagined.
    Maggie Thatcher found out what friendship with Uncle Sam means in the Falklands conflict: their great ally refused the UK permission to use Atlantic bases, no doubt hoping they could help Argentina to exploit the presumed natural resources in the undersea South Atlantic.

  5. Jack sprat

    So we follow the road of military Keynesianism, just like Hitler and Mussolini used to rescue their respective economies during the great depression . Both where very successful for employment and rebooting their industries ,only drawback was world war two .

  6. whatever

    You know what caused this Foreign Policy brain spasm?

    They were captivated by the soon-to-be-released “Top Gun” sequel.

  7. Phil

    As the late Minister of Defense in the Whitlam government Lance Barnard said. ‘ Australia couldn’t defend Botany Bay on a hot Summer Sunday afternoon ‘ nothing has changed. They can’t man the military hardware they already have. This investment was no doubt ordered by the Pentagon. They would be better off supplying every family an air raid shelter and a rifle, so at least they can shoot back at the ‘ Uppity Coolies’ supposedly knocking on the door. It’s not the Muslims this year, it’s the Chinese. The Reds under the beds. Yawn…………..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

  8. Jamie


    Mandrake, I suppose it never occurred to you that while we’re chatting here so enjoyably, a decision is being made by the President and the Joint Chiefs in the war room at the Pentagon. And when they realize there is no possibility of recalling the wing, there will be only one course of action open: total committment.

    Mandrake, do you recall what Clemenzo once said about war?


    No. I don’t think I do sir, no.


    He said war was to important to be left to the Generals. When he said that, fifty years ago, he might have been right. But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought. I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

    And so it goes with Generalissimo Aloha Scotty Missile boy

    As mad as General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove

    Will the folks of Eden-Monaro fall for the catastrophic phallic missile trash?

  9. pierre wilkinson

    I don’t suppose that there is provision in all that expenditure for a battle we know we will face this coming fire season, perhaps some water bombing aeroplanes, more real funding for those affected already and maybe a boost to the finances of the RFB and associated organisations…
    but of course, we don’t need any of that right now, and I am sure that scotty from marketing will resent the premise of the request as it is no longer needed, due to the fact that our righteous PM has already addressed the matter and fixed it.
    until next time

  10. Kronomex

    Also a little ripper of a distraction from the ongoing ruination of the country and the never ending corrupt practices of the LNP. “Look out evil Johnny Foreigner is creeping up on you so you need us to protect you.”

  11. andy56

    If you want great defence at minimal cost, how about being a good neighbour. That $10b a year we used to spend on aid in the region sure is starting to look cheap. All those refugees we refused to take left everyone of our neighbours with a sour taste. And cost us billions.

    But this isnt about defence is it. Its about looking to be tough for a gullible electorate. NO MATTER THE COST. NO MATTER THE STUPIDITY

    Keep posting record fuqups and i will willingly invite china in.

  12. Andrew J. Smith

    This is part of the PR to inform polls to make Morrison appear ‘authoritative’ in ‘leadership’ in the eyes of ageing voters leading up to a by election and up coming federal (and internal leadership) elections…… helped along too much by compliant media too close to government e.g. even The Conversation has Grattan quoting Morrison speeches verbatim while another article extols the virtues of Morrison’s leadership and (push) polling results:

    Just political PR and agitprop 101…..

  13. Egalitarian

    Australia needs to be the an model egalitarian show-piece for the world.If we have a Nuclear war its all over anyway.What is he talking about post Covid world.We need to invest in manufacturing and the environment.All this dough should put be towards public housing and raising the dole.I would be cutting down investing in defense spending.Our government are morons. War mongers are fear mongers.

  14. Terence Mills

    As Scottie knows, you need to keep the pot on the boil : always have a new or recycled announcement ready to go.

    Some commentators have been looking at the numbers announced yesterday by the prime minister and have noted that this is not an increase in Australia’s defence spending in real terms. This is not in addition to the 2016 commitment of $195 billion over ten years, it is an enhancement and has now become $270 billion over ten years.

    When you allow for the deterioration of the AUS/US Exchange Rate over the last four years some adjustment was essential as the hardware we are purchasing comes for the USA and is payable in US Dollars. In 2016 the Australian dollar was worth .77 cents and is now in the range of .68 cents and has been as low as .57 cents (in March 2020).

    In addition to the fall in the Australian dollar there is also inflation in the intervening period between the 2016 and 2020.

    So is this announcement just a re-announcement of existing commitments ?

  15. ajogrady

    Once again under the fawning forelock tugging leadership of the L/NP Australia is Americas puppet agent provocateur. These extraordinarily provocative actions by the L/NP government is jeopardizing Australias already fragile economy. Who do they work for?

  16. zette

    All it takes is for China to launch ONE Dong Feng 41 our way and that’s the end of Australia.

    When the editor of the Global Times described Australia as a lump of gum stuck to China’s ftr that needs to be scraped off he was pretty much on the ball. And when one thinks about which one of the Five Eyes is going to be blinded first Australia must be the prime candidate!

    We keep nagging China about its mistreatment of the Uighyers (sp?) but on a per capita basis our treatment of Australia’s indigenous people is worse. Historically and presently. We’re a nation of total hypocrites. The rules based international order? This from from one of the first invaders of Iraq. Look how well that worked out. The LNP wants an inquiry into China and the CV-19. How about an inquiry into our invasion of Iraq? That killed far more people than the virus ever will and it didn’t spare the women and Children

    Human rights? Julian Assange and witness K and Bernard Colliery? It’s all a joke. Secret trials.

    Australia. It’s full of bullshit. And everybody knows it. Soon to be splattered.

  17. A Commentator

    Is there a list of countries that the Chinese government has good relations with?
    Which of their neighbours do not feel threatened?
    If this is an example of the Australian government following the US, can the same be said of India, the Czech Republic, Norway, Canada…

    Really, this author is exhibiting a contemporary type of cultural cringe in the way they disparage Australia playing any part in international relations.

  18. Jack Cade

    A commentator

    Is there a list of countries that China has bombed the shit out of? That China has engineered coups in? That China has written treaties with and broken? That China has bases in?
    Cultural cringe should be in a corner of our flag.

  19. Phil

    Cultural cringe is our flag.

    What was it Chairman Mao said? Oh that’s right I remember.” We don’t want a nuclear war but if we do go to war, I will know at the end, most of the people left on Earth will be Chinese ” . Or words to that affect. My theses is, the worlds economy is on the verge of collapse, according to the boffins in the Trump administration it is time for a new broom to sweep clean. Over the top lads .Sir….

  20. andy56

    A commentator, you cant seriously criticise china for doing what we have done since WW2. Yes we know its not good behaviour by the chinese but look at who set the example. I saw a list of places america interfered with, and golly its a shit long list. Maybe we should address the elephant in the room first, US, U and i. He who lives in glass houses, he is of no guilt shall throw the first stone…… know what i’m talking about.

  21. A Commentator

    Those that lapse into an unwillingness to criticise human rights in China, because Australia isn’t perfect, might read and compare the following.

    True, Australia has a lot to do, but China is in a completely different class.

    And people such as the author should get over their contemporary cultural cringe, which is detailed in his article in May about relationships between Australia and the Chinese Government.

    He basically argued that Australia should know it’s (lowly) place in the world.

    And by the way, perhaps those commenting should check the number of articles here that are (legitimately) critical of the USA, before they suggest it’s “the elephant in the room’

  22. paul walter


    A new soviet type paper tiger.

    We are asking about secret and deliberately obscured deals the ruin the economies of many nations and peoples and keep a deranged insatiable oligarchy in control of global affairs to the detriment of the functioning physical world itself, the underpinning of all else.

  23. Phil

    Jesus H Christ, Mary and Joseph. To compare China with the past crimes of the USA, Grt Britain, France, Spain, oh f#ck it, throw a dart at a map of the world you’re bound to hit a country that’s committed genocide at some time in its past. this borders on the barking mad. But wait, let’s throw in a few admissions to assuage our own guilt, like for murdering thousands of Muslims in their beds from 30000 feet, by people who’ll never get to smell the flesh of burning babies, and knowing all this, let’s pour the proverbial bucket of shyte, on China. Bwahahahahahaha. Let me see China founded in 1949 and it’s all been rape pillage and plunder of the world since then. My God what a laugh.

    The best part of all this, is yet to come. Australians voted in the most rancid right wing reactionary government in our history aided and abetted, on the trumped up fears of REDNECKS worried we were being swamped by refugees. Most of whom btw, made homeless by us and our main allies. Not to mention Brexit. I wonder which light pole they’ll string Johnson up on if he takes in millions of people from Hong Kong. Tommy Robinson and his merry band of bald, ugly, racists will go apoplectic. Where’s Eric Idle when you need him? And my wife wants to know why I drink.

  24. Phil

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