Does Australia need to build a post-US defence force?


Hugh White sees the US–Australia military alliance weakening, possibly disappearing, as China’s rise undermines US hegemony in East Asia and as US relative power wanes. ‘We will really be on our own’, he observes in How to defend Australia.

On this foundation, White builds a provocative case for greatly expanded acquisitions of submarines, fighter aircraft and, somewhat equivocally, nuclear weapons. His objective: to deter or to defeat a future Chinese attack on Australia without active US support.

How to defend Australia is an elegant, readable and confronting book in which White is asserting, once again, his prominent position among Australian defence intellectuals. He’s something of a gadfly, asking awkward questions, offering scathing criticisms, posing radical answers and urging quick decisions. ‘We don’t have much time’, he writes in the opening chapter. ‘Time is not on our side’, he reaffirms near the end of the book.

It’s obvious that historic strategic shifts are reshaping power relations in East Asia and that Australia now faces increasingly complex and uncertain security challenges. But is White’s pessimism entirely justified? Is the US really on a downward historical spiral while the rise and rise of China is now inevitable? If it’s not, White’s case for radical changes in Australia’s defence policy might seem at least unduly gloomy.

In fact, Australia’s alliance with the US has never guaranteed it US support in the event of an attack.  The ANZUS Treaty is an agreement to consult in the event of a threat; it commits the parties to act only in accordance with their constitutional processes. Likewise, there has always been uncertainty about the wisdom of Australia’s reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence. White rightly notes Australia will face a difficult choice on nuclear weapons acquisition if it can’t rely on Washington’s nuclear umbrella. But that has always been the case: military alliances between great and lesser powers rarely if ever guarantee certainty to the minor party seeking protection.

China is quickly catching up with the US as an economic and military power, but US military budgets still outstrip Chinese defence spending and US armaments are superior to most Chinese equivalents. Chinese military doctrine, organisation, training and leadership generally lag behind the US and other advanced powers. The Chinese military also lacks real war experience and global logistic support. Bureaucracy, graft and corruption remain serious issues for the Chinese military.

China faces other constraints. A recent report from China’s Academy of Social Services saysthe country faces a long period of ‘unstoppable’ population decline after 2029. It says growth in the working population has stagnated and the ageing population is ‘bound to cause very unfavourable social and economic consequences’. The US, by contrast, has a large, growing and diverse young population which will be available to develop the nation’s civilian and military power. China has abundant people, but they are increasingly aged and dependent and will grow old before they grow rich.

If economic and military power and demography aren’t sufficient to ensure the US remains a worthwhile and willing alliance partner for Australia, then it doesn’t seem unduly optimistic to expect that America’s national pride and its democratic political system will help to keep the US engaged.

It’s true, as White argues, that the US is suffering political malaise under President Donald Trump. But despite his isolationism Trump is conducting a domestically popular escalating trade war with Beijing with scant regard for its effects on allies and others. That is not the action of an administration preparing to make way for China.

Democracies, unlike despotic regimes, ultimately and often painfully survive idiosyncratic leaders who rise periodically to challenge and even debauch their values. The US especially has large, excellent and powerful diplomatic and security elites with the political clout to restrain wayward leaders.

White undervalues these formidable US assets in concluding that US power and influence in the region will shrink and possibly disappear. He may have conceded too much too soon in reading the funeral rites for the US–Australia alliance. He also ignores the recent Lowy Institute poll which found that 73% of Australians believe the US would come to our defence if we were attacked and that only 32% of Australians trust China.

There’s another important reason why Australia should preserve the alliance rather than move to offset its demise. Most of our most advanced military equipment—including F-35 fighter jets, and submarine and surface-ship combat systems—can only be maintained, updated and kept operational by their US makers. Somewhat cavalierly White seems to accept this prospect and argue that we could manage with poorer weapons from Europe and perhaps even from Russia. It’s hard to see military leaders or the government acquiescing willingly in this conclusion while accepting White’s proposal to double the defence budget to $80 billion a year.

Nevertheless, White has confronted the country with some tough questions about the alliance and defence policy. But the alliance never has been an absolute security guarantee. We need it because it complicates the decisions of potential aggressors and because it assures us of access to the world’s best military equipment. In an uncertain world we can hope for little more. White’s proposals would be an expensive leap into even greater uncertainty to the strategic advantage of China.

Latest posts by David Llewellyn-Smith (see all)


  1. Why would China ever bother to invade with military force? Australia is for sale – they can just buy our politicians for just a fraction of the cost of a modern jet fighter. Everything else is for sale too – land, farms, harbours, university places and houses.

    There are over 1.2 million mainland Chinese already in Australia, many loyal to the mother country or CCP.

    We are grossly unprepared for any escalation. Our military equipment is scarce, the little we have is often the result of Pentagon or local pork programmes and of dubious quality. Morale is low – promotion in our military is rarely based on ability, more on time served or on politics.

    We have 20 days strategic reserve of fuel, so in the event of any naval problems around Singapore, our economy would quickly crash.

    Our politicians might have screwed us as much the the appeasement politicians in the UK and France screwed their countries in 1940.

  2. The logistics of maintaining an occupying force within Australia is practically our best defence.
    So China invades us – then what? There’s bugger all fuel reserves so you need to secure supply of that. Our main mineral wealth is out in the middle of nowhere and there’s limited value add equipment to transform into useable stuff here.

    All the while, the locals still have 3 million firearms in circulation.

  3. DingwallMEMBER

    Most of our most advanced military equipment—including F-35 fighter jets, and submarine and surface-ship combat systems……………………..Lol all 14 of them

  4. Stewie GriffinMEMBER

    A Navy, Army or Airforce is really becoming more and more superfluous every day – I mean, who in their right mind is going to fight for the EZFKA?

    What would you be fighting for anyhow?
    The right for more Africans to come and live here?
    The right for more Indians to undercut our wages?
    The right for more Chinese to buy our houses?
    The right of Corporations to extract economic rents?

    The only reason we’ve got anyone in the Armed forces at the moment is the previous momentum provided by our Colonial Cultural heritage and the society that was here before it flamed out after hitting a Multicultural Goose…. not even the dumbest fool would risk his life fighting for any of the above.

      • Stewie GriffinMEMBER

        ​You can no longer apply for the Foreign Affairs or Defence Sector visa (subclass 576).
        It closed for new applications on 1 July 2016… barely a handful were issued anyway, which accords with my expectations of what most migrants are moving here for.

      • It was mainly for use for ‘friendly’ foreign military personnel who wanted to join/immigrate. It still happens just under a different visa.


      And just imagine the censorship we’d receive and the expected apathy!
      When the Japanese were bombing Darwin, the trains to the horse racing venues down south were generally pretty full of punters.
      “Japs bombing the top-end you say Nigel?”
      ” Be awhile to sort that all out”
      ” Who’s the favorite for race #4?”

      • Stewie GriffinMEMBER

        There was a near total media black ban on the bombing of Darwin, as far as most Australians knew it was little more than a couple lost Zero’s dropping their bombs – the true extent of the Japs bombing campaign only became apparent after the war. My grandfather served in Darwin at the time as an Aircraft mechanic – he both experienced the bombing first hand and also experienced the disconnect between the damage done and the lack of community awareness as to what was occurring.

    • JunkyardMEMBER

      Agreed, what exactly would anyone be fighting for? While I accept that Australia is still a great place compared to the rest of the world, the life and opportunities that I had as a kid don’t exist for my own kids. All gone in the space of a single generation.

      Fighting wars generally needs willing young men. What exactly would the young men be giving their life to save?

      I don’t own property, Howard took my Browning shot 5. It will be far easier to just take the family and flee to North America or Europe.

    • robert2013MEMBER

      Given that 50% of the population was either born overseas or has a parent born overseas so are eligible for a foreign passport, and that a number of countries will confer residency rights through grandparents, plus the possibility of buying citizenship, I estimate that around 60% of the population could simply up and go in the event of a conflict. I wonder if defence planners take that into account.

  5. We need to build our relations with Japan and India, the two large countries with a vested – life and death – interest in containing China. India’s economy is now passing $3trn and is about to take off and they have a population that will surpass china in most of our lifetimes. US remains the cornerstone but there are plenty of other options. I see plenty of reason to be cautious and take action but none to be downbeat about our ability to hold our own…

  6. I look at those Lowy numbers and want to know why the USA gives a rat’s a55 about any relationship with Australia.

    • Just lip service.
      It’s like giving some kid a game in the seniors just to fill the numbers. And Come finals he’s gone.

  7. Our defense department just seems to be full of pretenders, with no real interest in the long term sovereignty of our country, but more do just their own jobs. Hence never make a decision outside someone else’s thinking