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ASPI highlights need for reform in Australia's defence strategy

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

The Government places too much dependence on think tanks such as ASPI, which is susceptible to outside influence, writes Joel Jenkins.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER Richard Marles posted a photo sitting in a room surrounded by the wonks, analysts, academics and intellectuals from the nation’s security apparatus. He had gathered the panel to discuss the evolving strategic environment and to seek critical insights on regional security challenges.

Present in the room are some of the most highly regarded security experts in the country from think tanks and universities. Sitting at the table, never far away from the centre of the nation’s security discussion, are representatives from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

ASPI was established in August 2001, a month before the twin towers were attacked in New York. Departing from its nimble beginnings of small employee counts and streamlined budgets, the think tank has ballooned in staffing, scope, remit and outside interest, becoming something more akin to a small university department than an agile, creative and responsive group of strategic thinkers.

The bloated nature of this increasingly nebulous and ill-defined remit has bogged down the policy contributions from ASPI. Stuck in administrative functions, its contributors may lose their ability to think and consequently will need to import ideas out of foreign playbooks, potentially at the suggestion of their large foreign donor groups.

ASPI has been a vital component of Australia’s defence planning for two decades. It has needed to evolve in a competitive market environment while expanding into an array of new ventures and navigating the complexities of a shifting geopolitical environment.

Andrew Blyth from UNSW notes that the ‘contestability of advice to government’, combined with its expanded research focus and the interest of its substantial donors, makes the entity ‘a think tank under pressure’.

Of more than $10 million in ASPIs annual revenue in 2020-2021, 37 per cent of it came from a lump sum package from the U.S. Department of Defence and another 10 per cent from the private sector that includes foreign-based defence contractors like Raytheon, BAE Systems and Naval Group — who won and eventually lost the doomed submarine contract.

The valuable subject matter expertise on offer from ASPIs contributors has been increasingly directed towards diplomatic observations that fall outside their traditional areas of defence and security. The recent visit by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan demonstrates how think tanks like ASPI now contribute more to the diplomatic narrative than just giving advice on land-based missile systems and naval tonnage in the South China Sea.

New York Times journalist Thomas L Friedman joined a host of voices calling the trip utterly reckless. This sentiment was also echoed in condemnations by the Pentagon, the State Department and the U.S. President based on existing norms and agreements. ASPI analysts took a more non-conventional view on the trip.

Michael Shoebridge, director of defence, strategy and national security at ASPI, had a supportive view of the visit, going as far as to say that the “tension is worth having” to let Beijing know “that Taiwan is not alone”. ASPI executive director Justin Bassi expanded on an ABC program, stating that he thought it was “not helpful to acknowledge that such a visit could warrant military threats”.

With positions like these, strategic ambiguity becomes increasingly hard to find. ASPIs flagship publication, The Strategist, features regular articles about What Australia must do next on Taiwan, many of its contributors pointing towards the inevitability of a large-scale conflict with China. This is a position that should be vigorously debated.

The establishment of ASPI, like so many other strategic think tanks, bears the imprint of the period in which it was conceived, somewhere within the new rules of a post-9/11 world. The diplomatic era of Australian aid programs, regional influence and soft power that started with Whitlam and ended with the war on terror.

Strategic thinkers became bewildered in the far away forever wars, losing sight of the region in their periphery while deciphering complex issues abroad. Now, with the rise of China contesting Pax Americana, we find ourselves without an independent strategic position and risk becoming lost in a vassal-like mentality wedged between two spheres of influence.

The privatisation of strategic planning begets the outsourcing of our defence imagination and ensures the loss of our ability to see our independent future in the region. Outside influence on think tanks like ASPI reflects the interests of outside positions, thus affecting the ability of Australians to formulate the best foreign policy for Australia.

In the vacuum created by our departure from the regionally focused and outfitted approach to existing in this world, we have slipped into an uninspired era of strategic outlook and as a result, we risk becoming a minor component in a complex great power competition.

The chaos in domestic politics experienced under the previous decade of Coalition government was matched with a disinterested foreign policy and a careless approach to defence procurement. Since the Coalition's departure, Australians have had time to focus on important developments in the region and have taken stock of some of the poor decision-making that may have led to those outcomes.

There is real public interest concerning the mounting tensions in the Indo-Pacific and genuine concern for the important decisions that await on the horizon. It is important for the conversation to be open and genuine, and for defence analysts to realise that they alone do not hold the keys to the conversation on Australia’s strategic future.

Some talk about submarine-launched ballistic missile capabilities (SLBMs), others push for land-based missile options built in domestic production facilities and many more in the industry now speak of the need to project anti-access/area-denial to deter potential opponents. If we need to acquire “huge numbers of long-range strike missiles” and we need to have the conversation about how it is to be done, then we should have it more broadly.

With tensions increasing at a time of crucial decision-making both diplomatically, economically, militarily and strategically, and those decisions affecting the outcomes of millions of Australians, we should be able to ask if Australia is getting its best advice from ASPI.

Think tanks like ASPI possess the best defence minds in the country. Its contributors play an important role in informing Australia’s strategic outlook, yet they are inevitably influenced by the interests of their donors. ASPI plays a vital role in Australia’s policy discussion, but decisions that impact Australia’s security position globally and regionally must be made always in its best interest.

To ensure this, the new Government needs to find its own strategic awareness in order to ensure that it can direct the conversation effectively and moderate the crucial outcomes.

Can we allow blanket influence on such consequential and vital decisions regarding the interest of the entire nation, at the expense of voices that can contribute a logical approach to Australia’s strategic outlook? At a time when the global order is in a state of flux, it may be wise to deploy a more pragmatic approach to Australia’s force posture, including contributions drawing from the wider community of subject matter experts to consider a broad and comprehensive approach to the great challenges that lie ahead.

Bassi speaks of the need to configure Australia’s force posture and the budgets required to get the things we need in the next ten years, including the ethereally immaterial nuclear submarines. AUKUS had all the hallmarks of a rushed and ill-defined alliance, the submarine deal fiasco with French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the worst international blunders of the millennium — did the wonks at think tanks like ASPI have anything to do with that decision? If not, and if it is a bad deal, are they willing to totally condemn the deal in the national interest?

And what of the future? ASPI has been around from every questionable procurement decision from the F-35 to the Abrams battle tanks to the submarines. Adding to that is an uninspired generation of defence brass and security-minded politicians and journalists that have been unable to critically envision an independent defence strategy based on domestic and regional capability.

When Marles proudly speaks of the Australian Defence Force needing to integrate with, rather than fight alongside, U.S. battle groups, he speaks from the lack of alternative and the absence of diplomatic courage that develops by that cold reality, combining to resign our fate to being a small component in a large scale war featuring China.

The Strategist features regular articles about Taiwan, taking positions that conflict with the status quo. It seeks to influence the Government on these positions.

U.S. President Joe Biden himself admitted he was surprised former Prime Minister Scott Morrison did not contact the French before cancelling the submarine deal with them. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson hurriedly shook hands on AUKUS while distracted by his deflating leadership potential. With the new submarines not even a twinkle in a non-Adelaide-based shipbuilder's eye and the challenges securing them widely acknowledged, who drives the conversation on the next vital steps?

Joel Jenkins is a writer and actuator. You can read more from Joel on Bogan Intelligentsia and follow him on Twitter @boganintel.

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