‘Sam Roggeveen’s Echidna Strategy: priorities in foreign and defence policy’, Honest History, 2 October 2023 updated
Richard Broinowski reviews The Echidna Strategy: Australia’s Search for Power and Peace, by Sam Roggeveen
Sam Roggeveen came from the Australian government’s Office of National Assessments (ONA) to become the director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program. His new book brings some much-needed sanity to the national debate about whether China is a threat to Australia, and if so, what we should do about it.
It is radical stuff, coming from the pen of a director in a conservative Australia think-tank. But then Roggeveen sees himself as a liberal-conservative, presumably to distance himself from what he might term radical lefties, many of whom would agree with his analysis.
The latter folk would not be surprised that Roggeveen sees the China threat as overblown by people in Canberra, where Australian policy is seduced by militarism. The advent of AUKUS and the prospect of Australia acquiring eight nuclear propelled Virginia-class attack submarines may suggest that US-Australia defence relations have never been closer, but this is a delusion.
For Roggeveen asserts that Washington’s capacity to protect Australia (and presumably other ‘free countries’ in the region) is in decline. The rot set in before Donald Trump demonstrated contempt for America’s alliances and scepticism about America’s role as leader of the free world. But such scepticism may be reinforced if Trump or another Republican is elected president in 2025.
Roggeveen argues that, if Washington really wanted to contest China’s growing military power, it would radically increase the size and capability of US forces in the region. But the US force posture in Asia is now roughly the same as it was at the end of the Cold War and it is held in place by bureaucratic inertia against dismantling an immense US military infrastructure. This in turn is bolstered by the gratitude of allies who host the bases and benefit from them, and through the overwhelming support of US policy elites.
Yet, since the Cold War the Asian security order has been radically transformed, first by the collapse of the Soviet Union, secondly by the rise of China, and thirdly by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea.
Against the threat from the second and third of these developments, Roggeveen asserts that US regional forces are either in stasis or decline. The build-up of US marines in Darwin, the soon-to-be established base facilities for B-52 bombers at Tindal, and the re-establishment of US bases in the Philippines and elsewhere are simply ways of dispersing some existing US forces from Guam, Japan, and Korea, thereby complicating China’s target selection choices in the event of hostilities.
But, Roggeveen asserts, we should fear not. Few may believe it, but, he says, Australia can defend itself against the might of the Peoples’ Liberation Army without American help, nor do we need to bankrupt ourselves in doing so. The secret lies in the way we choose to do it.
Roggeveen makes the entirely valid point that AUKUS is hubristic in terms of weapons technology, but meek and uninspiring in its vision for Australian foreign policy. Our biggest defence asset in future will not be nuclear-powered submarines (if we ever get them), or other sophisticated military kit, but our diplomatic skills and the inventiveness and resolution we use in deploying them.
Our first priority, he believes, is to appreciate that the sheer distance between China and Australia is our biggest strategic asset. Beijing is closer to London than Sydney, the logistical importance of which is routinely underestimated in the Australian defence debate. Anything we can do to frustrate China’s attempts to collapse that geographic distance between our two countries should be encouraged.
Roggeveen outlines three urgent and important steps for Australian defence statecraft. Tellingly, these do not include pursuit of AUKUS, nuclear-powered subs, or the Quad, the vaunted alliance between the US, India, Japan and Australia. These four powers are ostensibly united to check China’s territorial ambitions, but their core interests diverge to the extent of their being unable to admit that China is their common concern, or even elucidate what common action they might take against its military rise.
First among Australia’s three important steps is the need to engage with Indonesia as a close security partner. The relationship has in the past been fragile and erratic. But only Indonesia has the geographical position, the population, and the heft of a substantial and expanding economy to contest Chinese regional encroachment. Keating realised this in 1995 when he negotiated a security deal with Suharto, which was reinforced by John Howard in the Lombok Treaty in 2006, and again by Tony Abbott in 2014.
Secondly, to stave off increasing Chinese presence among South Pacific countries, Australia must rid itself of its rather casual and condescending attitude to the region, and give these countries more aid, infrastructure, investment, labour mobility, and defence cooperation. We are geographically closer to South Pacific than is China. And we have the advantage of historical, religious, cultural, and sporting affinity. But China has more economic clout, is persistent, and has already negotiated a security agreement with the Solomons.
Thirdly, and diplomatically the most challenging, Roggeveen wants Australia to encourage the regional great powers – among them Russia, India, China, Japan, the United States, and as a nascent great power, Indonesia – to create a regional order, a mechanism for achieving what they want without the use of force. This is similar to the late Coral Bell’s ‘concert of powers’. Put another way, it is the slow weaving together of rules and customs that forms a loose regional constitution. Pretty theoretical, but pursued by Roggeveen with enthusiasm. He adds some practical advice: don’t invest the idea with liberal principles like democracy, which would be seen by China as a proxy for indefinite US leadership of the international system, and would stop negotiations in their tracks.
In his remaining chapters, Roggeveen excoriates what he terms the Australian cult of the offensive, which includes what the Canberra establishment sees as the immensely attractive prospect of acquiring nuclear-powered Virginia attack submarines. Far from deterring China, these boats and their accompanying hardware would transform Australia from a rather insignificant bystander in China’s growing contest with the United States into a significant threat, to be taken out if the balloon goes up over Taiwan.
What Australia needs, Roggeveen sensibly concludes, is an echidna force, non-threatening to others, but quite competent in defending itself if attacked.
*Richard Broinowski AO is a former Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea, Mexico, the Central American Republics and Cuba, and former General Manager of Radio Australia. For his other posts on Honest History, use our Search engine.