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Deterrence in Shaping Australia’s Path in the Global Transition - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, Deterrence in Shaping Australia’s Path in the Global Transition, 18 April 2023

As global conflict continues apace, and Australia navigates its way ahead, there is a clear desire to defend Australia’s interests and to deter actions by China which significantly undercut those interests. But what does Australia wish to deter? How does it do so? And how does it work its allied and partner relationships in conjunction with defining its new relationship with China?

During my current trip to Australia, I had a chance to discuss these questions with Dr. Andrew Carr of Australian National University. We started by focusing on the salience of deterrence and its discussion and debate in Australia to shaping Australia’s way ahead in dealing with China.

Carr: “What are we deterring China from doing? This is not just a military task. We need to address it publicly, both to gain ongoing support from the public but also to clarify what we expect from government coordination across the whole of government to deter China.

“Deterrence is very new in the Australian experience. We have been part of a Western coalition for a very long time, but we have never had to do the kind of messaging and communication which is a crucial part of deterrence. There is not a lot of muscle memory in Australia for deterrent discourse.”

China has become a different kind of competitor and adversary and partner as it changed from the reform years and building its economy to that of the China under President Xi who is combining elements of power to shape the global system more in the Chinese image.

What will Australia accept in working with its main trade partners? And what will it not? What role will foreign students from China play in Australian universities? What actions by China are clearly to be countered? Which tolerated? Which ignored?

All of this is part of shaping deterrent language and narrative. What tools does Australia need to deter against which types of actions? Where does the military fit into a broader deterrent effort involving broader Australia economic, social, cultural, information and security interests?

Carr’s key point s that such questions need to be central to Australian debate and consideration, and regularly so. There are ongoing considerations of what is to be deterred and what means need to be developed to do so.

Carr concluded our conversation by highlighting a central problem facing Western policy makers. Simply put, with the end of the Cold War and the seeming end of history and the victory of liberal democracy underwritten by the United States, policy makers saw the rules-based order as global with little clarity with regard to what are core versus peripheral interests. The term global commons came into vogue and suggested a global interdependent order in which interests were dictated by the need to deal with the gaps in the seams wherever and whenever they occurred.

Deterrence is national in character and to be effective requires clarity with regard to core interests versus peripheral interests. It also requires a realistic sense of limits. What can the nation actually do that will be seen as credible by the adversary? And will the nation have the will to do so?

As Carr put it: “The gray zone challenge comes from this global lack of clarity. With our “rules-based order” language, we tend to suggest that everything in the status quo is of interest for the West. Chinese actions in the South China Sea and Russia’s actions in Crimea in 2014, called our bluff.

“Deterrence is then a policy of limits as well as focus. But it cannot remain a policy only pursued by the military, while absent from the discussions of the political class and the public”

The China relationship shaped in the past two decades cannot continue; but what kind of relationship can it be? What are its limits and what are the paths of cooperation and the focus of deterrence?

Dr. Andrew Carr

Andrew Carr is a Senior Lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University. His research interests include Australian foreign and defence policy, middle power theory and Asia-Pacific security. His recent books are Winning the Peace: Australia’s campaign to change the Asia-Pacific (MUP, 2015) and Asia-Pacific Security: An Introduction (Georgetown University Press, 2016). Dr Carr is also the editor of the Centre of Gravity policy paper series, a co-editor of the journal Security Challenges and a frequent media commentator for both Australian and Asia-Pacific press.


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