“I spoke to Albanese on the day the Chinese foreign ministry criticised plans for Australia to upgrade the RAAF Tindal base to accommodate six US B-52 strategic bombers”
| The Australian | Edited extracts
SYDNEY (5 November 2022) - Anthony Albanese may look and sound a mild man, and that is one of his strengths. But he has an ambition that no Australian leader has had for decades.
He wants to create a military force capable of defending Australia.
To do this, he plans to change the structure of the Australian Defence Force and increase the defence budget.
He is determined to do this – fully explicit in his commitment on money – even in the face of a budgetary tourniquet screwing ever tighter.
“Yes, yes! We will do what is necessary to achieve it,” he insists in an exclusive interview.
“We’ve made that very clear. We’ve been really upfront, and we’ll do what is necessary. This is not optional, it’s necessary.”
He has a lot of other foreign policy ambitions as well: greater alliance intimacy with the US; a much closer mutual security relationship with Japan; developing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (he will host the Quad summit next year); deeper engagement with the South Pacific and Southeast Asia; a bigger aid budget; resisting Chinese coercion; and ambitious action on climate change.
It’s an enormous agenda for a prime minister and a government that once might have been expected to focus almost exclusively on domestic priorities.
I met Albanese just a day or two after former foreign minister Stephen Smith and former Defence Force chief Angus Houston handed to government the interim report of their defence force structure review.
The final report arrives in February and the government will announce its response in March. Albanese, in the most substantial and wide-ranging foreign policy interview of his prime ministership, gives plenty of indication there will be big changes.
First, will we actually see increased Australian military capabilities over the next five years as a result of this process? “Yes, that’s the whole idea of the strategic review.”
Before the election, Albanese announced a Labor government would undertake a force posture review:
“We changed that to a defence strategic review, not just about where to place our assets but what are the (defence) assets Australia needs to defend ourselves, but also to project (force).”
Albanese mentions specifically missiles, missile defence capabilities and drones. This is explicit and clear. He also offers a compelling rationale for changing the force structure the ADF has had in the past:
“Now the question is: how does Australia defend ourselves? Where are our missile capabilities? It means drones. It means different assets. In today’s world cyber security is very important. What are the right assets for this now? You need to be prepared to make these decisions.”
Albanese is critical of the way the Morrison government talked about the urgency of the strategic environment but made no plans for substantial new defence capabilities within the next decade.
For a long time, Australia luxuriated under a strategic doctrine that there would be a 10-year warning of any strategic threat. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update formally acknowledged that the 10-year warning time no longer applied. Threats could emerge much more quickly.
“The (threat) timeframe changed from 10 years but there was no response to that. It was as if that was an anecdote, rather than something that needed to be responded to.” So we definitely get new capabilities in the next five years? “Correct. Correct.”
Albanese’s words will reverberate throughout the strategic community. It is difficult to see how the government could continue with $30 billion of heavy armour for the army, as had been envisaged in previous government plans, in light of these remarks.
I spoke to Albanese on the day the media was reporting Chinese foreign ministry criticisms of plans for Australia to upgrade the Northern Territory’s RAAF Tindal base to accommodate six US B-52 strategic bombers.
Is China right to protest this shocking Australian military build-up, I ask somewhat sarcastically.
Albanese replies with his fundamental view of the US alliance: “We made our decision in 1941. That was the right decision then and the US is the right partnership now.”
As to the B-52s: “Australia will make our own decisions. China is entitled of course to express a view.”
But Albanese is unimpressed with Beijing’s warnings or its behaviour in the region:
“China clearly has changed its posture in the region and that’s something that, as a middle power in the region, we need to take account of. The strategic competition in the region informs our view of our relationships with nations in the region, and the way the region conducts itself.”
You can see this in the growing strategic intimacy Albanese has pursued with his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida.
In five months as prime minister, Albanese has met Kishida four times. It must surely be the most intense five-month personal leader-to-leader engagement in the history of the Japan-Australia relationship.
The two will get together again for one or more meetings in the forthcoming summits both will attend this month: the G20 in Indonesia; the following East Asia Summit; and the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Southeast Asia.
At the G20 summit (on Wednesday) Albanese believes there will be the chance for economic policy coordination among all the major economies.
One controversy is over whether Russia’s Vladimir Putin will attend. Albanese declared very early that, regardless of Putin’s attendance, he was going to the G20:
“This was an important signal early of the relationship we have with Indonesia and the respect we hold for them.
“The G20 meeting is particularly important for Indonesia. At a time of uncertainty and global unrest, with a land war in Europe, strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific and economic turbulence, this is a particularly important conference.”
Asked whether Russia should be in the G20 at all, and whether Putin should be allowed to attend, Albanese responds:
“Sometimes exclusion can make it easier for the excluded to hide behind that and not have to justify its actions. I think if Russia attends the G20 that is the opportunity the world will have to make very, very clear what they think about Russia’s actions.”
Does he think there is a real danger of Moscow using some kind of tactical nuclear weapon, to the possibility of which Putin has alluded more than once:
“I take Putin’s threats very seriously. It has reminded the world that the existence of nuclear weapons is a threat to global security and the norms we had come to take for granted.
“Putin threatening to use nuclear forces on Ukrainian forces or Ukrainian people – the consequences of that would be an absolute game changer in a very bad way."
Next year Albanese will host the Quad summit. Labor had a troubled history with the Quad. Under Kevin Rudd, it did not support the Quad. Former prime minister Paul Keating is a trenchant opponent of the grouping, which brings together the US, India, Japan and Australia.
Albanese is unapologetic that the Quad serves the strategic interests of Australia and of the region:
“I think the Quad is of central importance, if you look at it geographically, strategically, historically.
“India will be the third largest economy in the world (it is currently fifth). It is very important strategically and in its role in technological advancement, in IT. We have a lot in common with India.”
Albanese is proud of his relationship with Joe Biden. Two centre-left political leaders at different stages in their lives but with not wildly dissimilar political pedigrees.
Albanese’s government has been exceptionally busy in national security and foreign policy. His foreign minister, Penny Wong, who has been a blur of motion around the South Pacific and is now travelling extensively in Southeast Asia.
Defence Minister Richard Marles is focused on the big force structure decisions. Albanese has driven our interests in intense head of government diplomacy.
He has a thousand challenges ahead at every angle. His first moment of truth comes next March when we will see what defence capabilities he can produce and in what time frame.
Australia’s security environment is even more threatening than its economic outlook. Albanese has established a clear, effective direction, mostly embodying basic strategic continuity, with new energy and focus.
Australia will need him to have all that and more, and even a touch of luck. For he has promises to keep, and miles to go before he sleeps.
Anthony Albanese’s dangerous notions of the world
Edited extracts of a commentary by Dennis Argall
NOWRA, NSW – A week ago The Australian newspaper carried an extensive report by Greg Sheridan on a conversation he had with prime minister Anthony Albanese which was the most substantial account so far of the strategic perspectives of the Albanese government.
It is puzzling that the prime minister would choose to be interviewed by Sheridan, the arch conservative writer of the Murdoch media stable.
It feels uncomfortable to speculate on why this channel was taken rather than some comfortable gathering of the Labor faithful or even the Australian Parliament.
Sheridan was a great advocate of commitment to invasion of Iraq. And similarly an enthusiast for big bold global perspectives and conflict.
Albanese presented ideas about defence acquisitions, shifting from land war capabilities to long range weapons, with China as the target. By what willy-nilly of thinking has the prime minister shifted from thinking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is illegal but preparing for war with China is not.
It is difficult to understand how the prime minister has been suckered by the great Americans with whom he has met into thinking China is an enemy of Australia, or that China has shifted to a posture of aggression towards us and Taiwan.
Albanese was giving a press briefing which was in no way be based on an understanding of regional issues.
China is not an enemy. The single core issue that offends the United States is China’s success in peaceful development. China no longer accept the assertion of unipolar primacy by the USA. Good advice to Albanese would explain that China is not America’s enemy.
Nor is China Australia’s enemy. It has done nothing hostile towards Australia. There was so much ill- informed and naive, dangerously naive, thinking the prime minister’s revealed assessment of the regional strategic situation.
I will take up one key matter, relating to the Prime Minister’s next international foray, to the G20 Summit in Bali.
Sheridan reported that at the G20 summit in Bali next Wednesday, “Albanese believes there will be the chance for economic policy co-ordination among all the major economies.”
The priority issues for the summit listed on the G20 website are global health architecture, digital transformation, and sustainable energy transition.
Albanese’s notion of ‘all the major economies’ requires consideration. Membership of the G20 is based on status as a major economy; they are all major economies, mostly more major than Australia.
There are two groups of major economies evolving in the G20.
The first comprises the historically dominant economies and their acolytes: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, UK, US and the European Union.
The second group, coalescing rapidly in the past year: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Türkiye.
Albanese’s entry into the world of international relations came in a rush following his election in May, with presence at the Quad in Tokyo, NATO in Madrid and with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Despite the largely self-inflicted misery of Australia’s political relationship with China, it accounts for one-third of Australia’s trade with the world.
It is our primary obligation to have good relations with Beijing. This we did from 1972 to 2017, when some madness was injected by the Morrison government based on propaganda from the ASPI ‘think tank’ whipped up by the right of the Republican Party in the US.
Thus do we approach commitment to an unnecessary and indecent war project led by a US president wanting to be re-elected, a man who is even older than I am and clearly showing cognitive problems. The suckering of an Australian prime minister into this China project is absurd.
We cannot afford to sit in a corner with the US and others and claim we are working things out with the major economic powers without insulting elephants in the room like China, India, Indonesia and Russia.
We cannot imagine that Albanese’s spray of strategic perspective will not cause offence to this array of countries. Only a fool would sit in the corner with the Americans and sulk, insult and be dismissive.
Albanese seems to like projects running far beyond sensible prediction. When he was Rudd’s transport minister he said we would have a very fast train by the 2050s. One of his first bills before this parliament is to give half a billion as start-up for an eventual very fast train from Sydney to Newcastle.
You only have to look at an atlas to see that half this trip is difficult geography and the other half impossibly expensive real estate.
Albanese considers that Australia’s strategic perspective was set in concrete in 1941. Whatever happened to the major strategic shift in 1972-3 when the Whitlam government recognised realities in Asia, shifting recognition as the government of China from Taipei to Beijing and announced that we will deal equally with Asia.
Has all that been chucked out? Are Asian friends being told that we are (sensibly) abandoning focus on a land war and planning to have long range missiles instead to target whom and to fly over whose air space. Why has the history shaped by Labor 50 years ago been put aside?