Flat White

We’ll need to pay a higher defence premium under Biden

16 November 2020

5:00 AM

16 November 2020

5:00 AM

Since World War II Australia has kept secure by paying its premium on the United States-Australia Defence Alliance. This is a formal arrangement, via the ANZUS Treaty, but as New Zealand’s suspension as a member shows, it is not set in concrete and needs to be nurtured.

In return for being one of the US’s most reliable allies, Australia expects and hopes that in the event of any serious threat to our borders, the US will come to our aid. As a result, we don’t field a defence force capable of defending Australia on its own against a major threat, but one that is designed to be more a modular part of an international effort.

While we spend more than many comparable countries on our armed forces, it also gives us the luxury of a dilettante approach to defence, for example ordering diesel submarines that are likely to be obsolete by the time they arrive and some of which won’t turn up until 2050 – the year we will probably decide to go carbon neutral.

Even with these handicaps, there is only one force in our area that might give us any problems, and that is the Chinese. While it might sound hawkish to talk about a Chinese threat, it is implicit in government actions like the banning of Huawei from public infrastructure. It is also explicit in China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, attempts to secure naval bases around the South Pacific, wargaming an invasion of Taiwan and clashes on the Indian border.

In the event of an aggressive China, there is only one country that we could turn to for help, so what happens in the USA is critical to Australia’s security, which is why the US election result is disturbing.

The Trump Doctrine

Trump has reset US foreign policy by recognising the hegemonic threat that China poses to the world, and having the courage to do something about it.

Obama talked about a pivot to the West Pacific, but the pivot was left to Trump.

Trump appears to have recognised that most empires fall by being too stretched, and has started the process of withdrawing troops from unwinnable, or in some cases, historic, wars (would you believe that there are currently 55,000 military and supporting civilians in Germany, and this has more or less been the case since World War II?).

That allows him to optimise the number of troops that he can deploy to developing fronts.

Part of this process has involved negotiating peace treaties in the Middle East, targeted executions of key enemy personnel, such as Qasim Soleimani, and reimposing punitive sanctions on Iran. He is also the first president since Jimmy Carter not to get involved in a foreign war. He’s very much a realist and rejects the neocon impulse to use force to spread democracy. He’ll do deals with anyone to get to his ultimate goal.

He has also increased spending on the armed forces at the same time demanding that the US’s allies bear more of the costs of their own defence. This is often portrayed as unilateralism, but is in reality just getting a better deal.

More importantly, he has started to reindustrialise the USA. I’m all for free trade which is the ideal economic system, but it can’t be a universal system if you are at war. Wars are generally won by the country with superior resources and logistics. The Allies won WWII not because their soldiers were braver or better-led than those of the Axis, but because we could keep going longer than they could.

Going to war with your largest trading partner could be problematic, especially if the trade deal is implicitly that they manufacture goods and you provide services. You can’t send them an order for equipment when you are shooting at them.


Then there is the problem of long supply lines. We live in a time of global surveillance – there is no hiding surface ships, and you can’t airlift everything you need. If it is not available domestically, it may not be available at all.

Global trade strengthens in peacetime, but is fragile in war.

Inasmuch as Trump’s renegotiation of trade deals was a security strategy, then it was a necessary evil. Apart from that, our “free trade” agreements aren’t really free trade at all but rather managed trade agreements, so there is no real purist position on them. And a country that represents 15.2% of global GDP can conduct its trade policy quite differently from one, like Australia, that represents 1.7% — our threats mean nothing, theirs are significant.

A necessary part of reindustrialising in a defence context is energy self-sufficiency, which has been achieved through the fracking revolution and unconventional oil. Self-sufficiency has also had the side-effect of bringing the oil sheiks to heel as they have lost their leverage over energy price and supply.

Another pre-requisite to national security is domestic growth – rich countries are harder to beat. Trump has grown the national economy through company tax cuts, accelerated depreciation, and cutting regulations, plus a good dose of optimism, that doesn’t appear to have been doused by COVID-19.

How would Biden’s election affect our security?

It’s still uncertain that Biden has won, and it all depends on the success of lawsuits lodged by President Trump and other partisan and civil society organisations.

Anyone who says there was no fraud this election is pushing a line. There is fraud every year in the USA (and probably in Australia as well too). The question is: are the incidences of fraud provable, and widespread enough, that they could be shown to have potentially affected the outcome of the election?

This is the first problem. The incidences appear to be significant, and even if there is not enough fraud to over-turn elections in various states, America’s reputation as a model democracy has been tarnished, and Biden’s possible election will be viewed as tainted by close to half the population.

He will be a weak international figure, without the rudeness and mania which made Trump hard to dismiss.

Biden is also a heavily compromised candidate when dealing with China, and also Russia. He and his family appear to have been selling influence for decades.

His son, Hunter, was paid director’s fees of $50,000 per month by Burisma, a Ukrainian oil company whose owner is an exiled corrupt oligarch called Mykola Zlochevsky. Biden used $1 billion worth of US government loan guarantees to lean on the Ukrainian president to have the investigations into the company shut down. Incredibly Joe boasted about it when back in the US – watch here.

More concerning from our security point of view is Hunter Biden’s deal with the Chinese government through BHR Partners. He was flown to China in Airforce 2 with his father where dad conducted some government business, and Hunter just got busy. Hunter’s hedge fund secured investment of $1 billion from various Chinese entities including the state-owned Bank of China. In Australia this would be a hanging offence – just look at what happened to Australian cabinet minister Stuart Robert who flashed his ministerial credentials on a private Chinese business trip.

How tough can we expect Joe Biden to be on China when he has probably already been compromised by them?

Biden intends to rejoin the Paris Accord. This is foolish and naïve. The major flaw in the Paris Accord is that it hobbles the handful of rich Western countries that really do care about human rights and a domestic and international rules-based system, while having no effect on the rest of the world.

China and India may promise to be carbon neutral by 2060 or 2050, but if so, why are they currently building coal-fired power stations with design lives in excess of 40 years? And who could believe a promise from the Chinese Communist Party anyway?

Climate change really is a security issue, not because it will make war and famine more frequent, but because the recommended cure will attenuate our ability to deal with them by weakening our economies absolutely as well as relatively.

Biden also intends to shut down the US oil and gas industry. This hands the whip back to OPEC, destabilises the Middle East, but also makes the US reliant on other countries and long logistic chains again.

Biden will also weaken the economy by raising taxes and reimposing regulations. Given the size of the US population compared to China’s, economic strength is the key strategic card the US has to play, and decreasing it will make the manpower differential harder to overcome.

Biden also plans to remove Trump’s tariffs — the Chinese are getting a great return on their investment in Hunter’s hedge fund. While this will probably make Americans richer in the short term it will also see continuing illegal transfers of technology to China and further undermine the US’s capacity to make war.

Biden’s victory would also lessen US cohesion. It will be seen as a reward to the rioters, and those elected representatives who effectively nullified US law by refusing to enforce it. We will see a resurgence of illegal immigration over the borders, and what country can possibly aspire to hold the world, or even the Western Pacific, secure, if it can’t secure its own borders?

There’s still hope

While Biden may win the White House, it looks like the Republicans will hold the Senate, and be a very large minority in the Representatives. The checks and balances in the system, which sometimes seem to have institutionalised gridlock, will work in our favour.

Not as much as they might have, because Barack Obama advanced the use of the administrative order to give the President somewhat dictatorial powers. Trump has used these tools when it suited him, for example, to fund the building of the wall. Biden will do the same.

Yet what the Obama experiment in this area showed was that these orders are fragile, only lasting until the next president.

So Republicans will have sway in some of the areas that count, not that being a Republican is synonymous with having the right views on national security. Added to that the mood of the country is not particularly radical. If Biden wins, voters will have marginally rejected Trump, but also have put the Democrats on notice by voting the Republicans back in in the Senate, and giving them extra seats in the Representatives.

The bottom line?

We can’t rely on the Yanks for everything. Time for Australia to boost its defence capacity. That also means addressing some of the issues that Trump addressed in America – like the cost of energy, revitalising domestic industry, and renovating our defence force. With an additional $800 billion in debt due to COVID, that’s not going to be easy, but self-insurance is a necessary and complementary strategy to paying a defence insurance premium to the USA.

Graham Young is Executive Director of the Australian Institute for Progress and founder and editor of On Line Opinion.

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