Is Armed Neutrality an effective alternative for Australia’s defense?

Despite Washington’s efforts to retain its strategic primacy in Asia, the existing US-led regional security order is already undergoing substantial changes due to the rise of China. Countries which have been labelled as pro-American are now seriously agonising over the choice between the United States and China. Especially the US allies in the region, including Australia, are confronted with a significant strategic question of whether they can continue to rely on the US to ensure their national security as they have done over the past decades.

Would America be able to guarantee Australia’s security in a more contested Asia where the US-led security order no longer exists? This is the question that Australians should start asking themselves. And this question is not just about choosing between America and China. It is about preparing reasonable alternatives for Australia’s national defence in the Asian century without American preponderance.

As an alternative, some scholars suggest Australia opt for armed neutrality. The policy of armed neutrality has not seriously been considered by successive Australian governments, but it has always been an unignorable topic in the Australian defence policy debate. Especially those who emphasise the country’s geostrategic advantages and are sceptical about its dependency on the great powers have consistently expressed their interest in this model. Indeed, Australia’s geographical position – a country forming a continent of its own, geographically unconnected to any great powers – certainly makes this model attractive and credible. It is also true that for many times Australia was dragged into difficult circumstances because of its heavy dependency on its powerful allies – first Britain and then the United States.

These contentions certainly have the point. But they only occupy one side of the debate over armed neutrality for Australia. And one can surely participate in and contribute to the debate by trying to answer the following three fundamental questions: First, what would Australia’s policy of armed neutrality look like in practice? Second, what are the pros and cons of taking such an approach? And last, is it an achievable and suitable defence model for Australia’s security for decades to come?

What would Australia’s policy of armed neutrality look like in practice?

The option of armed neutrality for Australia would promote the greater self-reliant defence of the country. If Australia chooses to rely on armed neutrality, the country must opt out of its alliance with the US and cannot build military alliances with any other states. No foreign military bases would be allowed on Australian soil. As a neutral, Australia would stay out of all wars and must not militarily support any belligerents during wartime. This, however, does not mean that the country cannot be militarily supported by other countries. Australia may always request military support from others if attacked.

Australia’s status of neutrality would be acknowledged by the international community, but there may always be a chance that the security of the country could be threatened by external aggression. Hence, Australia must build its armed forces big enough to deter other countries, even major powers, from invading its territory. Australia should strengthen its naval and air forces as the country would no longer rely on America’s military support. The country would also need to enhance its land forces, but it would be difficult to achieve this in practice due to the lack of population. Instead, Australian land forces should be small but highly mobile and well-trained forces that consist of a professional standing army and militarily trained volunteers. In addition, Australia must develop its own conventional deterrent capability as it would not be able to access American intelligence and weapons.

What are the pros and cons of taking such an approach?

There is one clear merit of adopting armed neutrality as Australia’s defence posture. Armed neutrality would prevent Australia from being drawn into overseas wars. Since its establishment in 1951, the Australia-US defence alliance has dragged Australia into overseas wars, including the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This implies that Australia would have to unavoidably participate in any future wars in the Asia-Pacific in accordance with its alliance with America.

The Sino-American strategic rivalry is already influencing the escalation of conflicts between America and China, and if these two great powers get on badly, their rivalry may lead to the deterioration of bilateral relations and ultimately war. If Australia continues to side with America in escalating strategic rivalry, it must risk being drawn into a military confrontation with China. And without a doubt, it is not in Australia’s interests to confront the Chinese. Australia cannot bear the price of that confrontation and also cannot risk losing its biggest trading partner and jeopardising its whole economy.

By changing its defence posture to armed neutrality, Australia would be able to stay out of any future wars in the Asia-Pacific. Australia can avoid any circumstances where it must send its troops to Southeast or Northeast Asia to engage in a military confrontation with the Chinese. Moreover, the country would not have to worry about the threat of Chinese missile strikes on the Australian continent as there will be no US military base within its territory.

However, there are two major demerits inherent in this policy. First, adopting armed neutrality as its defence posture would be neither easy nor cheap for Australia. If Australia opts for armed neutrality, it would no longer be able to rely on America and therefore would need much more capable armed forces that are strong enough to effectively inhibit other states from invading its large continent and territorial waters. Unfortunately, Australia simply does not have the population to build huge armed forces. This implies that the country should allocate much more spending on its defence to maintain an effective conventional deterrent capability without access to US intelligence and technology.

Second, Australia’s military build-up as part of armed neutrality might trigger an arms race between Australia and Indonesia. In the anarchic international system, a state’s military growth is usually perceived by other states as a threat to their security as well as regional stability. If Australia becomes a state of armed neutrality, the country must inevitably try to accomplish a rapid and substantial military build-up. And this will likely make its neighbours feel insecure. Especially Indonesia, which is geographically very close to Australia, would increase its armed forces in response to Australia’s military build-up. If this happens, Australia would have to further increase its military expenditure to maintain strong neutrality. Eventually, it will lead to an arms race between Canberra and Jakarta.

And Australians will find it very difficult to afford the cost of that arms race. Indonesia is not a great power but it is a middle power with a huge population. This means that it is very likely that the country will become a middle power of real weight within a few decades and its armed forces will get bigger, perhaps much bigger, than Australia’s. It is no surprise that Indonesia already has a large number of active military personnel that are nearly eight times bigger than the Australian Defence Force (ADF). In total military personnel, the gap becomes even larger. To match the military power of this competitor, Australia would need to boost its air and naval forces, and that will be very expensive. Besides, it contradicts the ultimate purpose of becoming an armed neutral: that is to avoid having any potential adversaries nearby.

Is it an achievable and suitable model for Australia’s security in decades to come?

The advocates of armed neutrality tend to argue that Australia’s armed neutrality would be achievable because there already exist successful examples: Sweden and Switzerland. Indeed, the Swedes and the Swiss are both middle powers and they have managed to sustain their armed neutrality while living with the great powers. Their success, however, does not guarantee Australia’s success because of two reasons.

The first is that Australia’s geostrategic situation is quite different to either Sweden’s or Switzerland’s. The Swiss and the Swedes succeeded in becoming neutral themselves because they were in Europe where there was a common interest among the regional powers in preserving the European order on which they heavily depended. It was their will to maintain the status quo to prevent the emergence of a hegemonic power in the region, and neither Sweden nor Switzerland had real weight to alter the status quo. They were strong enough to deter other countries from attacking them, but neither of them was strong enough to make any serious impact on the European order. Other European powers understood this and therefore ‘accepted’ Sweden’s and Switzerland’s armed neutrality.

This, however, might not work for Australia. Unlike Europe, there is no such common interest among the Asian powers in preserving the regional order. The region is undergoing a serious struggle between two groups of countries, namely, status quo powers and revisionist powers. Many countries in the region are already facing tough situations of being forced to choose between Washington and Beijing. And Asia’s strategic environment will likely become more turbulent and complex as the strategic rivalry between America and China escalates.

If Australia chooses to become neutral, it should build large armed forces that would have sufficient weight to affect the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific. And if Australia can make a real difference to Asia’s strategic balance, then it would be perceived by other Asian powers as one of the potential game changers. In other words, an armed neutral Australia would find difficulty in staying on reasonable terms with all other Asian neighbours and would therefore not be able to stay away from Asia’s strategic competitions. None of Asian powers would accept Australia’s neutral position.

The second reason is about money. Armed neutrality would be a very expensive model in Asia because the region is a highly contested arena. As Asia’s strategic order becomes unstable and precarious, the regional powers are compelled to boost their armed forces. There already exist signs of incipient arms races among the great and middle powers. This makes armed neutrality so expensive because Canberra would have to continuously increase its defence budget to make the ‘armed’ part of its armed neutrality credible.

Australia is now spending around 2% of its GDP on defence, and to become a strong armed neutral in a more contested Asia, it should spend more than 3%, or perhaps up to 4%. And it is doubtful that the Australian taxpayers are willing to pay that much for their nation’s more self-reliant defence posture. For now, many would tell their government to stick to the US alliance.

Nevertheless, armed neutrality should continue to be debated by Australian scholars and policymakers because that would make the Australian defence debate more constructive and healthier. It would be foolish to cling to the outdated belief that America will remain strong and always be there to protect Australia.