Like many boys, Sam Roggeveen was obsessed with warplanes. As a high school student he aspired to become a fighter pilot with the Royal Australian Air Force, but his eyesight was not good enough.
Instead, the Dutch immigrant, who arrived in Australia aged seven, went on to study political philosophy and international strategy before becoming an intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessments.
Now he is firing rhetorical torpedoes at Australia’s bipartisan consensus on defence policy – an edifice supported not just by Labor and the Coalition but most prominent analysts and think tanks such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the United States Studies Centre.
Roggeveen, the director of the Lowy Institute’s international security program, has been commentating on foreign affairs and strategic issues for over 15 years, but is now enjoying something of a breakout moment. His essay in the latest edition of the Australian Foreign Affairs journal has generated significant discussion among the defence intelligentsia with its blunt warning that Australia’s deepening alliance with the US could make it the target of a Chinese nuclear attack.
“I consider much of what he has written to be wrong,” Paul Dibb, the author of an influential 1987 defence white paper, argued in a riposte published online this month.
This will be followed by the release next week of Roggeveen’s book The Echidna Strategy, a sweeping attempt to overturn the conventional wisdom on Australian security. The timing, he says, is perfect, coming just over a week after a debate on the AUKUS pact at Labor’s national conference and an Albanese government announcement that it would spend $1.3 billion buying Tomahawk cruise missiles from the US.
Among Roggeveen’s against-the-tide arguments: Australia should not be acquiring nuclear-powered submarines; the nation does not need long-range missiles to deter an attack by China; defence spending does not need to substantially increase; and our deepening ties with the US are making us less safe.
Those who reject these views include his boss, Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove, who said in a recent social media post that he disagrees “entirely” with Roggeveen on Australian grand strategy and its alliance with the US, but praised him for making him think. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, meanwhile, has praised the book’s “clear-eyed” analysis and described it as “essential reading”.
“Yes, I am expecting it to generate debate,” Roggeveen says. “I do want to provoke … My aim is to slightly widen what policy wonks call the Overton window, which is the broadly accepted terms of debate on a given public policy issue. On defence policy, and on AUKUS in particular, that window is pretty narrow right now.”
While some rival experts in the field privately question his expertise – Roggeveen has not worked in the Department of Defence, for example – he says he welcomes those who push back on his ideas. “The debate shouldn’t be governed by credentialism,” he adds.
A charge that does make him bristle is the notion his ideas are extreme. At the start of his book, he emphasises he regards himself as a conservative rather than a member of the far left.
“Before AUKUS was announced, support for nuclear-powered submarines among Australian defence analysts and commentators was very small; it put you on the fringe of the debate. All of a sudden, seemingly within days of the announcement, it became the conventional wisdom.
“What I want to do is say to people: you don’t need to be politically radical, whether on the right or left, to question this stuff.”
Roggeveen’s central premise is that Australia must prepare for a future in which the safety blanket of the US alliance is effectively pulled back in a “hesitant and gradual process of separation triggered by America’s declining interest and motivation to protect Australia”. While China’s rise to superpower status will challenge America’s national pride, he argues that it does not threaten its core security interests.
He acknowledges that much of the current evidence runs against his argument: the AUKUS pact represents a historic elevation of the US-Australia alliance and both major parties in the US agree on the need to counter China. Ultimately, though, he says there is no sign that America will make the massive investments in military power required to halt China’s rise to strategic pre-eminence in Asia.
Importantly, he thinks it matters little whether an internationalist Joe Biden or isolationist Donald Trump wins the 2024 presidential election.
“We have reached the point where the Americans have to ask the fundamental question: why are we in Asia, and if we’re not here in Asia, are we less secure?” he says. “I don’t think America would really be that much less secure if it wasn’t in Asia. And if you’re taking on a contest that’s as big as the one against China, eventually you will have to face those fundamental questions. That’s true no matter who is in the White House.”
This line of argument will be familiar to readers of Australian National University emeritus professor Hugh White, whom Roggeveen considers a mentor. Unlike White, however, he does not believe Australia needs to dramatically ramp up defence spending.
He does believe the military needs to be overhauled to make Australia more like an echidna: an animal that poses no threat to anything other than ants and termites but whose sharp quills warn larger creatures to keep their distance. (Roggeveen is Australianising the term “porcupine strategy” which is commonly used in the context of the self-governing island of Taiwan’s attempts to deter an attack by Beijing.)
In Roggeveen’s schema, the Australian military would focus almost exclusively on self-defence, repudiating any capability to hit the Chinese land mass with Tomahawk cruise missiles, long-range bombers or hypersonic weapons. Large surface ships, like the planned Hunter-class frigates, would be scrapped to free up tens of billions of dollars, as would army helicopters, tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.
Rather than cosying up to America, he says Australia should be attempting to strike a new security pact of “unprecedented intimacy”, akin to a formal alliance, with Indonesia to balance China’s rising influence in the region (a proposal he admits is a long-term goal).
As for the planned fleet of eight nuclear-powered submarines, he rubbishes AUKUS as “a project of vaulting ambition that is out of step with Australian tradition as a military power, wildly at odd with our international status and, most importantly, a wasteful expenditure of public money that will make Australia less safe”.
He argues that such vessels, which can travel over long distances without being detected, are uniquely suited to operating off the Chinese coast and that acquiring them raises the likelihood of Australia joining the US in a disastrous fight against China. “If the US was to act on its stated intent to defend Taiwan, I think that’s not a conflict we want to be involved in,” he says.
Australia would be just fine with a small fleet of cheaper, conventionally powered submarines, he argues.
Peter Dean, the director of foreign policy and defence at the US Studies Centre, forcefully rejects this argument, pointing to the increased vulnerability of conventional submarines (which have to regularly surface to recharge their batteries).
“From a strategic, operational and tactical point of view, nuclear-powered submarines offer enormous advantages to Australia – a huge island continent that relies on international shipping lanes,” says Dean, the lead author of the government’s defence strategic review.
He dismisses the idea the AUKUS submarines are inherently offensive as “conjecture” and “simply untrue”.
Roggeveen says policymakers are right to worry about China’s military growth, but thinks the risk of Beijing attacking Australia has been massively overstated. That is, unless we poke the dragon so much that we antagonise it – including by allowing Americans to fly operational missions from northern Australia.
“Our geography is our single biggest defence asset, yet we’re effectively trying to compress the distance between us and China with this focus on long-range weapons and particularly nuclear-powered submarines. If at any point China wants to project military force in Australia, unlikely as that is, well let them come towards us. I don’t think there’s any need for us to go towards them.”
Ultimately, he says the book’s premise is a hopeful one. “Australia can defend itself against the might of the People’s Liberation Army, even without American help, and it doesn’t need to bankrupt us,” he argues.
While the status quo is too entrenched for his arguments to trigger speedy policy change, he sees reason for optimism. “Ultimately ideas do matter,” he says, “and they will influence people over the long term”.
Source : SMH