Canberra Times Op-Ed

Andrew Hastie MP | Op-Ed, Canberra Times

As we look back on 2022, there are moments in time that grow in significance the more distant they become. Some moments this year spring immediately to mind.

In Europe, the unprovoked shots fired by Russia as the invasion of Ukraine began.

Closer to home, the rockets that streaked across the skies above Taiwan, after former US Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island.

But one stands out above the rest: the summit between Presidents Xi and Putin in Beijing on the eve of the Winter Olympics. That meeting in February—where the two authoritarian rulers struck a ‘no-limits’ strategic partnership—proved a decisive moment in geopolitics. 

It was a moment that gave form and significance to Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine soon after. It also confirmed what the 2020 Defence Strategic Update made clear: that authoritarian powers are on the move and the risk of state-based conflict has dramatically increased.

Not just in Eastern Europe, as the brutal war in Ukraine reminds us, but also in the Indo-Pacific region—including on our doorstep in the Solomon Islands.

The question for us is this: what is to be done? How do we steer Australia safely through the rocky shoals ahead? The Defence Strategic Review will address this central question and we look forward to its report in February.

We also eagerly await the Albanese government’s response due in March. Our pledge as the Parliamentary Opposition is to work constructively with the Government on these questions. 

We will be tough and demanding—in keeping with the Westminster system design—but our objective and purpose is the same: to build a strong and resilient Australia that can defend itself against an aggressor.

In the meantime, however, there are several things worth remembering.

First, the enduring lesson of history is that weakness is provocative. The best way to secure peace is to be strong—to deter those who do us harm. There is a strong moral reason for this. Governments who fail in the task of deterrence invite calamity upon their people. War is destructive, abhorrent and unproductive. If we want to protect the things we love, we must be prepared to defend them.

For this reason, we need to build a powerful multi-pronged strategic deterrent that has reach and resilience. AUKUS will deliver new strike capabilities—including nuclear submarines—that will enable us to reach out and ring someone’s bell in the event of an escalating threat to Australian security.

Second, we need to able to survive on our own—at least for a period of time. For that, we must build supply-chain and industry resilience. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the need for deep stocks of ammunition, pharmaceuticals and fuel—among the many other essentials of war. Our energy grids must also be resilient to cyber attack and disruption. The obvious point is that we need more than one shot in the locker, and for that we need depth in industry and strength in supply.

Another key lesson from Ukraine is that people generally back a winner. It took some time for European allies to pivot behind Ukraine. President Zelensky’s strong leadership and Ukraine’s resistance were critical in building international support. We, too, must be able to stand firmly on our own two feet, as the lion-hearted Ukrainians have shown us.

It is therefore vital that the Commonwealth invest in our local manufacturers and supply chains, thickening and tightening their weave so that production and delivery can withstand the initial shock of war, and for longer if needed.

For many years, we’ve heard the tired trope that ‘markets will take care of things.’ That naive assumption is a luxury of a stable, global economic order. It ignores the escalating strategic disorder fuelled by geopolitical competition across economic, diplomatic, financial and military sectors. We can’t assume that strategic industries will grow on their own. They must be cultivated by political leadership.

The hard truth is that governments are always involved in defence manufacturing. Why else would the 2021 AUKUS decision be so contentious? In an era of increasing geopolitical competition, it is time the Australian government signalled to our national industry—with deeds not words—that sovereign capability and capacity is a priority. That requires financial investment and political direction. It requires courage, boldness and initiative.

Finally, we must invest in new cyber and space capabilities to maintain our edge. We can no longer think of warfare purely in the traditional domains across land, sea and air.

War is fundamentally a human enterprise that involves lethal force. That has not changed since the Peloponnesian War more than two thousand years ago. It remains a contest of wills.

But wars will also increasingly be contested online and in space. It will be contested in hearts and minds. Not only do our systems need to be secure, our people need to be hack-proof as well.  

As we invest in strike capabilities, we must not neglect emerging capabilities in cyber and space. Nor can we neglect fortifying ourselves against malevolent misinformation.

All of this might sound dramatic. But we need to be honest with the Australian people. We must be honest about the strategic challenges ahead, and the consequences—if we avoid taking the hard decisions. No one said politics is easy. But modern warfare is infinitely harder. And we must avoid it at all costs.