An Australian Perspective on Asian Security: An Interview with Dr. Ross Babbage

By Robbin Laird

During my most recent visit to Australia, I had a chance to discuss with one of Australia’s leading strategists, current strategic dynamics in the region.

Given the priority upon North Korean developments, we focused largely upon this aspect of regional dynamics.

After all, it is the most near term game changing challenge.

Dr. Ross Babbage is the Chief Executive Officer of the Strategic Forum, a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a former senior official in the Australian Department of Defence.

Question: President Trump when he was campaigning raised some significant issues about the changing nuclear dynamics, and thought that allies might wish to have access to nuclear weapons given those dynamics.

What is your sense of those dynamics, and how allies in the Pacific might respond?

Dr. Babbage: There is a high number of nuclear weapons in the region with Russia, China, the United States and North Korea as nuclear actors.

We have significantly underestimated the numbers and the importance that China places on nuclear weapons. And our track record on getting assessments of the nuclear arsenals of dictatorial regimes is not very good, all one has to look back at how much we underestimated the Soviet arsenal at the height of the Cold War.

When the Soviet archives opened up we discovered that even the DIA estimates, on the high end, were too low.

I think the Trump Administration is correct in asserting that we are at fork in the road with regard to the North Korean situation.

You can’t really push the North Korean threat off any longer and anyone who says we can solve this with diplomacy, well what do you think we’ve been trying to do for the last 40 years? It hasn’t worked and it’s not going to work.

An undated picture provided by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on 09 March 2016 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (C), talking with scientists and technicians involved in research of nuclear weapons, at an undisclosed location, North Korea.  NYTCREDIT: Kcna / Handout/European Pressphoto Agency

North Korea poses significant and tough problems for the Western allies.

The Obama Administration simply put off doing anything substantive about it and pursued a policy of hope. This is not strategy but wishful thinking.

But what do we do?

The US clearly has a range of options for dealing with North Korea given the size and composition of the DPRK’s arsenal.

But what about the potential risks from North Korean retaliatory measures for Western Pacific allies?

And what is the future of the Pacific allies’ dependence on US extended deterrence?

Question: In effect, you have a de Gaulle moment for the allies in the Pacific in facing North Korea, and perhaps China and Russia as well.

What are the options going forward?

Dr. Babbage: It is about the calculation of the allies on whether or not the US would use nuclear weapons in the direct defense of allies like Japan, South Korea or Australia.

It is about a risk calculus.

If we are focused on shaping a credible military strategy, deterrence should be reinforced.

But the legacy of the past 8 years has been benign neglect with regard to the nuclear aspect of allied defense policy and many other aspects of the US position in the region, including military readiness.

The key player in dealing with the DPRK is likely to be China.

China has in the past done things to place severe pressure on Pyongyang like shut down fuel supplies and threaten the North Korean power grid.

The leadership in Beijing is at a turning point: either they show up and demonstrate a key role in nuclear program closure and/or regime change or they risk facing a US-led military action against North Korea which will create broader threats and dangers for Beijing.

What Trump did with his Syrian missile strike in the midst of dinner with Xi Jinping underscored that the days of China sitting on the sidelines and benefiting from provocations from Pyongyang without having to do anything are over.

What will China do?

I suspect that it will dissemble, propose token measures and seek to further divide opinion in the West. It will try to buy time with Washington.

All of this is happening in the context of some very serious problems that have essentially been inherited from the Obama administration, not least in terms of what’s been allowed to happen in the South China and East China Seas.

In my view the importance and strategic implications of what’s been happening in the South China Sea have been under-estimated by most of the Western allies.

The size of the area which the Chinese have effectively seized and now control is roughly the same size as Western Europe from the eastern border of Poland through the English Channel. It’s a huge area.

And this area is of great strategic importance as the second most travelled shipping route in the world, aside from its salient strategic location. US and allied policy in this region during the last decade has been a dismal failure – effectively a strategic capitulation.

Especially during the second Obama administration, Beijing realized Obama wasn’t going to do anything of substance about almost any strategic issue in the Western Pacific and it exploited this weakness in Washington and other allied capitals very energetically and successfully.

Trump clearly is working to change the mindset dramatically.

Perhaps the Syrian operation is a key marker to that end.

But the Western Pacific allies may take different positions on Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations.

I believe it would very hard for Japan to become a nuclear weapon power given the historical legacies and culture.

The domestic political constraints are very powerful.

The only thing that would probably drive them to change their mind would be if they saw the United States simply walking away from the Alliance and from their commitments to Japan.

Another Obama legacy is clearly that the US military readiness situation is currently poor.

An alarmingly lage proportion of American aircraft and ships are currently inoperable because of maintenance backlogs. Will the Chinese assume that this may constrain what the US does?

A third problem for Washington and other allied administrations is that very little work has yet been done to prepare allied publics for the serious security crises that we may face in the Western Pacific in coming years.

But in any case, the Chinese leadership is at a key turning point – either they work with the US to change the trajectory of the regime in North Korea or they will likely face a direct confrontation with the United States.

This will in turn be a major turning point in the strategic situation in the Pacific.

Whatever the outcome of taking on of the North Korean regime, this will have significant consequences for Australia and the way Canberra moves forward on defense and foreign affairs.

Australia may well face the need to reconsider many aspects of its security planning, including the scale and pace of its current program of defence investments.

Canberra may also be forced to review its long-standing approach to nuclear issues and its heavy reliance on US extended deterrence , not something that would be easy to do politically.

Most Australians have not yet realized that they, too are approaching a fork in the road.

And as you know Trump is not the most popular US president in recent history, but the cascading set of serious security challenges and potential crises in the Western Pacific certainly reminds one of the impact which changes in US policy can have on Australian defense and security.

There is much work to be done and for the complacent to stand aside.

Biography of Dr. Ross Babbage

Ross Babbage is the Chief Executive Officer and a director of Strategic Forum.

He is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, D.C. and Managing Director of Strategy International (ACT) Pty Ltd.  In addition, Ross is Founder of the Kokoda Foundation and a Founding Governor of the Institute for Regional Security, a member of Accenture’s Advisory Board and a member of the Academic Advisory Council of the Menzies Research Centre.

Dr Babbage served for 16 years in the Australian Public Service holding several senior positions, including Head of Strategic Analysis in the Office of National Assessments and leading the branches in the Department of Defence responsible for ANZUS and global strategic policy and then Force Development.

During the 1990s he held senior executive positions with ADI Pty Ltd, that was then Australia’s largest defence manufacturing and services organisation. In 2003 and 2004 he served as Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Dr Babbage was a special advisor to the Minister for Defence during the preparation of the 2009 Australian defence white paper. He was also served on the Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London for a maximum six year term. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2011.

For a recent publication by Dr. Babbage focusing on Chinese developments and options for the Trump Administration, see the following:

What should the U.S. and its close allies do about China’s strategic expansion into the South China Sea?

Beijing now has overwhelming military, coast guard and maritime militia forces in this theatre and it has seized numerous reefs and dredged up new islands in operations that that the U.N.’s Permanent Court of Arbitration has determined are illegal. Major military installations are being built in several locations.

Three of these new islands, towards the middle of the South China Sea, will soon be capable of housing regiments of fighter-bomber aircraft and also of supporting sustained operations of significant numbers of ships. The rapidly changing strategic balance in Southeast Asia and the Western allies’ flat-footed response is encouraging several regional states to re-evaluate their long-standing security relationships.

This report argues that it is time for the U.S. and its close allies to clarify their goals in this theatre and develop a coherent strategy to counter China’s expansionist operations. It describes a surprisingly broad range of strategy and operational options that are potentially available for the Trump administration to pressure Beijing to moderate its behaviour, retrace some of its steps and deter the Chinese leadership from embarking on new, potentially more dangerous adventures.

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