Getting out of our defensive crouch: developing Australia’s asymmetric warfare capability

Published 4 months ago
ASPI. The Strategist. 30 Jun 2021 David Kilcullen.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION HERE In 2009, senior Australian Army officer Chris Field wrote that, for the Australian Defence Force to win in 21st century conflicts, we must ‘recognise that asymmetry is not the sole province of our enemies. We must take the fight to the enemy and use our own national asymmetric advantages to greatest effect.’

More than a decade later, Field’s call to arms remains largely unanswered. Even as our environment darkens amid great-power competition and hybrid warfare, conventional conflict still receives the most attention in Australian strategy. But Australia possesses underappreciated asymmetric advantages—during the active, ‘kinetic’ phase of any future conflict, or in the crucially important competition and shaping phases that precede it and are arguably happening now.

Putting aside, for a moment, military matters like missile defence and long-range precision strike, it’s worth considering how Australia might harness non-military instruments of power—political, economic, informational or socio-cultural—to offset the advantages of our most likely adversary, the People’s Republic of China.

We should first note what ‘asymmetric shaping’ can and cannot achieve, and hence what goals Australia might pursue in this area. Asymmetric shaping, by definition, is not about defeating superior adversaries in direct conflict. Rather, it is about building comparative advantage ahead of a crisis, to change an adversary’s calculus. It does this by imposing current costs or demonstrating capacity and intent to impose or suffer future costs, thereby convincing adversaries to avoid particular courses of action.

One example is Norway’s Arctic strategy, which seeks to convince Russia that moving against NATO’s northern flank would be pointless and costly. Norway can’t prevent an invasion if Moscow chooses to mount one—but the strategy (which includes rapid reinforcement, layered surveillance, resistance warfare and a suite of economic, cyber and information tools) aims to influence Russian planners to take that choice off the table.

In this context, Australia’s long-term goal should be preventing a Sino-American war. Australia cannot—and arguably should not—stop a rising China from attaining the dominance its leaders seek by mid-century. This is far beyond our capabilities, and in any case a powerful China is not necessarily bad for Australia’s interest. A catastrophic outcome, and one we must make every effort to avoid, would be a Sino-American kinetic conflict. This might arise over the South China Sea, Taiwan or the Korean peninsula, as a result of China’s accelerating naval build-up; in space, where China is challenging US dominance; or simply through miscalculation. Wherever and however it started, this war would rapidly escalate and go global and probably nuclear, with devastating impact. Preventing it should therefore be a principal goal for Australian statecraft over the next generation.

A nearer-term goal should be safeguarding our sovereignty against ongoing Chinese sub-threshold coercion.* Given Australia’s relationship with the United States and the broader democratic West, and our assertiveness on Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Covid-19, some in Beijing clearly think Canberra needs to be taught a lesson.

Sub-threshold coercion teaches Australia that lesson while demonstrating to others who might be tempted to follow Australia’s independent path the costs of doing so. Coercion includes attempts to influence our internal politics, disrupt our trade, damage our economy, infringe our territorial integrity and destroy our international influence. If preventing Sino-American conflict is Australia’s most important long-term goal, countering sub-threshold coercion to safeguard our sovereignty is our most urgent one.

With these goals in mind, several non-military tools offer asymmetric advantages worth considering.

China’s reliance on Australian iron ore, coal and certain food imports partly explains why these products have remained relatively unaffected by Beijing’s economic warfare punishing Australia for its independence on Covid-19. Washington is now encouraging allies to counter Chinese trade manipulation by purchasing each other’s export surplus, but even if it works, this is a defensive measure.

One alternative might be to temporarily disrupt critical exports, demonstrating willingness to suffer short-term economic pain to preserve sovereignty, while imposing costs for continued Chinese economic warfare. Programs to compensate exporters for short-term losses—and to explain why they’re necessary—might be needed here.

Likewise, on certain key resources—gold, copper, rare earths and lithium—Australia competes with (or, in the case of lithium, far outstrips) Chinese production, indicating asymmetric advantage in terms of global supply chains. Australia might apply leverage over certain raw materials essential for consumer electronics and electric vehicle production, both important for China. Expanding gold, copper and rare-earth production might also improve Australia’s leverage, short of crisis, over Chinese manufacturing, thereby forming part of a broader effort to influence choices in Beijing.

It might be argued that Chinese companies hold stakes in many Australian enterprises, while owning strategic real estate including the Port of Darwin, strategic islands and agricultural land. It’s tempting to see this solely as a threat, but Chinese assets in Australia also represent points of leverage that could be held at risk during crises or used to impose costs during pre-conflict shaping. Strategic assets might seem like a Chinese fifth column, but they are thus also an array of metaphorical hostages that can be traded for good behaviour.

Another key point of leverage is education. Covid-19 exposed the dependence of Australian universities on international, including Chinese, students. Regional and global demand for access to Australia’s high-quality education market, especially for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects and in technological and medical research and development, offers asymmetric advantage. Like exports and commodities, holding education access at risk—or shifting emphasis from Chinese toward Vietnamese, Filipino, Pacific and Malaysian or Singaporean students—might reduce our vulnerability to Chinese influence in higher education, and simultaneously impose costs for Chinese coercion.

Countering China’s vaccine diplomacy in the Asia–Pacific is another area in which our highly developed medical R&D capability offers advantages. Chinese officials have been forced to admit that their Sinovac and Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccines, along with other killed-virus vaccines promoted across the region, have much lower effectiveness than the Western-designed mRNA vaccines used in Australia and elsewhere.

Opportunities to develop regional leverage, especially in countries that have relied heavily on Chinese vaccines, must of course take second place to humanitarian concerns in helping Australia’s neighbours, but with no end in sight for Covid-19 in the developing world, this could become a key point of leverage for Australia.

Likewise, Australia’s relations with Singapore and Taiwan are close, while Malaysian and Indonesian ethnic-Chinese communities have long been important parts of our society. A socio-cultural effort, perhaps led by these communities, to push back against CCP hegemony—and communist-influenced language, in both English and Mandarin—might help to inoculate against Chinese coercion.

Australia’s international military engagement—including individual training, collective exercises, ship visits, logistic partnerships and industrial collaboration—form a key aspect of asymmetric shaping whether pre-crisis or in a conflict. Indonesia, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands are just a few of many regional countries with close historic partnerships with Australia, but where Chinese influence is increasingly active, and increasingly seeks to exclude or replace Australia.

The defensive response is to compete, using aid, trade, person-to-person networks and diaspora linkages to preserve and defend our existing regional relationships. A more asymmetric approach might involve mapping Chinese activity in the region and beginning to think of it more as a target array—a series of assets and relationships that could be held at risk or over which costs could be imposed in a conflict.

All of these ideas represent ways in which political, economic, information and socio-cultural tools could be used as an adjunct to improving our military instrument of power, to shape the environment for great-power adversaries employing hybrid methods, impose costs for continued sub-threshold coercion, and influence adversary planners’ choices well ahead of any future crisis.

All involve risks, costs and trade-offs that need to be carefully thought through. They could be considered part of a strategy of ‘deterrence through resilience’, telegraphing the intent and capacity to both suffer and inflict costs to achieve a short-term goal of safeguarding our sovereignty, while pursuing the longer-term objective of preventing a Sino-American war.

But none of this will make much difference unless Australian strategists also accept the challenge Field posed in 2009: the need to get out of the defensive crouch we have been in since the turn of the century, thinking of ourselves as conventional actors defending against an array of lurking unconventional threats.

Instead of perpetually playing goalkeeper, we need a mindset shift to start seeing ourselves as the asymmetric threat. As I noted in a recent book, Australian jungle warfare expert Brigadier Ted Serong observed in 1962 that ‘conventional soldiers think of the jungle as being full of lurking enemies. Under our system, we will do the lurking.’ If we are to build leverage in this emerging environment of great-power competition, Australian strategic thinkers too need to start getting out into the asymmetric jungle, and ‘do the lurking’.

  • I’m using the term ‘Chinese’ as shorthand for mainland China and the Chinese Communist Party. This is a linguistic trap, since one of the CCP’s goals is to claim leadership over all Chinese anywhere in the world. This is another point of asymmetric advantage for Australia, where there has been an important Chinese community since the mid-1800s, a century before the CCP took power.

David Kilcullen is a professor of international and political studies at the Australian Defence Force Academy.