I welcome the continuing debate about Australia's future national security priorities triggered by the Australia's Strategic Edge in 2030 Kokoda Paper. There have been some notable contributions in the Australian and international media during the last few days.

In particular, I welcome Hugh White's contribution to The Interpreter. He makes several interesting and valuable points. There are, however, some assertions in Hugh's commentary that cannot be allowed to pass without a response. They will all be fairly obvious to those who have actually read the Strategic Edge paper, but may not be so apparent to others.

First, Hugh argues that Strategic Edge is too quick to assume that China will be our enemy. In fact, the paper never describes China as an enemy and certainly does not assume that we are destined to have that sort of relationship.

Second, Hugh says that the report assumes there is nothing we can do to avoid an intense strategic contest with China. Again, this assertion is incorrect. There is a substantial discussion about the importance of Australia lifting its game in what the report calls 'Deep Engagement' with China and other regional countries. The core goals of such efforts would be to greatly strengthen our understanding of China and other key regional countries, to deepen personal contacts with key government and other personnel in those countries and to lift Australia's diplomatic and broader political leverage in negotiations. 

Indeed, these efforts received such strong support in the closed workshops conducted as part of this project that Deep Engagement was selected to be a foundational element of all three new capability development options (ie. all options other than the status quo) that are proposed towards the end of the report.

The paper's position is that China's very rapid and sharply focused military expansion puts Australia in a difficult and most unwelcome set of circumstances. We should certainly do everything we can through diplomatic and other initiatives to avoid intense strategic competition in the Western Pacific.  However, we must also ask ourselves how successful such diplomatic manoeuvres are likely to be, given the behaviour of Beijing in recent years.

I, for one, am not prepared to bet the country's future on diplomacy alone being able to deliver a new era of peace and stability in the Western Pacific. We clearly need to reinforce our more active diplomacy with carefully tailored military options.

Even if diplomacy fails to persuade China to play a 'responsible stakeholder' role, the Strategic Edge paper argues at length that we should not confront China, except in extremis. Rather, the paper argues that Australian security policy should be directed at balancing and offsetting the rising PLA, deterring adventurism and encouraging regional confidence. That is a rather different approach to that implied by Hugh.

Importantly for the core thesis in Strategic Edge, Hugh agrees that, in selecting the national security capabilities the Australian Government should have in 2030, there is a need to build our strategic weight, including through accelerating selected military capabilities. Hugh raises some interesting points here about Australia's future operational concept and the strengthened military capabilities that might be of greatest value.

The research process behind the Strategic Edge did, in fact, consider several alternative operational concepts and campaign strategies. A key conclusion was that the heart of strategy in any major crisis in the Western Pacific is likely to revolve around the battle of wits between opposing decision-making elites.

For Australia and its allies and friends to 'win out' in any future crisis in this theatre, it will be essential to convince the opposing decision-making elite to change its collective mind on some key issues. The operational concepts that hold greatest promise for doing this are not linear or frontal. That pathway may appear simple but would be very dangerous, especially for a country whose forces are almost certain to be outnumbered. Rather, preferred operational concepts involve the application of asymmetric leverage, often in surprising and unexpected ways and in undertaking highly innovative operations.

Hugh has also expressed concern that effective strategic operations to defend Australia's vital national interests might trigger far more powerful countermeasures from Beijing. Well, if we are going to be serious about defending our vital national interests, we need to choose our instruments and modes with this in mind. We need to ensure that whatever we do in an extreme crisis can be sustained, even in the face of powerful counter-action. Our national security capabilities and our resilience need to be exceptionally difficult for any opponent to overcome. Ideally, our approach should carry sufficient deterrence to dissuade any country from challenging us in the first place.

Hugh also says that Strategic Edge tends to assume that the US will remain Australia's staunch ally against China. This is not really the case. Of the four optional pathways proposed towards the back of the paper, two are built on the assumption of greatly reduced US involvement and support.

My view is that Australian national security planners need to consider a range of alternative contexts for future crises in the Western Pacific, including the possibility of Washington being distracted or choosing not to be heavily involved. We need to ensure that the approaches we select can cope with those variables. The analyses conducted in preparing the Strategic Edge report suggest it is feasible to build in adequate flexibility to manage those variables.

I encourage all those interested in these matters to read Strategic Edge in 2030 carefully and reach their own conclusions. This report is certainly not meant to be the last word on these important issues, so I look forward very much to the thoughts and insights of others.

Photo, of the launch of what will be HMAS Canberra, courtesy of the Defence Department.