Putting the 2023 Australian Strategic Review in Context: An Assessment by John Blaxland


By Robbin Laird

Currently I am in Canberra, Australia to participate in the latest Williams Foundation Seminar for which I write the reports. While visiting, I have the opportunity to discuss strategic issues with a number of analysts and officials while here.

This year is noticeable for the coming defence review of the Labor government and the recent announcement of the new nuclear submarine program which has been announced as part of a broader initiative of cooperation with Britain and the United States which has been christened AUKUS.

What this will amount to really in the years ahead is unknowable, but will depend on how seriously Australia builds it own defense capability and how the United States and its Pacific allies reshape how they deal with the various threats in the region and beyond. The United Kingdom can only be an ancillary player, and clearly, the relationship of Australia to Japan will be much more determinate about how Australia defends itself in the years to come.

Hence, no matter what is delivered in the final public report on defense in April, the Strategic Defence Review needs to be placed in context.

And in a conversation with Professor John Blaxland, the noted Australian defense analyst, John did so.

Appropriately we had this conversation in a local Canberra pub near Blaxland Park. Blaxland started by focusing on core questions which will be raised quickly in the public debate.

“Whatever the recommendations, how will changes be resourced and implemented?”

He warned that there could be a propensity to have an ongoing bureaucratic focus on the review, more interested in process and the broader question of rethink, than upon actually improving the capability for Australian defense.

Blaxland quoted the late Jim Molan to the point that Australia needed a broad national strategic review and policy within which a defense review would occur. A defense review is simply too narrow given the nature of the challenges posed by China to Australia.

In my own work, I have emphasized the importance of dealing with the Chinese approach to globalization which has put the liberal democracies in a subordinate position as a key part of any credible rethink of Pacific defense. Blaxland agreed with this point.

Blaxland underscored that the current government has rejected language used by the Morrison government as being too militaristic and too critical of China. Having avoided the question of why you are doing a defense review and focusing on what you need to do in the changed situation makes it difficult to have the kind of public narrative Australia will need to persuade the public and Australia’s partners in the region.

So how will the delivery of the defense review be accompanied by a credible and effective public narrative?

With regard to shaping a credible and cohesive national narrative, Blaxland raised concerns with regard to the energy initiative of the government and the deal they cut with the Greens as one element of the context.

The Greens are the most anti-military and anti-AUKUS political group of influence in Australian politics. What impact does this agreement on energy and Labor’s elevating the importance of the Greens have on the broader defense debate, discussion and narrative?

AUKUS will be embedded in the broader defense review, so that criticism which has already emerged within the Labor Party about AUKUS will be carried forward into the Strategic Defence Review itself.

Blaxland underscored that there is a clear need for more effective strategic messaging in an era of unrestricted competition or what some have called the weaponization of everything.

That is sure why there is a need for a broader national strategy for Australia to compete effectively in a world of 21st century authoritarian conflict with the liberal democracies.

Blaxland described the period we have entered as being one of three intersecting circles of a Venn diagram. One circle might be labelled great power contestation; the second circle might be labelled looming environmental catastrophe; and the third might be labelled governance challenges in the liberal democracies.

How does AUKUS and the Strategic Defence Review fit into this world?

In short, the about-to-be-released Strategic Defence Review is not the end of the discussion but simply part of the discussion of what realistically is the way ahead for Australian defense, and a good part of answering that question will not even be about the ADF.

John Blaxland is Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University (ANU).

He is a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He has previously been a Chief Intelligence Staff Officer (J2) at HQ Joint Operations Command, defence attaché to Thailand and Myanmar, Head of SDSC and Director of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute. At ANU, he teaches “Honeypots and Overcoats: Australian Intelligence in the World” and supervises several PhD students.

He lectures regularly at the ANU National Security College (on the Geostrategic SWOT Analysis for Australia) and Australian Defence College (including the Defence and Strategic Studies Course, Command and Staff Course, Australian Defence Force Academy and Royal Military College, Duntroon).

He also addresses conferences and workshops on security in Australia (RUSI, U3A, Army Research Centre, Seapower Conference, etc) MalaysiaKoreaThailand (Thammasat, Chulalongkorn and military academies), the Philippines, Taiwan, UK (Kings College London), the USA (MinervaCSISEast West Centre, etc) and Canada and offers commentary with The Australian Institute of International AffairsThe GuardianThe Age & Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra TimesThe AustralianThe New York TimesBangkok PostThe Straits TimesThe Jakarta PostAsia TimesAustralian Foreign AffairsThe ConversationThe Saturday PaperLowy Interpreter, The MandarinEast Asia Forum, SCMPWorld Politics Review, The DiplomatPolicy ForumThe RAND BlogVoices of WarSecurity ChallengesThe Australian Army JournalDefence Connect and the Journal of Global Strategic Studies.

He also occasionally offers comments on television and radio including on the ABCBBCCNNSkyNewsTRT WorldArirangWIONFrance24 and CNA.

Featured Image: Australian Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Richard Marles MP speaks to the media during a visit to HMAS Stirling, Western Australia.

On 14 March 2023, the Government announced the first initiative under an enhanced trilateral security partnership with the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) that will identify the optimal pathway for the acquisition of at least eight nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy. The Deputy Prime Minister, the Hon. Richard Marles held a press conference at HMAS Stirling on Thursday 16 March to outline the Government’s plan for the acquisition of Nuclear Submarines.

Credit: Australian Department of Defence