It can’t happen here

by Chris Zappone

The buzz ahead of the AusMin meeting in Perth, bringing together the defence ministers of Australia and the US, is the debate about whether Australia should be devoting more of its budget towards defence given the growing instability in the neighborhood. The esteemed ex-government economist and blogger-about-town Stephen Koukoulas derides the notion that Australia is not carrying its own weight in defence-spending, as you can see from the tweets below.

Without parsing the back-and-forth between Koukoulas and his debaters, his tweets illustrate how baked-in the sense of security is with many Australians. The denial about the rapidly changing reality in the Asia-Pacific region is almost eerie in a way. I’ve spoken to people in Tennessee who can imagine, in some nebulous half-formed way, a time when tensions flare between China and its neighbors. The US state department is paying attention. In fact, the world is watching and worrying. But here in Australia, oh, no, we can’t even imagine the need for a more realistic view of national and regional security.

That’s not to say confrontation is inevitable or likely (although the East China Sea dispute is having no quick resolution.) But any reasonable observer would conclude that the peace that has not just underpinned Koukoulas’ Australia, but the preceding generation’s, is not guaranteed. One of the most interesting factoids contained in the Australia in the Asian Century white paper was on page 263, there is this observation from a 2012 Lowy Institute poll.

“Australians aged 60 years or older were twice as likely as 18–29-year-olds to say that increasing defence spending is ‘very important’.”

I suspect older Australians share memories, even if faint, of a time when the peace in Asia wasn’t such a given. Simply because the current period of uninterrupted peace began a long time ago, doesn’t mean it can’t be interrupted or clouded again.