Meeting the Challenges of the 21st Century Authoritarian Powers

By Robbin Laird

With the invasion of Ukraine and China’s alliance with Russia, the liberal democracies are confronting a global set of challenges posed by the 21st century authoritarian powers.

At the same time, the conflicts within several societies over their values and priorities and disputes among the democracies are clearly affecting the effectiveness of the response  from the liberal democracies.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with my Australian colleague, Ross Babbage, about these challenges and shaping an effective way ahead.

We spoke prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine but those events only reinforced what we discussed and what we concluded.

We started by discussing COVID-19 and its impact.

I returned from Australia in March 2020 and began to travel again in June 2020 in the United States.

For Americans the reporting on COVID-19 and the  differences in approach between the Australian national government and the state governments left much to be desired.

I  often have to explain to my colleagues overseas how the reality was quite different from the narrative press regarding the pandemic.

Babbage: “One would get a sense from American reporting on Australia, that we have been shut done since March 2020.

“Nothing could be farther from the truth. Under our constitution the national government does not control health issues; the states do.

“And Victoria is the state which has endured very long periods of lock down, well over 200 days, with little positive impact. International entry to Australia was restricted for sure. But that is changing now.

“Life has been more or less normal in most of Australia for much of the pandemic with work going on normally. And we have ridden through COVID with one of the world’s lowest death rates.

“Through the whole course of the pandemic our national population of 26 million has only lost 5,200 people dying  from or with COVID.

Question: COVID-19 has clearly disrupted global supply chains, and with that Chinese influence in Australia, how would you describe the situation now?

Babbage: “There has been a consensus within Australia on dealing with China and its role as a global supplier for some time now. We have been working to understand the full extent of our challenge and the best courses to take both to strengthen our own supply chain security but also to assist our allies and partners.

“One example is the supply of rare earth materials for advanced electronics, batteries and similar products. We’re moving very rapidly to build capacity in this area within Australia.

“We’ve got a lot of rare earth minerals, and in addition to our mines, we also   have some of the most advanced technologies for processing rare earth minerals.

“An Australian company called Australian Strategic Materials has been working with the South Koreans on a completely new technology to process rare earth minerals with lower energy requirements, cleaner processing  and much lower cost..

“These capabilities have been proven in a trial  full production plants in South Korea and, the company is now looking to build such capabilities in Australia and potentially in other countries as well. .

“The Australian  Department of Home Affairs is leading a more comprehensive look at supply chain vulnerabilities and how to build strategies for minimizing or reducing our dependence on authoritarian states.

“But we need to enhance allied cooperation in this area.

Ross Babbage speaking at the March 2018 Williams Foundation seminar

Question: But that effort faces a challenge because of the deep divisions within the United States and among European nations as well about priorities and values with regard to meeting the authoritarian challenge both abroad and within.

What is your take on this challenge?

Babbage: The deep internal divisions in the United States are  a major concern for us. And the very different European attitudes towards security and defense worry us as well. Watching German discussions and reactions to Russian actions in Ukraine are very troubling.

“How then do we shape a broader alliance coalition to deal with common threats?

“I believe  we are facing a serious shift in the global strategic balance. Most people today, in the United States and Australia, haven’t lived through a serious crisis, a really serious crisis. The likes of the world wars and the great depression. My parents went through them. Your parents went through them.

“We are now in a period of significant transition. We are confronted by a  major set of global crises and we need to face them head on.

“But  are we up to  the challenge?

“The Russians and Chinese are  operating within our societies and they see the divisions within, as well as the conflicts between nations.

“They are making their calculations and shaping practical policy and operational plans to advance their interests by exploiting our weaknesses.

Question: One can look at the military dimension but that is really the frosting on the cake so to speak.

The broader challenge is to the viability of Western society which has followed a de-industrialization strategy in the face of globalization, a priority on the service sector and on shaping a climate change religion.

The Russians and Chinese are inherently geo-political in character and believe in older concepts of energy production, and the iron and steel production systems we used to see in the United States in the 1950s.

How does de-industrialization figure into the competition?

Babbage: “I actually think we are futurologists more than anything else. We see the dynamic has fundamentally changed. I think the geo-strategic environment, not just in the obvious things, but other things that are not often given attention, have changed.

“And the strategic implications are profound.

“What I’m seeing is both the Chinese and the Russians watching the West intently. And they are  making some quite astute judgements about the weaknesses of the West.

“And one of those weaknesses is clearly the deindustrialization of the West.

“Twenty years ago, the United States still had by far the largest industrial capability globally. No question.

“Now it’s a completely different picture. We now see much more industrial weight in China than we see in the United States. Neither Western governments or electorates  realize that actively  discouraging serious heavy industry and manufacturing sector growth in  is locking-in strategic inferiority.

“When Putin and Xi Jinping look at the West, and the United States in particular, they see limited U.S capacity to fight and win any significant conflict.

“They realize that, increasingly, the ‘armor plating’ is thinner and thinner in the West. They now believe that the U.S. is not able, both industrially and arguably politically in terms of the domestic dynamics, to sustain a major conflict in the way that was unquestioned in the Second World War.

“Both the Russians and the Chinese think they can get away with more. The West has some world-leading military capabilities.. They’re really quite formidable, but there’s not that much behind them.

“And trying to sustain a major conflict is really going to be extremely difficult in the U.S. and in most of the allies.

“This means that the Russians and Chinese believe that they can  push us in ways they couldn’t have done 20 or 30 years ago.

We then went on to discuss some specific issues with regard to Australian defense development as part of the effort to enhance strategic depth and providing for enhanced allied military capabilities.

Part of this is provided by a growing focus in Australia on enhanced defense sovereignty while pursuing enhanced cooperation with their allies.

This has been seen in the working engagement of allies on Australian soil, notably in the Northern Territory and with the coming of a new nuclear submarines, into Western Australia and probably to an Eastern Australian base as well.

The decision to acquire a nuclear submarine is part of the build out of Australian ASW and USW capabilities as they integrated P8s, Tritons, F-35s, and the surface and subsurface fleets as well as enhanced Australian seabed sensors.

This is what Babbage had to say about such key developments in the build-out of Australian defense capabilities.

“We are strengthening the support capabilities at Tindal Air Base and Darwin., notably with regard to fuel and other aircraft support facilities. The United States is also looking to add to its rotational capabilities to be able to operate on a much larger scale from Australia in crises.

“This includes the decision to buy, build and operate nuclear submarines in Australia. There are some options for that program that most of the public commentary hasn’t touched on. And I think there’ some very attractive possibilities.

“I think the best options are going to be hybrid ones, which might see the early transfer, probably of a couple of Los Angeles Class submarines  mainly as training boats, but also with an operational capability, with a combined crew. There will  be a lot more Australian involvement in various training courses and a rapid  ramping up a lot more  things to support development of the total capability.

“And then of course the Virginias are built largely in a modular fashion. And we can help. There’s, of course, a lot of discussion going on, and not least in Congress, about a third production location for Virginias in the U.S. And that may be a good idea.

“I suspect for the first few years of our program, what will happen some of the modules may be manufactured here to a fairly advance stage  and then shipped to the U.S. for  placement in the U.S.-built submarines, along the lines of how we participate in the F-35 program.

“But then, over time, perhaps a decade or more downstream, I envisage the actual assembly of some Virginia’s in  Australia, with some Australian modules and a lot of U.S. modules.

“I suspect our first Virginias will be essentially  built in the United States with modules that have mostly been manufactured in the United States, but with some Australian manufactured modules incorporated.

“It will be interesting to see whether such an approach proves workable, but I don’t think we can get there in one hop. It will be a phased program.

“And let me emphasize that this program will be truly joint with extensive American and British involvement in just about every step. Indeed, I would personally favor the appointment of a highly experienced American submarine project manager to lead the Australian program.

“We have got to meet or exceed the highest safety and quality standards and to do that in a timely fashion will require a very special team effort.”

We closed by discussing his forthcoming book on the Indo-Pacific region and conflict.

The book will address future major crises in the Indo-Pacific and how the liberal democracies can prepare to deal with these challenges.

I have been making the point for some time that we have entered a new historical epoch, the contours of which are not clear, but characterized by profound conflicts within the liberal democracies and between them.

The 21st century authoritarian powers are deeply involved in leveraging, working, and exploiting those conflicts.

There is a clear focus by the Russians and the Chinese on finding  ways to exploit the weaknesses and  conflicts in the West.

Certainly, the Ukrainian invasion fits that mold.

Featured Photo: Kremlin,Russia, October 2020,Russia president Vladimir Putin in meeting in Kremlin. Credit Bigstock.