Asia is a potentially turbulent region, yet Australia has no sensible defence strategy.
For more than 40 years Australia has been able to assume that it is a secure country in a peaceful region. That has kept its defence needs low and defence budget modest.
Now Asia is changing fast, and the old assumptions no longer hold. The Defence white paper due out this week offers a chance to respond, but the government seems certain to miss it.
The government has acknowledged that the strategic landscape is shifting fast by deciding to deliver the white paper now, a year ahead of schedule. But the new document will not explain why things are changing or what it means for our defence, because that would mean talking about China, which the government does not want to do.
China is central to the future of Australian defence policy because it is challenging America for regional leadership. That is a huge change. The main reason Asia has been so peaceful for the past 40 years is America’s primacy has been uncontested. China’s growing challenge is overturning that, which shakes the foundations of Australia’s security. We cannot know how it will turn out.
The last Defence white paper in 2009 acknowledged this, but its muddled analysis suggested China posed a direct threat to Australia. That goes too far. China’s rise is transforming the strategic landscape on which our security depends, but it is not threatening Australia directly – at least not yet.
Now the new white paper seems headed too far the other way. The government seems convinced that China’s rise poses no serious strategic questions at all. It ignores the escalating rivalry between Washington and Beijing, and Beijing’s starker confrontations with Tokyo. It says that leaders in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo will not let things get out of hand because that would be in no one’s interest, as Prime Minister Julia Gillard said last week. That assumes that no one makes mistakes.
Of course the government is right to say that conflict is not inevitable. It is quite possible for the US, China and Japan to find a way to live in peace. But that will not be easy, and we’d be unwise to base our defence policy on the breezy assumption that all will work out well. The whole point of armed forces is to guard against the risk that things will go wrong.
One can see why the government wants to avoid acknowledging the growing risks. Playing down the strategic consequences of China’s rise will avoid ructions with Beijing that would dim the glow from Gillard’s recent visit. But more important, it will deflect pressure to overhaul Australia’s defence policy, rethink the current plans for new capabilities and revisit the size of the Defence budget, all of which the rise of China makes urgently necessary.
Australia’s defence policy today still dates back to the 1970s, when America emerged as Asia’s unchallenged strategic leader. Back then we abandoned forward defence in Asia because America no longer needed the kind of support we had given in the ’50s and ’60s in conflicts such as Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. In fact, Australia stopped thinking about Asia’s major powers as a factor in our defence planning at all.
Instead we focused on our own backyard, designing forces to stave off minor attacks from Indonesia and help stabilise our small island neighbours. That only started to change in John Howard’s 2000 Defence white paper, which recognised that China’s rise was already challenging the old assumptions, and Kevin Rudd’s 2009 white paper maintained that trend.
But now it seems we are heading back to the 1970s. The signs are that the new white paper will quietly return to a narrow focus on defending Australia from low-level attacks, presumably from Indonesia, and the kind of stabilisation operations we have been doing in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
The advantage is that we can afford the forces to do these things with a defence budget under 2 per cent of GDP. But those forces will be little use if Gillard is wrong and we face a more turbulent and contested region. They would provide no options to seriously support America in a clash with China or to protect our own interests in a more contested Asia. So it would be a defence policy that assumed the next four decades will be just like the past four. It would be a defence policy that just hopes for the best.
It need not be that way. Designing an effective and affordable defence force that would give Australia real strategic weight in the Asian Century is a formidably difficult undertaking, but there are real options we could explore. Inevitably such a force would be different from the one we now have, and it would cost more. We would have to spend the kind of money we did in the ’50s and ’60s, when we last faced a turbulent region.
The government is not willing to address these issues. Instead it remains committed to the existing plans to build an increasingly irrelevant defence force. And those plans are becoming increasingly unrealistic. Defence Minister Stephen Smith has promised nothing will be cut from the current defence program, but after the past few years’ budget cuts this would require bigger funding increases than seems at all likely in today’s fiscal climate, and there is a fair chance he will make things worse by ordering another Air Warfare Destroyer to keep the shipyards busy.
The only good news is that many of those involved in producing the new white paper understand that it is just a stop-gap that will leave all the big questions unanswered. A new Abbott government would probably want to produce its own white paper. The trouble is that Abbott shows no more sign of taking defence policy seriously than Gillard does. Meanwhile strategic rivalry in Asia just keeps rising.Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU Source: The Age – Real defence policy needed in Asian Century
- Australian Prime Minister strengthens military alliance with China, ignores 2009 report of threat (craighill.net)
- US Senator John McCain slams Australia’s defence cuts as ‘imprudent’ (craighill.net)
- Australia has a secret China Unit (craighill.net)
- Australia won’t be drawn into ‘mythical’ US-China war says defence consultant (chinadailymail.com)
- Canberra doesn’t understand reality of China-Japan conflict, or consequences to Australia (chinadailymail.com)
- China issues white paper on national defence (chinadailymail.com)
- Experts warn that China’s main motive in new deal is to prise Australia away from US (chinadailymail.com)
- What to expect from Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper (eastasiaforum.org)
- Gillard goes arm in arm with Beijing (smh.com.au)
- Defence on agenda for Gillard in China (news.theage.com.au)