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Australia’s new defense white paper does not rule out the possibility of major war among states, and the main focus is on China

Australia’s recently published defense white paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, addresses Australia’s strategic priorities for the coming two decades, mainly reacting to the rapid military expansion of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

While this in itself is not that surprising, what marks the paper is its focus on old-school great power politics and its recognition that conflict on this level is a possibility – albeit an unlikely one at this juncture.

This is in contrast with previous Australian defense papers and strategy, the most recent of which came out in 2000. That white paper was more focused on state failure in the Asia-Pacific region – such as in neighboring East Timor, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea – as well as on Indonesia’s unstable domestic politics and fractious regionalism.

Now, with Indonesia making impressive strides in its post-Suharto democratic transformation, the latest stage of which will culminate in an 8 July presidential election coming off the back of March parliamentary polls, Australia is taking a more comprehensive and wary view of its broader neighborhood.

In sum, Force 2030 envisages an extra Aus$146 billion (approximately €83.2 billion) being pumped into the defense budget in the coming 20 years. However, this is predicated on 3 percent average real growth per annum up to 2018, and 2.2 percent for the remaining 12 years.

The region unnerved

Australia, though a small-to-medium sized power, may well prompt increased spending among other similar sized countries. As Dr Vijay Singh, visiting professor at the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) told ISN Security Watch: “Hawkish leaders of smaller countries are likely to pretext the Australian defense plans as a stimulant for their argument on national military buildup.”

Force 2030, he added, “may prove to be unnerving among several Asia Pacific countries necessitating a review of their national security plans.”

The contrast does not stop there. The projections in the white paper are based on a Janus-faced assessment of future US involvement in the region.

Malcolm Cook of the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney told ISN Security Watch that the white paper was somewhat contradictory in its view that the US will remain the pre-eminent power in the region. The document then goes on to say that the US will be a declining influence, hence the need for Australia to beef up its own defense systems.

While Force 2030 concludes that “the United States will remain the most powerful and influential strategic actor over the period to 2030,” clearly the Australians are concerned that the American umbrella that so successfully sheltered the Lucky Country’s post-WWII growth and security may be unable or unwilling to provide the same, at least to the same extent, going forward.

The white paper states that multiple commitments and theaters, in a context of declining relative (if not absolute) power, could “cause the United States to seek active assistance from regional allies and partners, including Australia, in crises, or more generally in the maintenance of stable regional security arrangements.”

Rhetorically at least, the US “is not ceding the Pacific to anyone,” as per US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s take on the white paper when speaking to journalists in mid-May, seeking to comfort Australians by “sending a clear message that the United States will be engaged – we are a trans-Pacific power and a trans-Atlantic power.”

The US remains Australia’s closest ally. However, its assessment of strategic needs diverges from Australia’s new understanding. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has proposed a somewhat different path for the US military. He has argued that America can scale back procurement of its air and naval assets in preparation for a future of “hybrid” threats where the irregular military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan emulate the “trend[s] of future conflict.”

Turbulent Chinese-Australian relations

These days, Chinese-Australian relations are turbulent. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been caricatured as a Manchurian Candidate by elements of the Australian media and opposition, due in part to some cloak and dagger dealings with Chinese officials. Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon insists the white paper is “not about China necessarily.”

However, Force 2030 acknowledges China will be a “leading stakeholder” in international affairs and potentially the strongest military power in Asia” by a considerable margin,” though this latter projection must be qualified by the stark facts: US military spending remains higher than the next 15 powers combined.

Toshi Yoshihara, a professor at the US Naval War College told the South China Morning Post on 21 April that China still had a “long, long way to go” to catch up to the US. Although not yet a blue-water navy, he said, “that does not mean that the Chinese navy is incapable of posing problems to regional navies, and the US Navy operating within or near the seas around China.”

China’s military build-up is clearly aimed at countering the overwhelming military predominance of the US, particularly in the Pacific. The Pentagon’s massive defense spending is over nine times that of China. Moreover, Washington has been building a series of alliances and basing agreements, stretching from Japan and South Korea to Australia, India and into Central Asia, which amounts to a strategy of encircling China. US naval strategy has been based on securing the control of key “choke points” such as the Malacca Strait.

China’s naval rise appears to be designed to protect supply lines – huge imports of energy and raw materials on which its manufacturing industry depends. In 2008, China overtook Japan as the world’s second largest importer of oil. Forty-six percent of its imported oil comes from the Middle East and 32 percent from Africa, and around 80 percent of these supplies pass through the Malacca and Lombok/Makkasar Straits. With this in mind, China is establishing a string of port facilities in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Burma along the sea lanes to the Middle East.

This strategy inevitably collides not only with Washington’s determination to retain its global military and naval dominance to defend its own economic interests, but also with India’s and Japan’s strategic and economic ambitions in the Asian region.

Major war and terrorism limitations

Perhaps the Sino-centric futurism is most apparent in the paper’s retrograde thesis, which emphasizes a 19th-century Europe balance of power between states. The Australians believe it is “premature to judge that war among states, including the major powers, has been eliminated as a feature of the international system.” The white paper also contends that “Islamist terrorism will continue to have inherent limitations as a strategic threat.”

As Neil James of the Australia Defence Association told ISN Security Watch, “Asia is much more unpredictable than Europe, lacking the multilateral mechanisms such as the EU and [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] OSCE which can prevent or mitigate the type of great power conflict seen in the past.”

At a seminar examining South and Southeast Asian responses to security challenges in Singapore, Australia’s pledge to double its submarine fleet was deemed the most remarkable aspect of Force 2030.

However, this will be easier said than done, as Malcolm Cook explained to ISN Security Watch, given that Canberra has difficulty in manning its six-strong current fleet.

Whether or not the US comes to the same overarching conclusions as the Australians anytime soon remains to be seen, though the Pentagon has charted the rise in Chinese military spending year by year since 2000.

More immediately, the destabilization caused by North Korea’s nuclear tests may well focus minds more clearly in Japan and South Korea, and this may prompt some harsh realizations about the future military and strategic realities in the region. In turn, both may take stock of the broader region going forward, and perhaps fall more closely in line with Australian thinking vis-a-vis China and the Pacific.

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