2013 defence white paper is a very paradoxical document. Although there were
very few surprises in the purchases and future spending outlook, the spirit of
the paper appears to signal the country's abandonment of its self view as a
"middle power" into what could be argued as "strategic withdraw".
This is particularly evident with defence spending expected to be as low as
1.5-2.0% of GDP over the coming decade.
The white paper doesn't choose between China and the US. This time round
Canberra has undertaken a much more realistic strategic assessment of China-US
rivalry and Australia's position within this nexus. Australia has rhetorically
dropped sides and stated that it accepts, and encourages China's rise militarily
within the region in line with its growth as an economic power. Australia,
unlike the 2009 white paper under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has not taken sides,
and effectively through hardware acquisition and spending plans declared itself
as an onlooker in the region. This is indeed a major shift in Australian defence
This reiterates Australia's future reliance on security from 'soft power'
options. The white paper hopes for a new status quo arising between China and
the US, believing that there is actually lots of cooperation between the two
powers in existence today which could lead to peaceful co-existence. However
this could be seen as being too optimistic where the US is trying to maintain
military primacy in the region, and China is trying to assert its emerging
status. Australia is betting on 'strategic cooperation' between the two,
rather than 'strategic competition'.
The white paper leaves Australia with very little capability in South-East Asia.
It has chosen to do nothing to upgrade any regional capabilities, so will be
able to do very little in any natural disasters, or political upheavals that
could be a threat to Australia. The government is relying on the policy concepts
outlined in the "Australia in the Asian Century" white paper to engage
Asia through 'soft power' options, bilateral, and multilateral
initiatives. However how effective Australia really is at engaging Asia through
'soft power' means is still a big question.
This comes at a time where the Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
just announced Indonesia's aspirations of building up military forces to be
bigger and more modern than countries like Australia, Malaysia, and Singapore,
potentially filling the regional military vacuum to the near North of Australia.
Instead Australia has opted to purchase 12 new Superhornet fighter planes with
"Growler" technology that can knock out an enemy's communication and electronic
capabilities, which will supplement existing fighter capabilities. With the
purchase of 72 5th generation joint strike fighters, this makes for a good
"budget defence" of the air-sea gap that separates Australia from Asia,
along the lines of the old 'Fortress Australia Policy' under the Fraser
Government back in 1976.
The submarine issue
has been very contentious within the Australian defence establishment. According
to the white paper, what Australia wants to do with its submarines is to either
upgrade the existing Collins design, or create a completely new design. This is
still very vague and indicates the defence establishment itself doesn't yet have
the answers. Another question not answered is actually 'what the submarines
will actually do?'
This submarine option could have more to do with jobs in South Australia than
actually strategic defence considerations. South Australia is in need of
employment opportunities and the construction of new submarines would boost the
local economy. However any actual work on these submarines would not occur for
some years to come.
This paper could be seen as trying to achieve many objectives, where none are
really adequately covered. Although it defines a new Australian defence-scape
as the Indo-Pacific region and through rhetoric the paper is trying to hold onto
an image as a 'middle power'; in reality it is signaling to the region,
particularly ASEAN, that Australia will be no power at all.
The framers of the 2013 defence white paper probably had two objectives in mind.
The first is coming to the recognition that China is important to Australia.
This means placating China and making amends for the aggravating rhetoric of the
2009 defence white paper that occurred under the Rudd Government, where China
was painted as a threat. This will please China, but will probably disappoint
Washington, as the Australian white paper does nothing to support the US "Asian
Pivot". Australia's symbolic contribution of 15 specialists in the Korean Foal
Eagle exercises last month really shows the impotency of Australia's defence
capabilities from any regional perspective.
The second objective was to avoid any higher financial commitment. The 2013
white paper shows that Treasury rules the roost in Canberra and the objective of
fiscal restraint overrides any other policy issues in government.
It could be argued that by default, Australia is actually taking the "New
Zealand" option of scaling down its defence forces in want of a threat. No
frigate, but purchases of faster patrol boats, updated strike fighters with
modern electronic attack measures, and stalled submarine decision, looks like
The risk in this white paper is that the Gillard Government is signaling to SE
Asia that its interests aren't there anymore. Unfortunately, once again
Australia has failed to debate the issues facing the nation and opted for a
'band aid' approach, which will severely weaken Australia's defence
position. Australia's defence has now become one of the lowest priorities of
However the 2013 white paper may be very short lived as Australian defence
policy. Australia faces an election this coming September where opinion polls
strongly indicate that the Gillard Government will lose office. The Federal
opposition led by Tony Abbot has said that it plans to review Australia's
defence needs and options once again. This leaves open the possibility that the
whole process will be gone through again.
May 3, 2013