By Rajaram Panda\Intelligence Expert
In early May 2013, the Australian government led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard released the 2013 Defence White paper. Coming just a week after France too unveiled its Defence Posture for the years 2014-2019, Australia latest Defence White paper complements the National Security Strategy released in January, and Australia in Asian Century White paper released in October 2012. In analysing this, two issues stand out: one is Australia’s endorsement to US’ rebalance strategy to the Asia-Pacific region; and two that China is no real threat. The paper set out a framework for Australia to identify the means and ways how to defence national security interests by having a capable defence force. Defence Minister Stephen Smith identified four priority tasks for the Australian defence force.
First: Australia’s defence forces ought to be capable to defend Australia. Second: Australia needs to be capable of operating and taking lead responsibility in its immediate region, namely the South Pacific and Timor-Leste. Thirdly, it needs to be capable of operating with its partners in the region, the Indo-Pacific, and in particular, South East Asia. Fourth: to be in a position to make a contribution where its national security interests warrant it to a broader operation or a global operation of which Afghanistan is a current example.
From a more global viewpoint, the Paper reaffirms that the US as “the bedrock of Australia’s defense, security, and strategic arrangements. Taking the United States’ rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region as “further opportunities for (bilateral) cooperation,” Australia proposes to opt for large acquisitions of US-made military technologies. It plans to acquire 12 new build Boeing EA-18G Growler aircraft instead of converting 12 of Australia’sF/A-18F Super Hornets to Growlers, and continue the Australian Air Forces’ transition to the Lockheed-Martin Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). This is Pentagon’s “focal point for defining affordable next generation strike aircraft weapon systems” for the US military.
It may be recalled, during its first term President Barack Obama and Gillard decided in November 2011 to intensify cooperation to meet emerging security challenges, especially in space and cyberspace. The two countries have held top-level bilateral ministerial consultations. Named AUSMIN, it is the principal forum for bilateral consultations between the two countries held annually, alternating between Australia and the US. It brings the Australian Ministers for Foreign Affairs and for Defence with US Secretary of State and Defence, along with senior officials from both the parties. The consultations provide a major opportunity to discuss and share perspectives and approaches on major global and regional political issues, and to deepen bilateral foreign security and defence cooperation. The latest AUSMIN meeting was held in November 2012 at Perth. What the Paper acknowledges was that through its alliance with the US, Australia could obtain access to capabilities, intelligence and capacity that it could not generate on its own.
Where does China figure?
Where does China figure in Australia’s calculus? Australia’s relationship with China and the US is a major part of the paper. Unlike Kevin Rudd’s 2009 White paper which was needlessly provocative regarding China, Gillard’s Paper strikes a smart balance. Though Gillard has been pursuing an enhanced diplomatic relationship with China by paying a five-day visit to that in April 2013, the first in past 10 years, the fact remains that Australia’s alliance with the US will remain as the bedrock of Australia’s security and no bonhomie with China can change that. During her visit to China, Gillard scored a foreign policy coup by signing a historic pact with China for direct annual meetings with Premier Li Keqiang and pledges for formal co-operation on climate change, international aid and currency trading. The deal represents one of the most significant breakthroughs in the Australia-China relationship since Gough Whitlam recognised the communist state more than 40 years ago.
Gillard may have been silent on issues like Chinese responsibility for cyber intrusion and its lack of defence transparency in the Paper but there is no denying the fact that Australia’s security establishments and defence analysts think on those issues. Gillard, therefore, has to explain in clear terms how Australia’s other partners, not only China, should understand what Australia’s real policies are.
Though the paper acknowledges that China has real strategic significance, it says no word about the likely tough competition which might emerge between China and the US in the longer term. In fact, the Australian government seemed to start from the premise that the US will remain the strongest and most influential power both in the world and in the region. Australia takes therefore a quite ambivalent stance. Without questioning the US leadership in any way, Australia cleverly avoids introducing China as a potential adversary. What the Paper ignores is that China has a long term strategic goal and that is to beat the US as the No.1 power in the world one day. The recent aggressive postures by China are symptomatic of an emerging global power and the paths to achieve that ought to pass through some turbulent periods and China seems to be prepared for that. The Defence White Paper misses to take note this point.
Going soft on China could meet Australia’s present objectives as the strong economic content in the bilateral ties could be a factor in such a calculus. That is why Australia has chosen to close ranks with the US while growing friendly cooperation with China. But, as said, it overtly contradicts the 2009 Defence White paper in which the Rudd government had termed China “a major power adversary” whose growing military capabilities obliged Australia to markedly increase its defense efforts. But Gillard seems to have overturned Rudd’s policy and has opted for a real commitment to strengthening relations with China, including on military topics.
How does one understand Australian view on Obama’s rebalance strategy if its China policy seems to be blatantly ambivalent? It was only a month ago, in April, Smith has expressed that China is of great importance for Australia’s political, strategic and economic interests. In a direct reference to frequent criticism by the US and other Asian countries over the rise in China’s military might, Smith had observed: “We hope to continue to establish positive, cooperative and comprehensive relations with China” and “any country has the right to modernize its military in the context of economic growth”.
It is a truism that both Australia and China have been developing defense ties in recent times, which Beijing has described as “positive and constructive.” The visit to China by Prime Minister Gillard in April and her government’s commitment to building up a strategic partnership with China convinced the Chinese leadership of the consistency of Australia’s foreign and defense policy. Here, economic considerations seemed to have prevailed as Australia sees “good development momentum” of the bilateral ties, and therefore does not see China as a military threat. From Gillard government’s standpoint, China needs peaceful development and prosperous trade relations as much as western countries like Australia.
As said, China is becoming tough and an aggressive competitor on all sectors in the Asia-Pacific, including defense. Gillard government seems to have endorsed this and says China is quickly taking the place it deserves on the international scene due to its demographic size and fast-paced growth. That is what the Australia’s Defence White Paper seems to assert: seeing China as a main adversary falls within exaggeration rather than within relevant assessment. Such a posture results from Australia’s confidence that, in terms of defense capabilities, the US will remain well ahead of any other nation, even China.
As its major ally, how does the US approve of such Australian assertion that it is China’s right to beef up its defence capabilities without posing a threat to its neighbors? Does it mean that the US approves an uneasy calm to perpetually prevail in the Asia-Pacific region and that China given a free ride to pursue its aggrandizement policy, be it in South China Sea, East China Sea, or even with India by claiming its territory? Obviously, Australia cannot receive support from its friends on its current China policy. It is naïve for Australia to base its premise that the US military strength will remain predominant and China cannot catch up ever. Australia security strategy vis-à-vis China seems, therefore, to be flawed.
On the one hand, Australia chooses to remain the main and closest ally of the US. It therefore interprets the US Defence Strategic Guidance, released in January 2012, which emphasizes the development of military capabilities dedicated to projection of forces to places where the world’s future will be shaped within two or three decades from now. In reinterpreting the US’ rebalance, Australia believes that now is a historic opportunity to gain greater presence in world affairs becoming strong enough in order to address any potential threat on its territory and its interests. But can Australia earn the goodwill from its friends and gain their “support” by its self-endorsed strategic gain from the US’ long-term “Grand Strategy”, at a time when the global strategic theater shifts from the West to the East?