With its proposals to sharply boost defense spending and build a much farther-reaching military, Australia says it wants to be able to protect the nation in an increasingly complex and uncertain world. At the same time, Canberra’s latest defense white paper has irked China, exposing the tricky course it must navigate between its main trading partner and the United States, its principal security ally.
The white paper, released late last month, would boost annual spending from A$32.3 billion (US$24 billion) to A$42.4 billion (US$32 billion) by 2020-2021. This would have defense spending equal 2% of GDP. The increased funding would largely go to new submarines, warships and combat aircraft that would increase the Australian Defense Force’s potential reach into Southeast Asia.
Australian observers have cast the blueprint as partly in response to China’s rise. In particular, it is seen as a counter to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea, where it is embroiled in territorial disputes with a host of Southeast Asian countries.
Taking the long view
“The point about the white paper is it looks out to 2035, so this is not talking about an incipient crisis that is expected to break in the next one or two years or necessarily one that is going to break into hot war at all,” Dr. Euan Graham, director of international security at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told Asia
“But there is an unerring sense that the balance is changing and one way that is going to impact Australia is that it is going to lose its traditional capability edge which is something that has been a very closely held objective for the defense force since independence.”
While diplomatic in tone, the white paper notes “uncertainty and tension” caused by ongoing territorial disputes and the growing rivalry between Beijing and Washington. Echoing language regularly used by the US government, it stresses that the stability of the “rules-based global order” is key to preventing conflict and keeping vital trade routes open.
China, which lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea, has irked western powers and Asian neighbors by placing fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on islands in disputed waters. It has also reclaimed large tracts of land in the area.
The US Air Force runs daily flights over the waters in what it calls an effort to maintain freedom of navigation in international waters. The Australian military has yet to join the US patrols, but operates its own flights in the area. Flights from both countries regularly provoke Chinese warnings over radio, and Beijing has protested Canberra’s white paper as a “negative statement” on its actions.
China as threat and opportunity
“There are two things the white paper is trying to do,” said Graham. “One is to send a message that the US alliance remains strong with Australia but, on the other hand, not to over emphasize that at the cost of self-reliance. What Australia is also trying to do is to assert its independence, and part of that is having a credible defense capability.”
He added that modern weaponry available to rising Asian economies was making Australia’s historical wealth and geographical advantages increasingly irrelevant.
The US has been Australia’s main defense partner since they signed a common defense treaty in 1951. China, however, is by far the country’s biggest source of trade, accounting for about one-third of exports.
“The confusing thing for Australia is its main vectors of economic opportunity are also potentially the same vectors of threat,” said Graham. “But I think what’s more important is not to conflate the importance of a leading trading partner with strategic leverage.”
China’s continuing rise has prompted some observers here to question the idea of enduring American supremacy in the region. Hugh White, an Australian former defense official, has argued that the US should be prepared to accept sharing power with an insurgent China.
“There’s no perfect answer to this but what is clear is that we’re in a time of unprecedented strategic change,” said Graham.
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others. He is currently based in Melbourne, Australia.