As Andrew mentioned last week, we were recently invited by RUSI ACT to talk about challenges and prospects of the next Defence White Paper. Actually, it was more about the White Paper after next, as a document released only shortly before an election is likely to be short-lived, particularly if there’s a change in government.
Andrew talked about White Papers then and now. My talk focused on how to readjust the strategy that must underpin any defence policy as it relates to dealing with the two major powers in our region, the US and China, and how we might approach our bigger neighbour to the north, Indonesia. The good news is that we are entering another ‘interwar period’ and we could use the ‘strategic pause’ to make changes to strategy and force structure. We don’t live in a rapidly deteriorating security environment, and there is no imminent major power war or destabilising arms race in Southeast Asia.
Undoubtedly, China will become stronger militarily and flex its muscles in East Asia and parts of the South China Sea. But that doesn’t mean that conflict or war is inevitable, or that we have to choose between China and the United States. Nor need we buy into inflated assessments of the PLA’s rising military capabilities. In fact, China faces major challenges to project significant military power beyond its ‘near seas’. Moreover, Chinese investments in lower-end military capabilities for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and protection of sea-lanes are largely underreported, and are all avenues for cooperation with the PLA.
The 2009 White Paper was strong in its anti-Chinese rhetoric and its ambition was to develop an ADF geared towards participating in a potential war against China. It would be better if the next White Paper avoids that approach. We have no interest in complicating our relationship with China. Nor do we necessarily add any value to our US alliance by doing so. If there ever is a war with China, Australia could provide niche capabilities to coalition operations without subscribing to ‘China threat’ theories now. And we should avoid the folly of thinking that we need an independent military capability against China—which is, after all, a nuclear power.
The US alliance is still our best bet against unforeseen major strategic disruptions in Asia. As I’ve argued here recently, Washington will be able to sustain the ‘pivot’ to Asia despite its current domestic problems. Staying close to the US also allows us to spend relatively little on defence, and gives us access to intelligence and world class military technology.
Nevertheless, the next White Paper needs to address the future alliance burden-sharing arrangement. The US expects its Asian allies to step up, and it hasn’t been amused by our defence cuts. This raises the question if the next White Paper should define concrete areas of possible alliance contributions, even if explicitly excluding others. Should we structure the ADF to play a more active role in Southeast Asia but not for sending forces to Northeast Asia? The answer to this question has force structure implications: for example, would we want to build very big submarines which could operate in Northeast Asia or ones that can make meaningful contributions in maritime chokepoints in Southeast Asia and might be a a more cost effective option?
Moreover, it’s time to put our defence relationship with Indonesia on a new footing. As CDF General David Hurley has argued, Australia needs to work towards a true ‘strategic partnership’ with our bigger neighbour, which is on a strategic trajectory towards becoming the major power in Southeast Asia, and which will likely outgrow Australia economically by around 2030. Given our history with Indonesia, there’s a natural inclination among some security pundits in Canberra to argue that a more powerful Indonesia could also pose problems for us and that we need to maintain a ‘residual capability’ in case ‘something goes wrong’ in Jakarta.
Yet, to paraphrase former Australian Defence Attaché to Indonesia Gary Hogan, this ‘ain’t your father’s TNI anymore’. TNI is a far more sophisticated outfit than it used to be, and as its view shifts from internal problems Indonesia’s external threat perception is focussed north, not south. It aims to improve its very limited maritime and air capability to secure its approaches and make a more active contribution to maritime stability in Southeast Asia. This is good news for us since it provides greater opportunities for basing our relationship on shared strategic interests. Moreover, having Indonesia as an additional geostrategic shield against unwanted security developments in Asia is the best thing that can happen to us.
Even if Indonesia’s next President is less Australia-friendly than SBY has been, the country’s core interest won’t change all that much. The most obvious potential flashpoint is West Papua, but it’s hard to see how it would be in either country’s interest to go to war over it. The next White Paper therefore could make clear that we have a major interest in supporting a militarily more capable Indonesia.
Finally, there’s no regional peer-competitor to Australia on the horizon. Southeast Asian countries are modernising their forces rather than engaging in arms races. According to the 2013 Military Balance, Southeast Asia accounted only for 11.6% of all defence spending in Asia. True, over time countries in that region will become militarily more capable. But instead of worrying about the loss of ‘air superiority’ and defending the ‘ air-sea gap’ against some phantom threat, we could more helpfully conceptualise our strategy more along the lines of active defence cooperation and defence diplomacy in Southeast Asia. That is, helping Southeast Asian countries operate sophisticated weaponry and navigate around potential miscalculations in maritime disputes.
Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.