There’s a dominant motif that runs through the strategic assessment underpinning the latest Defence White Paper and, despite what China might think, it’s not containment. It’s uncertainty. Australia is beefing up for an uncertain world. Beneath some reassuring words about growing regional prosperity and the US rebalance lies a set of deep uncertainties—about the resilience of the current regional order; about the magnitude, scope and timing of possible challenges to that order; and about the ease with which strategic competition might spiral more easily into conflict in coming decades.
That’s why the government hasn’t reneged on its earlier commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Indeed, it’s brought forward that commitment by three full years, from 2023–24 to 2020–21. Attracted as it must have been by the prospect of reaching a budget surplus earlier than now, the government’s opted instead for a measured expansion of Australia’s defence capability.
In the 2013 Defence White Paper, the Gillard government depicted a regional security environment that bore hallmarks of both cooperation and competition. Today’s White Paper signals a judgment—see para 1.6—that the Asian security environment has become more competitive and less cooperative in the intervening years. Moreover, the risk of further slippage in that direction can’t be ignored—and muscling up takes time.
Unarticulated in the White Paper is any judgment about the shifting nature of conflict—and whether thresholds and firebreaks that we’ve become used to over previous decades are weakening. Surely actors with a greater appetite for strategic risk are pushing at the lower rungs of the escalation ladder? It’s not only the risk of conflict that’s going up. The possibility of unexpected breaches of the thresholds is going up too—making more likely the prospect of sudden conflict with unexpected escalation ladders.
That doesn’t mean we stand on the brink of World War 3. Nor is there much prospect of a military attack upon Australian territory by another country. But we do stand on the brink of an age of argy-bargy—though the White Paper doesn’t use that technical term—of a rather less civilised global and regional order. The sort of ADF the White Paper intends to field—an ADF that’s more capable, agile and responsive—is one more suited to that age of argy-bargy.
The White Paper doesn’t bury the message; indeed, it rehearses both judgments—about rising uncertainty and the need for a more muscular and responsive ADF—right up front in para 1.1. But there’s relatively little unfolding of either judgment in Chapter 2, which canvasses Australia’s strategic environment. There, the US–China relationship—and Australia’s relationships with both countries—is handled exceedingly diplomatically; as is the section on the rules-based global order. Terrorism is depicted as a threat, and state fragility as an enabler of a range of malign actors. There’s a professional, if dry, section on regional military modernisation, and a set of observations about the cyber and space domains.
Coverage of Australia itself and of its immediate neighbourhood follows those earlier topics, before the chapter turns to a closer analysis of North Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and proliferation of WMD. There are some critical judgments here too: I think para 2.83 reflects a new benchmark in Australian positive thinking about Indonesian military modernisation, for example (a position reinforced later at para 5.37). But, again, there’s little sense of alarm. The section on Weapons of Mass Destruction—paras 2.102-2.106—is actually boring. Readers of Chapter 2 will be left wondering quite why we’re embarking on the course we are.
In contrast to previous White Papers, which were constrained by geographical notions of capability priority, Chapter 3 promises an ADF better structured for the full range of its far-regional and global missions. Para 3.10 notes the government’s agreement to three equally-weighted Strategic Defence Objectives to guide the development of the future force—a pleasant and overdue change to earlier doctrine that only the defence of Australia or its near environs could determine force structure.
Notwithstanding Chapter 2, the broad setting of the White Paper suggests a sense of urgency. Not only is money being made available more rapidly than before, there’s a broader theme running through the document about our need for an ADF geared to a higher level of preparedness. I think the White Paper gives us the force structure we will want over the next couple of decades. But I’d have been happier with a Chapter 2 that was less diplomatically phrased.