Australia in the Indo-Pacific century?
3 Aug 2012|

Defence Minister Stephen Smith used his ASPI speech on Wednesday night to make the definitive case for bringing the White Paper forward by a year. Close followers of the defence debate will be familiar with his strategic themes, but some interesting points emerged that hint at potentially sharp discussions around the Cabinet table. Most notable of these was Smith’s emphasis on the growing strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region: ‘In this century, the Asia–Pacific and the Indian Ocean Rim, what some now refer to as the Indo-Pacific, will become the world’s strategic centre of gravity.’

Smith does not just mean India; he is talking about the factors which drive Chinese and US interest in the region, in Indonesia’s growing role above and beyond ASEAN and in the wider range of countries around the Indian Ocean that engage Australia’s strategic and commercial interests. Smith sees the US as an integral part of the Indo-Pacific and says that ‘substantially enhanced practical cooperation between Australia and the US is an essential part of Australia’s contribution to regional peace and security.’

Let’s be clear: if geographic terms have any meaning, this is not a vision of ‘Australia in the Asian Century’—the working title of Dr Ken Henry’s white paper. Stephen Smith is painting on a broader canvas, one which defines a wider set of Australian interests and which explicitly incorporates the United States. Australia will have two white papers, released perhaps some six or nine months apart. If these documents are truly to provide blue-prints for government decision-making, they should agree on how to think about the region and Australia’s place in it.

The Minister’s written speech put a sharper emphasis on the urgency of reshaping the ADF’s force posture. It says: ‘With some obvious exceptions, these days what we still might term a World War Two style ‘Brisbane Line’ disposition of Navy, Army or Air Force assets does not reflect the reality of where the ADF must operate, whether for military operations or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or other contingencies.’ That puts more pressure on the Defence White Paper drafters because, almost without exception, the proposals contained in the Force Posture Review released a few months ago are unfunded.

A final point is that there was no change of emphasis in the Minister’s written comments about the impact of Defence budget cuts. He said that key priority areas were ‘ring-fenced from these savings’. In particular, ‘core Defence capabilities will continue to be delivered’. That’s a deeply courageous call.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.