Behind the Indo-Pacific Smokescreen
6 May 2013|

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My favourite line about Australian strategic thinking belongs to Graeme Dobell. The ‘arc of instability’, he quipped on more than one occasion, was a polite way of talking about Indonesia. Having read the Gillard government’s 2013 Defence White Paper, I am left wondering whether the same can be said about the ‘Indo-Pacific’ regional concept which last Friday’s new document constantly refers to.

I say this not just because the White Paper refers to a veritable Indo-Pacific arc spanning the wider region from India to Northeast Asia via Southeast Asia. I’m also struck by the fact that the reader is informed that, for Australia, the most important (and proximate) part of the arc is maritime Southeast Asia. And lo and behold, within that archipelago (sorry ‘arc’) the White Paper says that, as far as Australia is concerned, Indonesia is of ‘singular importance.’

Perhaps I’ve read too many Australian pronouncements over the years, but this hardly strikes me as a revolutionary change. Yet, conceived in this circumscribed fashion, Australia’s Indo-Pacific arc can be quite a useful smokescreen. It means having an Indo-Pacific policy without having to worry too much about building a real defence relationship with India (always problematic). And it means avoiding too many difficult conversations about Australia’s potential involvement in military problems in the harder parts of East Asia (i.e. further north). The White Paper flirts occasionally on that score, demonstrating an over-developed interest in developments on the Korean peninsula and making a vague but ominous connection between the good old Five Power Defence Arrangements and the current contest over the South China Sea. But on China’s strategic rise, the most important East Asian question of all, the language is carefully drafted. After the fashion of the 2010 New Zealand paper, China’s military expansion is treated as more predictable than alarming.

The 2013 White Paper errs on the side of optimism though when it comes to China’s relations with the US, but this too creates more room for an Australian focus that’s closer to home. And the Indo-Pacific region, even in its peeled back, Indonesia-focused form, is far from Australia’s first strategic priority. It’s ranked in the new White Paper as number three, behind the defence of Australia and Australia’s immediate neighbourhood. And that all sounds very familiar. It’s also a bit reassuring to my New Zealand prejudices because an Australia that faces westwards towards the Indian Ocean is one for whom a relationship with us Kiwis is less important than we think it ought to be. By contrast, within the Pacific Island, PNG and Timor Leste ‘immediate neighbourhood’, New Zealand is identified in the White Paper as the country with whom Australia is most likely to work.

But I am not as reassured as I might be. The easiest bit of defence policy to change is the declaratory policy, which this White Paper is really quite good at laying out in its adjusted form. The hardest part to alter is the force structure, much of which seems designed to work further afield with the United States (including with the helicopter landing ships, which the White Paper proudly boasts will be largest ships the ADF has ever operated). Indeed there’s not much of an ‘immediate neighbourhood’ role for a good deal of the advanced military hardware that the 2013 White Paper endorses. Certainly it passes up the option of a 4th Air Warfare Destroyer, but even if Mr Creosote hadn’t consumed the slim wafer, he was still bound to explode. The Gillard government, we read, ‘remains committed to delivering the core capabilities identified in the 2009 White Paper’. This continuity on force structure might be good for planning if it wasn’t for two minor problems. First, it’s not a core at all: it’s almost the whole apple (and a large toffee-coated one at that). Second, it was an unaffordable list looking ahead four years ago and is even more so now.

So when I we read that to sustain its air combat edge Australia now needs Super Hornets, Joint Strike Fighters, and freshly built EA-18G Growlers, and no less than nine other varieties of military aircraft for other roles, I don’t see a country that has adjusted its appetite to its circumstances. Perhaps that will come in the next White Paper, or more likely the one after that. I find it hard to make sense of why all the ‘core’ force structure is needed for the first mission (defence of Australia) or the second (stability in the immediate neighbourhood), from which capabilities for Indo-Pacific missions are then meant to be drawn. Unless of course, there’s real substance behind the smokescreen. If the 2013 White Paper has retained Kevin Rudd’s ambitious force structure, one wonders if he also anticipated this year’s Indo-Pacific focus. If so, the 2009 White Paper suddenly looks remarkably prescient.

Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.