Defence White Paper 2013: the strategic setting
3 May 2013|

A quick first read of the principal ‘strategic environment’ chapters of the new White Papers (Chapters 2, 3 and 6) gives a broad feel for the document as a whole. The overall tone of the document is consistent with the National Security Strategy, depicting a regional environment that’s simultaneously cooperative and competitive, and an Australian strategic approach that attempts to both shape and hedge.

There’s an occasional jerkiness to the document’s flow, as if more than one hand has been attempting to insert messages—not surprising in any government document that underpins future funding. That jerkiness is most evident at the start of Chapter 3. Para 3.3 contains, oddly, a long and detailed equipment list at the opening of an argument about Australian strategic interests. Paragraph 3.4 abruptly changes tack and argues that Australian strategic policy is really about shaping rather than hedging. It’s followed by two paragraphs on hedging before para 3.7 returns to the theme of shaping.

Along the way some important and astute observations emerge. Para 3.19, for example, identifies one of our key strategic goals—a non-coercive regional order. But those observations sit alongside other paragraphs which seem overly restrictive in how we might pursue that goal: para 3.47, for example, seems an ADF-centric view of how Australia might attempt to influence the unfolding regional transformation.

The White Paper carefully walks back from two specific flaws evident in the 2009 document—statements about Indonesia and the ANZUS alliance. In 2009, one message was that Australian security required our neighbours straddling our northern approaches to be militarily weak. The 2013 White Paper makes no such claim: indeed in paras 2.32 and 3.17, as well as in the international engagement chapter (Chapter 6), the broader theme is one of partnership and cooperation with a growing Indonesia in pursuit of shared interests.

The second flaw in the 2009 White Paper was the unnecessary qualification of the obligations of the ANZUS alliance, whereby Australia stated that it would only seek assistance from the United States if it were attacked by a major power. Para 3.36 in the latest document reasserts Australia’s expectation of assistance in the event of any attack, while still espousing the broad merits of defence self-reliance.

It reads to me like the ANZUS alliance has just become one more form of international engagement, covered in Chapter 6 alongside a slew of other relationships. But, whatever the intentions of the document’s authors, it’s impossible to avoid sending messages about the implicit priority of specific relationships in the hierarchical ordering in which that chapter unfolds: the US comes first, followed by Southeast Asia, North Asia (in the order of Japan, China and South Korea), New Zealand, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the United Kingdom, Spain, Canada and Latin America, and Europe and NATO. The UN comes last, a little oddly, since back in the ‘rules-based global order’ section of Chapter 3, the UN features much more prominently than most others do.

Personally, I give a big tick to a new Australian engagement effort in Asia, so I’m not opposed to the new priority being given to Southeast Asia—a point that comes through repeatedly in this document. I’m also a supporter of the idea that we should be using the ANZUS alliance as an enabler in our Asian engagement effort, a theme that comes across in para 6.11. But I have to say I thought the US position, both as ally and order-shaper, was slightly underdone in this document. The alliance is our single most important strategic relationship, and likely to be more substantial in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.

Other observations to follow, as I read more deeply…

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI.