Seven Defence White Papers by the numbers (1)
7 Mar 2016|


A Defence White Paper is analysis framed by numbers.

More than dollars and equipment, the numbers offer meanings and mental maps. Seek the topography from the typography.

The crudest measure is to rank countries by the number of times they’re mentioned.

The country count is employed by embassies to check out official statements. How often did we appear compared to everyone else?

The reference count is useful for calculation and comparison. And it produces hierarchies.

Apply the topography-from-typography test to the Oz Defence White Papers of the 20th century—in 19761987, 1994 and 2000—and the three White Papers of the 21st century, in 2009, 2013 and 2016.

Note that the first White Paper in 1976, in the age of typewriters, got the job done in 60 pages; all those that followed went well beyond 100 pages.

The United States: The count attests to a simple and obvious fact: the US ranks first in Oz defence thinking. Six out of seven Papers, the US got the most White Paper mentions.

The single exception to the top-ranking rule was 1976 when Australia fretted the US was departing after the Vietnam defeat. On the ‘76 numbers, Australia was more worried about Indonesia and the Soviet Union than reassured by the alliance.

The United States

1976 1987 1994 2000 2009 2013 2016
12 62 60 43 80 86 129

China: China throbs powerfully today giving worrying answers to what were once only questions.

The cautious yet upbeat tone for the final quarter of the 20th century was set by the ’76 paper: ‘We welcome the opportunity to develop our relations with China; but we recognise the important differences in our political attitudes.’ In the ’87 White Paper, China dropped to four mentions (two of them on maps).

The 2000 White Paper was when Australia stepped beyond three decades of relative optimism and considered the possibility of conflict. China’s relationship with the other big players was ‘the most critical issue for the security of the Asia Pacific.’

The 2009 White Paper was a not-so-polite rendering of Kevin Rudd’s private description of himself to Hillary Clinton as ‘a brutal realist on China’. For the first time, China got more mentions than Indonesia.

Even when discussing the United States, the thinking is often about China.

Julia Gillard’s 2013 White Paper expressed this in its Strategic Outlook chapter, with one section headed ‘The United States and China’—the new White Paper does the same. Today, you can’t have one without the other.


1976 1987 1994 2000 2009 2013 2016
10 4 20 13 34 65 64

Indonesia: While China has been a slow build, Indonesia always ranks. What’s striking over the seven Papers is how the tone and temperature of Oz thinking on Indonesia jumps all over the place. This is the roller coaster relationship.


1976 1987 1994 2000 2009 2013 2016
20 13 25 33 20 32 32

Papua New Guinea: If Indonesia is the roller coaster, the same vital questions on PNG recur in all seven White Papers. What must we do? What can we do?

Papua New Guinea

1976 1987 1994 2000 2009 2013 2016
13 18 10 29 11 7 24

Japan: In the 20th century White Papers, Japan was the biggest trade partner. In the 21st century, Japan’s trajectory is to become a strategic partner in the trilateral with the US: Do you want subs with that? In the new White Paper, Japan gets more mentions than Indonesia. The Tony Abbott plan lingers.


1976 1987 1994 2000 2009 2013 2016
11 3 14 14 18 20 36

India: The 1987 Paper mentioned the Indian Ocean nine times while India itself got zip. The astigmatism in the way Canberra and New Delhi viewed each other is tracked in the 20th century White Papers. This century, India’s numbers zoomed. Can’t have the Indo–Pacific as the defining strategic frame without India in the picture.

India/Indian Ocean

1976 1987 1994 2000 2009 2013 2016
3 9 8 11 32 68 51

Soviet Union/Russia: The bear fades from view. A set of prosaic numbers chart a profound shift in Australia’s understanding of power and what will matter in Asia.


1976 1987 1994 2000 2009 2013 2016
23 16 3 8 2 6 4

The next column will continue to seek topography from the typography in the seven White Papers by looking at geographic constructs, plus themes and memes.