Southeast Asia’s muted reaction to the 2016 Defence White Paper
16 Mar 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sheri De Vries

Like its predecessors, Australia’s new Defence White Paper pays considerable attention to Southeast Asia. Its ‘Strategic Outlook’ chapter reiterates the long-held and axiomatic conventional wisdom that the geography of the archipelago to Australia’s north ‘will always have particular significance’, because any conventional military threat—and indeed some low-intensity challenges such as people- and drug-smuggling—are ‘likely to approach through the archipelago’.

The DWP also notes Australia’s ‘deep economic security interests’ in Southeast Asia, including the fact that nearly two-thirds of the country’s exports ‘pass through the South China Sea’. It holds that Southeast Asian instability—whether within or between countries—could affect Australia’s security, and highlights a specific current concern over the ‘return of foreign terrorist fighters from conflicts in the Middle East’. Significantly, there’s a particularly strong emphasis on the dangers of the escalating tension in the South China Sea.

While its focus on the South China Sea is striking, the White Paper’s confirmation of the importance of Southeast Asia for Australia’s security hardly represents a radical shift in the thinking of Canberra’s defence establishment. The country’s wide-ranging security interests in the sub-region are reflected in the breadth and depth of its defence relations across Southeast Asia. Those with Malaysia and Singapore are particularly strong, both bilaterally and through the Five Power Defence Arrangements, set up 45 years ago with New Zealand the UK as the other two partners.

For almost as long, Canberra has tried to develop a mutually valuable defence relationship with Indonesia, with fluctuating but not inconsiderable success: it’s probably fair to say that this aspect of Australia’s relationship with Jakarta is probably now stronger than ever before. The significance of this growing security link was underlined by the fact that Indonesia was included with China among the key countries briefed in detail by Canberra on the defence white paper’s content in advance of its wider release.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Australia has long-established defence relations with the Philippines and Thailand—both of which are technically still allies through the Manila Pact, a fact that’s often forgotten or perhaps conveniently overlooked. Canberra’s defence links also include less substantial exchanges with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos, a burgeoning partnership with Vietnam, and an embryonic one with Myanmar.

In light of both what the Defence White Paper says about the importance of Southeast Asia, and of the tangible reality of Australia’s defence relations throughout the sub-region, the muted reaction across capitals in Southeast Asia to the new statement of Canberra’s defence policy is surprising. Whereas China’s official response was quick and essentially critical of Australia’s stronger defence posture and tightening strategic relations with the US, even two weeks after the White Paper was released there’s been scant reaction from Southeast Asian governments.

The only reported response from Indonesia was the 28 February statement from defence ministry spokesman Brigadier-General Djundan Eko Bintoro’s that Jakarta had been ‘forewarned’ of the White Paper’s contents, and that it didn’t see the projected Australian military build-up as ‘a threat’ but rather about creating ‘peace and security’.

On the following day, Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper carried an op-ed by Daniel Chua, of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies entitled ‘Positive signal to South-east Asia’. It’s probably reasonable to see Chua’s piece as an indirect indication of the Singaporean government’s view on the White Paper. Arguing, perhaps rather sweepingly but nevertheless with insight, that ‘South-east Asian countries do not comment on the policies and politics of other nations’, Chua didn’t attempt to assess the likely private reaction of Southeast Asian governments to the White Paper but rather how they should respond in light of their objective interests.

Overall, Chua argued, Southeast Asian leaders ‘should be receptive’ to the White Paper’s indications that Australia was ‘willing to carry some burden in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea’ by, for example, conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS). The ‘loudest applause’ for Australia’s strengthening defence posture should come from Singapore and Malaysia, he wrote. Jakarta should see Australia’s plans to strengthen its maritime capabilities as complementary to the Jokowi administration’s own new maritime doctrine for Indonesia. Overall, he concluded, the DWP ‘sends a positive signal to South-east Asia and potentially contributes to the region’s stability and peace’.

As well as the unwillingness of Southeast Asian governments to comment openly on other states’ policies—also seen in their generally low-key responses to both China’s activities in the South China Sea and US FONOPS there—another factor may explain the lack of overt reaction in Southeast Asia to the White Paper: Southeast Asia may simply matter a lot more to Australia’s security than vice versa.

Despite Australia’s defence efforts in Southeast Asia over the years, security and defence establishments across the sub-region are consumed with complex hedging strategies in relation to the US, China, Japan, along with their relations with their Southeast Asian neighbours. One challenge for Canberra’s Defence Department and armed forces in implementing the White Paper will be to change that equation in order to make Australia a more influential player in the sub-region to its immediate north.