The Defence White Paper—between the lines
14 May 2013|

Chinese People's Liberation Army officers with the Beijing Military Region speak with U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Travis W. Hawthorne, right, about the M4 carbine during the 2012 Australian Army Skill at Arms Meeting (AASAM) in Puckapunyal, Australia, May 12, 2012. Over the past year, low-level but concerning brinkmanship has continued in the Asia Pacific, with China maintaining the pattern of provocation that emerged following the 2008 global financial crisis. As Ross Terrill put it recently, ‘China is probing on multiple fronts for more space and clout, sustaining quarrels with numerous neighbours who are Australia’s friends’.

Oh wait, that doesn’t sound right. What does the new Defence White Paper say about all this? Let me see… ok, I think I understand. Let me try again.

Over the past year, competing territorial claims in maritime Asia have remained unresolved. This is concerning because these flashpoints increase the risk of both ‘destabilising strategic competition’ and ‘miscalculation’. ‘Australia has interests in the peaceful resolution of territorial and maritime disputes including in the South China Sea in accordance with international law…’ ‘Events in the South China Sea may well reflect how a rising China and its neighbours manage their relationships’.

That’s much better. Everything is 100% accurate, but no one’s feelings are hurt. Bad things might happen, but it will be no one’s fault. Better still, we assign ourselves the role of a concerned but seemingly uncommitted observer. It’s as if we’re having a strategic out-of-body experience. That’s the genius of the 2013 Defence White Paper.

Nowhere is this truer than in its repeated focus on the ‘US-China relationship’ rather than on the more usual preoccupation with ‘the rise of China’. Indeed, the chapter on Australia’s strategic environment has a section called ‘The United States and China’ which discusses the two countries jointly rather than separately. In comparison, the 2009 effort was so crass as to have separate sections entitled ‘US Strategic Primacy’ and ‘The Strategic Implications of the Rise of China’.

Apart from a couple of dissenting voices who see the changed tone as kowtowing to Beijing, the new approach has been broadly heralded as more nuanced and sophisticated than its predecessor.  That might be true, and it might even be more self-consistent, but there’s no denying that it’s also both less frank and less complete. The fact is that, no matter how the document was drafted, it was always going to be a compromise between incompatible outcomes.

In a sense, it probably doesn’t matter, just as the ‘Indo-Pacific’ verses ‘Asia-Pacific’ debate is of little consequence beyond academic circles. Although a generation of students will now be subjected to ‘compare and contrast’ essay questions on the issue, the observed reality is that government’s plans for the ADF have changed very little.

To the extent there’s a causal link between the strategic theology of the initial chapters of the White Paper and the wish list of equipment projects further in, the changed description of our strategic landscape hasn’t made one iota of difference. Of course, that could be explained by duplicity of our part; we tell China what they want to hear, while we quietly draw closer to the United States.  And make no mistake; we have drawn closer to the United States in the four years since the 2009 White Paper.

Of course, the Chinese aren’t falling for any of this. They know that we’re welded to the United States through the alliance, and that our history, values and interests will keep it that way. They also know that we’re hedging—along with others in the region—against the possibility that they’ll use their growing power at the expense of others. They even have a word for this; they call it containment. They also know that our newly found love of regional engagement is all about winning over the half billion souls that live between us and China over to our way of thinking. But the 2013 White Paper leaves sufficient room between what they know, and what we say, to avoid giving them offence. Face has been saved.

Duplicity is nothing new in world of diplomacy. Since at least the 1970s there’s been a streak of disingenuousness in Australian defence rhetoric. The Defence of Australia doctrine was conceived as a replacement to ‘forward defence’ in the bitter years after Vietnam. Not surprisingly, it was a policy that justified retaining a moderate size defence force while limiting our liability to be drawn into future US follies. Up to a point, it was our get-out-of-jail-free-ticket for the Cold War. By focusing on the defence of our continent, notwithstanding the absence of any plausible threat, we could limit expectations of what we were prepared to do elsewhere.

Yet at the same time, we simply rolled on with the force structure from the days of forward defence. We even retained an aircraft carrier until it became too expensive. And, just as we do today, we worked hard to maintain interoperability with the United States and pursued cooperation with them at multiple levels. Critically, we did so not just because we wanted to be able to call on US assistance if something went wrong—though that’s always been important—but also because we knew that the United States underpinned the geopolitical strata upon which our security depends. In reality, irrespective of the careful wording of our policy, there was never much doubt that we’d ‘act to meet the common danger’ as required in article IV of the ANZUS treaty (PDF) if the strategic balance in the Pacific was threatened.

Much has changed between the first codification of the defence of Australia doctrine in 1976 and today. Yet, even though the policy has evolved to be more outwards looking in response to changing circumstances (though mostly as a result of lessens learnt than foresight), the core priority on our own defence remains intact. And what a bloody useful thing it is to have.

To start with, it allows us to set the upper limit of scale of our defence effort at a relatively low level, given the continuing absence of a serious contender to threaten our sovereignty. At the same time, it positions us well to determine the scale of what we contribute to coalition missions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, because the wording used to describe the self-reliant Defence of Australia was largely plagiarised from Nixon’s July 1969 ‘Guam doctrine’, it’s hard for the United States to object. For these reasons, Defence of Australia remains the policy of choice for free riding.

Perhaps more important for us today, Defence of Australia allows us to adopt the sort of third party once removed rhetorical position employed so cleverly in the 2013 Defence White Paper. Imagine how the White Paper would have read if it had begun with the recognition—brutal yet surely accurate—that our security ultimately depends on the geopolitical balance in our part of the world rather than on our ability to defend the continent against attack.

Duplicity requires careful handling. Not because we might be found out—we’re so far down the ‘they know that we know that they know’ route that there’s nothing to hide. Rather, we need to be careful not to delude ourselves. It would be alarming if our response to the Asia-Pacific century (oops, Indo-Pacific Asian century) was to be to refocus our limited resources on operating aircraft out of bare bases and conducting Kangaroo exercises to hunt for raiding parties in our remote north. God help us if we start to believe our own rhetoric.

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.