White Paper puzzles
11 Jun 2015|

White Paper puzzles

It seems the 2015 Defence White Paper is only a couple of months away, so the big decisions about capability plans and funding should by now have been nailed down, and the White Paper team in R1 are probably moving on to drafting the actual document. This won’t be easy, and the hardest part will be to work out what exactly to say about Australia’s international environment and the key strategic challenges it will face over the next few decades.

Judgements about these issues are of course central to decisions about what we need our armed forces to be capable of in future, and hence what kinds of forces we need. Ideally the Government should have reached firm conclusions about all this months ago—at the start of the White Paper process—to provide a sound, rational basis for capability and spending decisions.

But even if, as seems more likely, they’ve been left till last, it will still be important to get the drafting right. These will be among the most carefully-scrutinised passages in the document, and the political and policy costs of muddled thinking or poor drafting would be high.

There are two key issues that need to be addressed. Neither are new—they’ve both been addressed in defence policy documents for years—but they present the drafters of this year’s White Paper with new and more difficult challenges.

The first is the question of terrorism, and specifically of IS. Ever since 9/11 there has been a strand of thinking in Australia, as elsewhere, that Islamist terrorism constitutes the primary long-term challenge to global order, and Australia’s principal strategic risk. John Howard himself never really signed up to this view, and the last two White Papers, prepared under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, specifically repudiated it.

There are however plenty of signs that the Abbott Government might endorse this view. Julie Bishop, in her remarkable Sydney Institute speech in April, went further than any previous Australian political leader in her estimate of the Islamist threat. She said it was ‘the most significant threat to the global rules based order to emerge in the past 70 years—and included in my considerations is the rise of communism and the Cold War.’

One wonders how well Minister Bishop understands the threat to global order posed by prospect of nuclear war between the superpowers during the Cold War, but let’s leave that to one side. If her view is adopted by the Government as a whole—and some of their policies suggest that this is the case—then we should expect this to be reflected in the White Paper’s definition of Australia’s key strategic challenges.

It should say that Islamist terrorism is by far the most serious strategic risk Australia will face over coming decades, and hence our armed forces should be designed primarily to defeat it. That would of course have huge implications for our capability priorities, suggesting a major shift away from higher-level air and naval forces towards land forces.

Of course that isn’t going to happen. Instead, most likely, the White Paper will talk up the IS threat in apocalyptic terms, while at the same time reassuring us that the current low levels of military effort against it, and the planned capability mix, will suffice to keep us safe. Which will be absurd.

But this won’t be the biggest challenge faced by the drafting team, because they’ll also have to work out what to say about China. This too isn’t a new issue for Australian defence policy, but it has proven difficult for the last two White Papers, and it will be even harder this time. Kevin Rudd’s 2009 White Paper went in hard, coming close to describing China’s rising power as a direct threat to Australia, and earning a stern rebuke from Beijing.

Julia Gillard’s 2013 White Paper went too far the other way, treating China’s rise as largely benign. This sacrificed credibility here and in Washington in order to placate Beijing. Neither document offered a coherent analysis of the implications for Australia’s security of the most important change in our strategic circumstances for at least forty years.

Today the reality of a changing regional strategic order, including escalating rivalry between the US and China, is even starker than it was in 2013. But the Abbott Government has so far been as reluctant as its predecessors to address the implications of this for our strategic posture and defence capability needs. Defence Minister Kevin Andrews has acknowledged in general terms the significance of the shift in wealth and power to Asia, but neither he nor anyone else in the Government has begun to explain what this means for Australia’s strategic outlook and our future defence force.

The credibility of the White Paper will be fatally compromised if it doesn’t address these central issues directly. But the more it says, the greater the risk of displeasing either Washington or Beijing, or both. And the more clearly the White Paper sets out the strategic consequences of the rise of Asia, the harder it will be to argue that the defence program it proposes will allow Australia to achieve in future the strategic objectives we have set ourselves in the past.

The temptation to fudge and waffle will be almost irresistible; in which case the whole effort will be wasted, and we will need to try again with another White Paper in just a year or two’s time.