The Australian Defence White Paper was a long time coming, but it was worth the wait.
From an American perspective, the White Paper is a carefully crafted document that will leave many in Washington both pleased with and envious of Canberra’s strategic conceptualisation and connection of ends and means. The White Paper notes that ‘a strong and deep alliance is at the core of Australia’s security’ and that the US ‘will remain the pre-eminent global military power and will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner.’ The centrality of the US rebalance to Asia is specifically noted. Meanwhile, the importance of US engagement is underscored by a clear message to American political leaders: ‘The levels of security and stability we seek in the Indo-Pacific would not be achievable without the United States.’
The White Paper wisely chooses to frame Australia’s China strategy as part of its commitment to uphold the rules-based global order. The document warns of ‘challenges to the stability of the rules-based global order, including competition between countries and major powers trying to promote their interests outside of the established rules.’ As a result, ‘the rules-based global order is under increasing pressure and has shown signs of fragility.’ Australia’s willingness to support the global order is clearly noted by the recognition that ‘future operations could include contributing to security in North Asia and helping to protect the extensive sea lines of communication that support Australian trade where our interests are sufficiently engaged.’
Thus, rather than framing Australia as facing a China choice, the White Paper makes clear that it is in fact China’s choice whether to contest the rules-based global order that Australia and the US underpin. While the document is sometimes circumspect about directly criticising China’s assertive behaviour in maritime Asia, it does note that ‘Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities’ and ‘Australia is opposed to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea.’ Not surprisingly, Beijing has expressed ‘dissatisfaction’ with the report. Then again, Chinese satisfaction with the White Paper would have been alarming, to say the least.
Regarding spending levels, the White Paper warns against ‘disconnected’ strategy and budgets, making clear that Defence will avoid another strategy-resource divide as occurred during previous reviews. Instead, the government commits to reaching the 2% of gross domestic product target by 2021 and assures readers that the ’10-year funding model will be not be subject to any further adjustments as a result of changes in Australia’s GDP growth estimates.’ Defence budget experts are no doubt hard at work verifying the cost estimates, but the basic framework puts Australia in a strong position. This recommitment to the Abbott spending levels is a strong sign to the entire region that leadership changes within the Coalition will not fundamentally alter the trajectory of Australia’s defence strategy, as many in the region might have speculated.
On individual capabilities, the commitment to procure 12 submarines and 72 F-35s is welcome. These systems and associated capabilities will give Australia a strong buffer against further expansion of both the Chinese anti-access/area denial and power projection envelopes beyond the South China Sea. Increased amphibious capabilities will also enhance rapid reaction and inter-operability with other maritime nations in the Western Pacific at a time when island chain defence and humanitarian assistance and disaster response are becoming more prominent shared requirements.
In terms of posture, priority is placed on investment in ‘northern Australia, including in Townsville and Darwin, as well as the Air Force bases Tindal, Curtin, Scherger and Learmonth.’ Cocos Island is also specifically called out as a critical maritime domain awareness operating location. Basing and access enablers, such as fuel capacity, are also highlighted. These are the right areas from a US perspective, but behind the scenes both governments need to do much more to resolve cost sharing and other nagging issues that are obstructing best use of these facilities for Australian and (occasionally) US forces.
The White Paper’s focus on international engagement is important, though this is one area where better guidance to the force would have been useful. The White Paper says Australia provides defence assistance to 28 countries and emphasises that ‘international engagement will become an integrated core function across the entire Defence portfolio.’ That is important, but not all defence diplomacy is created equal. Embedding Army captains with South Pacific forces, conducting exchanges with the People’s Liberation Army, and developing advanced operational concepts with Japan for anti-submarine warfare are very different kinds of missions.
The challenge posed by China’s denial strategy in the First Island Chain cannot be met without greater networking of US bilateral alliances to dissuade exactly the kind of ‘coercive or unilateral efforts to change the status quo’ the White Paper flags. From a US perspective, this means assisting less developed states with capacity-building at one level, while strengthening jointness and interoperability with major US allies and potential partners like India at another. The White Paper gives some hint of this prioritisation in the number of references to other states in the region: the US has 128 references, China 53 (more often as an object of assessment than as a potential partner), Japan 36, Indonesia 32, and India 24. France, Germany, the UK, and Canada, on the other hand, receive fewer mentions together than Papua New Guinea.
Understandably, the White Paper had to be scrupulously neutral with respect to the still undecided partner for the SEA 1000 future submarine program. A strategic statement unencumbered by that consideration might have placed greater emphasis on the need for networking and interoperability with other maritime powers in the region.
The Pentagon should take note of the White Paper not only for its relevance in terms of alliance relations, but also because of the clear metrics for connecting strategy, capabilities, and resources. The paper should be required reading for all US officials and officers working on the Quadrennial Defense Review’s successor, the Defense Strategy Review.
This essay first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter.