Australia Announces Aggressive Defence Policy

Dr. Vijay Sakhuja

During the present world turmoil, the Australian government has announced an aggressive defence policy. The White Paper on defence titled ‘Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030’ envisages a considerable increase in its defence expenditure and a significant military acquisition programme for the Australian Defence Forces (ADF).

The Australian Prime Minister has argued in favour of the new defence policy as ‘big shifts in the global distribution of power’ have taken place since Australia’s last defence White Paper.. The Paper notes that though the United States would remain the preeminent power with enormous capacities, global reach and would guarantee strategic stability, other major powers like China, India, Russia, Japan and the European Union would be in a position to exercise considerable influence in varying degrees, to shape the Asia Pacific security. These developments demand a reassessment of Australia’s ‘strategic operating environment’ and re-appreciation of its national security needs.

The Policy envisions a potent ADF to meet the security challenges not only in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood but far into the Indian Ocean-Persian Gulf. For Australia, the key geographical areas of interest are Southeast Asian waters including South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific.. Towards that end, the ADF need to be equipped with appropriate capabilities to exert ‘air superiority and sea control’ in spaces as its approaches and respond to other existing and emerging threats in distant theatres such as Afghanistan.

The key components of the restructuring of force include twelve modern submarines, air defence destroyers, sea launched land attack cruise missiles, Joint Strike Fighters , long range maritime patrol aircraft, combat vehicles for the land forces , and a host of capabilities to respond to information warfare. However, for space based assets and other sensitive technologies, Australia will rely on the US. In essence, there is a thrust towards building naval capabilities as Australia’s security environment is essentially ‘maritime’ in nature.

However, there have been mixed reactions to the White Paper that range from ‘fuelling an arms race’ to ‘a benign development from an economically successful nation’ exhibiting diagonally opposite views and merit discussion. It is quite evident that there is the ‘China paranoia’ in Australia and it can be easily gleaned through the White paper. The Australians are reacting to the ongoing Chinese military modernization, its evolving power projection capabilities and opaqueness in defence plans. The Chinese commentators have reacted sharply to Australia’s ‘China threat’ thesis. Likewise, the paper, though not as explicit as on China, is concerned about India’s military modernization and nuclear capabilities. It also infers the resultant impact of a rising China and India on Southeast Asia.

Be that as it may, what does the 20-year military buildup programme portend for the Asia Pacific security? At a macro level, Australia may be spawning an arms race in the region. Hawkish leaders of smaller countries are likely to pretext the Australian defence plans as a stimulant for their argument on national military buildup. The Asia Pacific region is already witnessing a ‘submarine frenzy’ and several more countries would only be too tempted to acquire advanced submarines as deterrent. Vietnam’s plan to acquire Kilo class submarines is a recent case in point. Similarly, the planned acquisition of 100 Joint Strike Fighters would add to the regional concerns particularly among Southeast Asian countries that are beset with internal security problems and are concentrating their efforts at combating terrorism, insurgency and communal violence.

The next issue is of prevalent regional ‘insecurities’. In recent times, the Southeast Asian countries had to contend with the possible US-China or Japan-China or India-China face-offs. Now they will have to integrate Australia’s perceived China threat. After all, the naval-air operating geography of these actors spills into Southeast Asian sphere of interest.

At another level, Indian Ocean states are concerned about the Australian assessment of Indian Ocean being an arena of competition among major naval powers and ‘centrality’ of Indian Ocean in Australia’s strategy and defence planning. It would be useful to keep in mind that Australia has maintained a near continuous presence in the Persian Gulf since the 1991 Gulf War as part of the US led coalition. Australia has also been part of the regional efforts to enhance maritime security in the Indian Ocean through its participation in multilateral forums such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), and The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) . The paper refers to Indian Ocean as ‘the ADF’s primary operational environment’ is interesting, given that it perceives threat from China that is in the north!

The Australian Defence White Paper comes at a time when most Asian countries are struggling with global financial crisis and economic melt down with potential for political instability. The paper may have assured the audiences at home of the Australian government’s commitment to ‘protect and project’ national interests, it has not been able to reassure regional countries of Australia’s long term intentions. In essence, it is an aggressive defence policy announcement and may prove to be unnerving among several Asia Pacific countries necessitating review of their national security plans.

Author Note
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is founding President of Society for Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi