An Australian defense white paper issued on Feb. 25 is clearly designed to ensure that the country will remain the leading regional military power in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific for the best part of the 21st century. The strategy outlined in the paper has been cautiously praised within Australia for being neither alarmist nor naive, for offering a clear strategic rationale for beefing up the country’s defense forces, and for providing a credible financial plan to fund the planned improvements in capability.
Such praise is warranted. A white paper in 2009 seemed too eager to take on China without defining or circumscribing the geostrategic rationale, while a 2013 version appeared to downplay too much the likely emergence of a more contested environment resulting from the rise of China and other regional powers. In any case, both previous Labor governments — headed by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, respectively — failed to set aside enough money to fund the blueprints outlined in the two consecutive white papers.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal/National Party coalition government appears to have avoided these earlier shortcomings. But one more piece of important information is required for a comprehensive picture of geostrategic thinking in Canberra: which of Japan, Germany and France will be the partner chosen to build Australia’s fleet of 12 new submarines over the next few decades.
When Turnbull replaced the pugnacious Tony Abbott in September 2015 as leader of the Liberal Party, and therefore as prime minister, there were doubts about whether Abbott’s vision of a robust strategic role for Canberra in the region could survive. By then, much of the current white paper would have been in the advanced stages of review. That Turnbull combed through the drafts and left much of it unchanged is strong evidence that he does not differ too much from his predecessor in this respect.
Australia will undertake its largest peacetime upgrade to all three arms of the military in terms of money and capability. The logic for remaining the pre-eminent military power in its own region does not depend on national pride or politicians’ egos. Besides seeking to dissuade any Southeast Asian power from invading Australia’s northern shores, remote as that possibility is, Canberra also sees risks to its broader geostrategic and economic interests from the increasingly assertive and destabilizing behavior of other states in the South China Sea.
Since the claims and actions of Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia are modest and will not lead to broader instability, Canberra is clearly referring to China. The white paper explicitly acknowledges that China will continue to seek greater power in the region, with profound implications for Australia and other countries.
The possibility of a U.S.-China conflict arising as a result is also recognized. Given the expectation that Washington is more than likely to request Australian assistance in the event of conflict, Canberra will not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. Indeed, there is a strong emphasis on improving the ‘interoperability’ of Australian forces with the American Pacific Fleet, from surface vessels and submarines to cyber capabilities and intelligence.
China has responded negatively to the Australian document, and with good reason. The Turnbull government is effectively doubling-down on the American alliance for the long-term, putting to rest any speculation that Canberra will choose a more neutral or independent pathway. By binding Australia’s military capabilities to American technology and hardware, the current government is ensuring that future governments cannot change course significantly even if they want to.
More than this, Australia is looking to reinforce the U.S.-led security system and architecture in the Indian and Pacific oceans, while designating Southeast Asia as Canberra’s special area of responsibility. In committing to the unprecedented military modernization and enhancement needed to build a defense force able to operate seamlessly with the Americans, Canberra is heeding Washington’s call for allies to accept a greater share of the security burden.
Why is Australia taking on the burden? Softer language about encouraging rising countries to follow regional norms and the rules-of-the-road is offered as one of Canberra’s highest priorities. In essence, however, Australia is pinning its hopes on the argument that a strengthening of the U.S.-led alliance system is the best chance of dissuading Beijing from undertaking any action that might destabilize the region or lead to a war that would be to the detriment of all countries. A more independent strategic direction away from the U.S., let alone a retreat into isolationism, is seen as neither in Australia’s interest nor possible.
The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to Australia’s strategic thinking — the outcome of the submarine debate — has not yet been revealed. It is true that any of the proposed deals with Japan, Germany or France would offer Australia better conventional submarines than are possessed by any country in Southeast Asia. However, if Japan is announced as the winner of the project — worth $50 billion over the next three decades — then the modified Soryu-class submarine will be fitted with the most advanced underwater technology Japan has available, together with cutting-edge American weapons systems.
This would be a profound and enduring line in the sand. Choosing Japan would make Tokyo an indispensable military partner for Canberra up to 2050 and beyond. It would irrevocably entrench military cooperation between the U.S., Japan and Australia at every level: strategic, tactical, operational, and in intelligence sharing. The word “allies” may never be used, but this is very close to what Japan and Australia would inevitably become.
If Japan wins the bid, that will smooth the way for Tokyo to become a major exporter of military technology and hardware to countries such as the Philippines, Vietnam and India, even if the crown jewels in the form of its submarine technology will be reserved for Australia alone. All these potential buyers are immensely wary of China, further complicating the strategic picture for Beijing. If Japan is not successful Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to help shape the strategic environment through military exports will have fallen at the most important hurdle.
All this will have enormous regional ramifications. Much of Asia remains in a holding pattern, waiting to see whether the U.S.-led security system can evolve and adapt to China’s rise. Japan and Australia possess the two most capable navies in East Asia after America and China. If U.S. security leadership evolves from a bilateral to trilateral structure involving the two most important spokes in the so-called hub-and-spokes security model, then confidence that the existing security system can step up will rise.
If that occurs, we are likely to see more countries associating themselves with the U.S. as insurance against China rather than sitting on the sidelines, as many are doing now. The 2016 White Paper will generate animated discussion in and about Asia. The decision on Australia’s submarine partner later in the year should generate much more.