Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Australian Defence White Paper and China

The Australian this weekend carried a front page article on the Australian Defence White Paper.

It appears that the Rudd Government has overridden the assessment of Australian intelligence agencies. The intelligence agencies apparently regard failed and failing states in Australia's vicinity and involvement with the UN and the US in counter-insurgency operations further afield as the main challenges of the ADF in coming years.

Others in Defence wanted to see a more aggressive effort to confront China.

Senior Defence officials argued privately that the ADF needed to be structured to enable it to play a key support role alongside US forces in any future conflict with Beijing. "They saw the rise of China as the new Cold War and decided that this needed to be the focus of future strategy," said one Defence insider.

Apparently the hawks won, and there will be a significant build-up of Australian defence capabilities to combat the growth of Chinese military power.

The standoff between the intelligence doves and defence hawks has gone all the way to Kevin Rudd personally.

But the hawks have won, and Australia will spend more than $100 billion over the next two decades to boost its naval and air war-fighting capacity.

The rise of China will shape Australia's defence planning for a generation.

The Rudd Government's defence white paper, due out later this month, will call for a more potent and costly maritime defence for Australia.

The expansion of Australia's sea and air defences will include a doubling of the submarine fleet, 100 joint strike fighters, new spy planes, as well as powerful new surface warships.

The White Paper should finally emerge before the end of the month.

Also in the Weekend Australian a foretaste of Hugh White's forthcoming Lowy Institute paper on the White Paper. He seems to very much agree with expanding the submarine and fighter jet fleets. He calls on the Government to dramatically increase defence spending, in order to be able to maintain its strategic weight in the region against competitors whose GDPs are growing rapidly.

To build a focused force to achieve Australia's long-term strategic objectives as they are now defined would need spending 2.5 per cent of GDP or more. This is not unthinkable: it is comparable with our defence spending in the 1970s and '80s.

Ministers will be tempted to say we can afford all the forces we need within current funding projections if it is spent more efficiently. That may be wishful thinking. Huge efficiencies in defence are possible but they will require really forceful leadership to achieve, and that has been lacking for a long time. And even if new brooms can turn defence on its head, the long-term trends suggest that Australia has no choice but to spend more on defence or accept a steady decline in strategic weight. A mere 20 years ago Australia's economy was the second largest in Asia after that of Japan: larger than India's or China's. How quickly the balance has shifted.

I can't resist mentioning that currently the RAN is often unable to operate more than half of its existing submarine fleet due to skill shortages, and, one understands, low morale.

A side-note to New Zealand readers: to take the temperature of the current debate in Australia on relations with China you should google the names of Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and Chinese-born businesswoman Helen Liu.

You might think that this enormous focus on the future of the Chinese relationship in our nearest neighbour and closest ally might arouse just the slightest interest in the New Zealand media. Particularly given that we are about to undertake our own Defence White Paper. Particularly given that Prime Minister Key is even now in China. As the indispensible Tailor of Panama St notes so eloquently today, that is far too much to expect of our dangerously withered media organisations.

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