Defence agreements with US harm Australia’s reputation in Asia

Stationing US troops in Darwin does not align with our foreign policy interests. AAP/Xavier La Canna

AUSTRALIA IN THE ASIAN CENTURY – A series examining Australia’s role in the rapidly transforming Asian region. Delivered in partnership with the Australian government.

Today, Professor John Langmore argues that defence relations with the US could compromise our independence in the Asian region.

Defence planners in Canberra and at the Pentagon are pushing Australia closer to the US.

Julia Gillard says that the deployment of 2500 marines near Darwin doesn’t involve establishing a US base in Australia, but it is certainly a major step in further integrating Australian with American military forces.

And suddenly more proposals have filtered out: to operate US aircraft carriers and submarines from Stirling Naval Base south of Perth and allow the Americans to establish a base for launching drones on the Cocos Islands.

But none of these decisions or proposals has been accompanied by analysis which evaluates their consistency with Australian foreign policy interests.

Some argue that such complicity with the US strengthens Australian security but it also certainly has other consequences.

Do we really want to comply with American strategy and tactics no matter who is president and whatever their policies? Surely not.

Is it reasonable to assume that American and Australian interests will always be identical? That would simply be ignorant and irresponsible. Why would we abandon capacity for independent initiative in attempting to prevent potential conflicts?

Blanks in the white paper

Then defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s preface to the 2009 Defence White Paper began, “There is no greater responsibility for a national government than the defence of the nation, its people and their interests.” This familiar claim for the pre-eminence of defence needs to be put in context.

Protection from external threats is one aspect of national and personal security but so are economic stability, opportunities for employment, environmental sustainability, high quality health and education services, safety on the streets and much more.

Fitzgibbon’s claim exaggerates the importance of defence in peacetime and lays a foundation for the misleadingly narrow analysis which characterised the white paper. National security is only one aspect of national well-being.

Forgetting foreign policy

The white paper and the more recent plans and proposals to increase Australian and American military integration make a fundamental misjudgement. They treat defence as remote from other aspects of foreign policy which influence the degree of cooperation or hostility between countries.

The isolation of Australian military thinking prevents discussion of the relative priority which should be given to other aspects of foreign policy.

We are missing out on reviews of bilateral, regional and multilateral relations; political contact and discussions; diplomatic activity; peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding; development policy; international economic, financial, social and environmental relations; and global governance including its economic, social and environmental dimensions.

The increase in defence funding in 2010 of $1.57 billion dollars was 50% more than the total annual budget for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 2010-11. There are enormous wasted opportunities in such a misallocation.

And now, instead of investing in foreign affairs, the government is cutting diplomatic jobs.

Pushing the neighbours away

The government needs to recognise the complementary nature of foreign and defence policy.

In Fitzgibbon’s white paper, the preference for viewing the world in terms of highly dangerous yet unlikely scenarios was used as the basis for justifying astonishing plans for military equipment purchases.

Preparing for the worst in this way diverts resources and attention from attempts to create a more secure and stable environment and neglects the strategic views of other countries in the region.

The consequences of undertaking a military build-up risks pushing Asian neighbours towards pursuing military capabilities, causing a spiralling expansion of arms and a preference for military paradigms.

Getting it right

Australia has a significant place in Asia. Australian actions influence the economic, social, environmental, political and strategic evolution of the region.

Australian military spending and the extent of integration with allies may prepare Australia to defend itself, but it is also a factor in the decisions of other countries about the extent of their military expenditure.

The extent of this impact is likely to differ between countries and its overall significance is the subject of debate, but it would be foolish to neglect it. The 2009 Defence White Paper did not discuss the problems with the planned increases in military spending for the next 20 years, nor of increasing integration with America. It is vital that the white paper on Australia in the Asian Century does.

This is part thirteen of Australia in the Asian Century. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part One: Want to get ahead this century? Learn an Asian language

Part Two: Australia’s great, untapped resource … Chinese investment

Part Three: Beyond China: Australia and Asia’s northern democracies

Part Four: More than a farm on top of a mine: Australia’s soft power potential in Asia

Part Five: Australia can lead the fight against Asia’s lifestyle disease epidemic

Part Six: Why Australia needs an Asian Century Institute

Part Seven: Taming the tigers: tourism in Asia to become a two-way street

Part Eight: Australia will need a strong constitution for the Asian Century

Part Nine: A focus on skills will allow Australia to reap fruits of its labour

Part Ten: Engaging with Asia? We’ve been here before

Part Eleven: China, India and Australian gas – who controls energy in the Asian Century?

Part Twelve: Dealing with the threat of deadly viruses from Asia

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