Defence White Paper: super-sizing Australia’s strategic geography for the Asian Century

Defence minister Stephen Smith, prime minister Julia Gillard and Commander of Defence Forces David Hurley at the launch of the Defence White Paper. AAP/Lukas Coch

Australia’s new Defence White Paper reflects a revolution in the way in which Australia thinks about its strategic geography.

The “Indo-Pacific” has now decisively displaced the “Asia-Pacific” as defence planners’ preferred term for describing our neighborhood. India’s robust economic growth and likely future military heft provides a powerful reason for this change.

So too does the Indian Ocean’s growing importance as a maritime superhighway connecting “factory Asia” with resource hubs including East Africa, the Middle East and North-Western Australia.

But radically expanding Australia’s strategic horizons also risks a loss of focus and spreading our resources too thinly.

The problem of priorities

The greatest danger of the Indo-Pacific concept lies in treating the Indian Ocean and East Asian regions as of equivalent strategic importance.

While the resources trade linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans is growing in importance, the inter-state conflicts that most immediately impinge on Australia’s interests remain concentrated in East and especially northeast Asia.

An increasingly poisonous Sino-Japanese relationship, and a nuclear armed North Korea, threaten stability in that part of Asia that continues to be the primary engine of Australian prosperity. Short of an Indo-Pakistani nuclear war, no security challenge west of the Strait of Malacca comes close to threatening Australia’s interests as seriously as does the spectre of a Northeast Asian Great Power conflict.

For Australia, the main security and economic game will remain centered on the Sino-Japanese-Korean triangle for at least the next decade. Thus the language we use to describe our strategic landscape should reflect this reality as faithfully as possible.

The problem of planning

In lumping the Indian and Pacific Ocean theatres together, the White Paper’s authors conflate two very different environments.

Since the 1970s, Australia has pursued a strategy in East Asia based on participation in America’s “hub and spokes” system of bilateral alliances and engagement with an ASEAN-centred regional security architecture.

The Indian Ocean presents a more complicated challenge for Canberra. It lacks a coherent US-centred alliance system for Australia to plug in to, or a local equivalent of the veritable “alphabet soup” of multilateral security fora now present in East Asia.

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Defence White Paper proposes Australia purchase 100 of these stealth fighters. AAP/Lockheed Martin

Australia must engage the Indian Ocean region, and the White Paper rightly prioritises turbo-charging bilateral partnerships with India and Indonesia as a means of achieving this goal. But a mere extension of Australia’s tried and tested “dual track” technique of regional order-building from an Asia-Pacific to an Indian Ocean is likely to fail.

The problem of perception

Finally, the most recent White Paper has won praise for abandoning a needlessly provocative approach of casting China’s rise as a potential source of regional instability.

But Canberra’s focus on the Indo-Pacific risks undermining this progress. This is because Australia-watchers in Beijing will be aware of the concept’s early association with voices that advocated containing China through the formation of a league of maritime democracies including India, Australia, Japan and the United States.

To be fair, most Indo-Pacific boosters – both within and outside of government – have consistently and correctly repudiated ambitions to contain China as being both unrealistic and counter-productive.

Nevertheless, in the likely event that the Indo-Pacific becomes a permanent part of Australia’s defence and foreign policy, a special effort will be needed to privately reassure Beijing that the concept includes an inclusive vision of regional order, as opposed to a dog-whistle to partisans agitating for an anti-China “Axis of Good”.

Australia’s strategic environment is changing rapidly, and the White Paper’s authors have shown considerable intellectual élan in trying to capture the changes now re-shaping our region.

An exclusively East Asia-centric conception of Australia’s strategic space increasingly sits uneasily with India’s rise, a growing Indonesia and the undeniable importance of the Indo-Pacific “energy superhighway” to regional economic development.

Nevertheless, stretching Australia’s strategic geography out to an Indo-Pacific scale carries dangers as well as opportunities - the concept requires further intellectual refinement. This is especially so in a time of tight budgets, and when Australia’s political leadership cravenly refuses to educate the public on the necessity of funding the increased defence and especially diplomatic regional capabilities we urgently need to secure our safety and prosperity.

Ultimately, unless finance and political leadership are provided, broadening Australia’s strategic focus may merely further dilute our limited resources and compromise our capacity to shape our region in the Asian century.

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