Ideas for Australia: Australia boosts defences, but must pick its fights carefully in a time of tensions and uncertainties

The adjustment in Australia’s defence spending to 1.9% to 2% of GDP is reasonable. AAP/Tracey Nearmy

The Conversation has asked 20 academics to examine the big ideas facing Australia for the 2016 federal election and beyond. The 20-piece series will examine, among others, the state of democracy, health, education, environment, equality, freedom of speech, federation and economic reform.


Behind the recently released defence white paper is some serious reflection on the current and prospective defence hotspots that might affect Australia and the fluctuating balance of military and economic power in the region. But have we got the assessment right?

The world the white paper describes looks increasingly Hobbesian. Intersecting factors present signs of an increasingly ominous future. The overlap of multiple worrying trends adds to Australia’s perceived need to bolster defence expenditure as its ultimate national insurance policy.

What are we doing?

With the future unknowable, the white paper’s calculated outlay is a gamble. This is particularly the case with so many long lead-time and high-technology capabilities being planned. These include:

  • 72 F-35 fighter aircraft and a spectrum of supporting aircraft and ground-based infrastructure to make the F35 highly capable in a sophisticated network;

  • a dozen each of the highly advanced naval warships and submarines on top of the amphibious ships entering service; and

  • a suite of new armoured vehicles, missiles and enhanced special forces capabilities to add greater lethality and flexibility for use in Australia and the archipelago to the north.

Have we got the right focus?

The prognostications and calculations about what is needed to defend Australia and its interests have in mind a timeframe of multiple decades. But the stakes appear higher and the urgency greater than at any time since the height of the Cold War.

So what are the hotspots and issues that form the backdrop to this assessment?

First is the issue of terrorism. This burst onto the world stage on September 11. It then appeared slowly to ebb away, but has returned with a vengeance. Toxic terror cells have emerged not only in the Middle East and North Africa but in the heart of Europe and Southeast Asia.

For Australia and neighbouring countries like Indonesia, this is a significant concern. But it is unlikely ever to become an existential threat – particularly if society remains mindful of the need to “keep calm and carry on”, and if security forces and agencies remain vigilant and maintain high levels of co-operation.

The siren call for Australia to act in support of allies’ efforts targeting terrorism far from its own shores is hard for decision-makers to resist. But so many other issues closer to home need attention. These calls therefore should be resisted. Any offers of assistance for far-flung military operations should be made with great caution and restraint.

With society becoming ever more web-enabled and web-dependent, cyber security has mushroomed into a potential existential threat. Several state and non-state actors, operating with high levels of deniability and impunity, present a great challenge to which we must respond on an industrial scale. Current complacency in government and industry points to disturbing levels of vulnerability.

Transnational threats emerging through the archipelago to Australia’s north – including organised crime, people smuggling and drug trafficking – are drawing Australia into greater security challenges. These have generated tensions with its neighbours. Managing them requires finesse and cultural understanding.

Climate change is making smaller island countries extremely vulnerable. Coastal areas of several others are subject to a greater frequency and scale of natural and man-induced disasters. The security challenges arising as a result are potentially enormous and require imaginative rethinking about what needs to be done in response.

There are the ongoing and nuclear-tipped tensions on the Korean peninsula. Australia retains UN-linked commitments from the war fought there more than 60 years ago. It has recently also offered moral and practical support with renewed and deepened military ties with South Korea.

There are simmering tensions in the East China Sea, notably the competing island claims by Japan and China (particularly over the Senkaku Islands). Japan is eager to deepen ties with the US and its allies, including Australia, to bolster its security. Balancing the desire to urge Chinese restraint and avoid unduly emboldening Japan is a difficult task. Purchasing Japanese submarines may well tip that balance.

An increasingly aggressive Russia under Vladimir Putin has seized the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, threatening Eastern Europe, and aggressively and decisively intervened militarily in Syria. Putin’s Russia is hurting financially – following sanctions and the drop in oil prices – and demographically, with a shrinking population.

Some may argue Russia’s actions are of little concern to Australia. But Russia increasingly is demonstrating its unwillingness to accept the international status quo. It has re-emerged as one of the greatest threats on the planet – and with a considerable military footprint in the Pacific, principally based at Vladivostok.

Finally, there are growing disputes in the South China Sea, where regional claimants have competing and overlapping zones. China’s so-called nine-dash line remains largely undefined. Yet China is using this ambiguity as a convenient foil for dramatic and rapid expansion of manufactured islands, guarded by a flotilla of well-armed but white-painted “maritime law enforcement” ships, rather than the more provocative grey-painted naval warships.

Even Indonesia, nominally a non-claimant state and eager to avoid confrontation, is chafing at China’s assertive behaviour.

There are growing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Reuters

What of the future?

Australia has no direct interest in these maritime disputes. But with much of its trade transiting the South China Sea, it has a clear interest in seeking a peaceful resolution.

Australia also has long supported the global “rules-based order”, which is widely recognised as having enabled the spectacular economic growth in the Asia-Pacific in recent decades.

The disputes raise questions about how much Australia should do, particularly when Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to push back against China’s assertiveness. China’s claims, it seems, are as valid – if not more so – than many of the other claimant states.

There is an argument to be made for Australia to focus on bolstering resolve within ASEAN to stand up for itself rather than to take the lead in conducting freedom-of-navigation operations in contested waters. The latter is guaranteed to irritate China. It is hard to fathom what the longer-term consequences are. Would such a stand deter or further energise China’s assertiveness?

Taking a lead in matters such as the South China Sea in support of the rules-based order presupposes that the virtual guarantor of that order, the US, is prepared to continue backing it indefinitely. The defence white paper is premised on the US remaining:

… the pre-eminent global power and Australia’s most important strategic partner.

Australia is heavily invested in and reliant on US ties for intelligence, technology and cutting-edge military proficiency to maintain a capability edge over neighbours. Similarly, the US is enormously invested in Australia, as much for its real estate as other matters.

Yet with an extraordinary presidential race developing, this assumption is being questioned. Some see that if Donald Trump becomes president and is true to his word on alliances and his isolationist declarations, the US military presence in East and Southeast Asia may decline. This in turn could lead to considerably greater Chinese assertiveness.

On balance, and with so much remaining opaque and unknowable, the adjustment in Australia’s defence spending from 1.9% to 2% of GDP is reasonable. It is costed, has bipartisan support and looks as robust a plan as has emanated from Canberra in decades.


You can read other articles in the series here.