Australia’s strategic future after the white paper

Author: Hugh White, ANU

At the heart of Australia’s new Defence White paper is a deep ambivalence about the future of American power. In some places it foreshadows that China could overtake the US on some measures to become the largest economy in the world as early as 2020, and it clearly explains that such a momentous shift in economic power would mean a decisive shift in strategic power too.

But in other places the White Paper expresses confidence that the US will remain the primary strategic power in Asia until 2030 or beyond.

Where between these conflicting messages does the Government believe the truth lies? The answer matters a lot for Australian defence policy and for our broader place in Asia. The United States has maintained uncontested primacy in Asia for almost 40 years. Since Nixon went to China, no Asian major power has sought to challenge or displace it as the region’s dominant power. This has been fundamental to the stability and prosperity East Asia has enjoyed ever since.

It has also been the cornerstone of Australia’s security. US primacy has limited the strategic risks we might have to face, either alone or in support of our ally. Under the aegis of the United States, Australia has enjoyed the privileges of middle power status without ever really having to maintain a middle power’s capacities — including a middle power’s military weight.

That means the future of America’s strategic position in Asia is central to the future of our defence policy. If we are confident US power will be sustained, our defence policy can remain much as it has been for the past four decades. If not, we have some tough choices to make.

The White Paper is surely right in the places where it says that long-term economic trends are working against the maintenance of US primacy. Strategic weight ultimately depends on economic power. There is good reason to believe that China can maintain the growth trends of the past thirty years for the next few decades, which should see it overtake the US economically — in PPP terms — if not by 2020, then by 2030. That is soon enough to make the questions it raises urgent. And already China is building military forces that challenge America’s maritime supremacy in the Western Pacific.

The first big question is how the US responds: does it concede power and influence to China, or does it compete with China to preserve primacy? No one should doubt that America’s instincts are to compete. As Secretary of State Clinton delicately put it, in answer to a question on the White Paper: ‘we’re not ceding the Pacific to anyone.’

That is not necessarily in Australia’s interests. We would prefer to avoid having to choose between the US and China, and my hunch is that most Australians would be willing to see the US share power with China if that will keep the peace. But it will not be up to us. So what should Australia do if the US gets drawn into strategic competition with China nonetheless? Should we support the United States in an intensifying strategic competition with China? Or should we move away from the US and adopt a more independent strategic posture?

This choice raises issues about Australia’s place in the world and in Asia which go far beyond matters of defence policy. But it has implications for defence policy nonetheless. Either option would require Australia to build up its strategic capacity — either to allow us to do more to support the US, or to do more for ourselves. We would in other words need to build forces that gave us the genuine strategic weight of a middle power. Those forces might look very different, and cost a lot more, than we have been used to in recent decades.

If we decide we want to remain a middle power in the Asian century, we have some hard thinking to do. What strategic interests do we want to protect, and how could we use armed force to protect them? What kinds of operations would we want to be able to undertake? What kinds of forces could undertake them most cost-effectively? And how much would they cost?

Predictably, having equivocated about the future of American power in Asia, the White Paper equivocates on all these issues as well. In some places it is highly conservative, harking back to the 1987 White Paper’s narrow focus on the defence of Australia. In other places it echoes the 2000 White Paper’s wider conception of strategic interests and objectives. It does not carefully consider how the eclipse of US primacy should reshape our strategic objectives, nor does it systematically examine the operational options we might need to achieve them.

As a result, the White Paper’s centerpiece proposals to expand Australia’s naval forces lack coherent strategic rationale. For example the huge investment proposed to expand Australia’s fleet of big warships from 3 to 11 is designed to provide Australia with ‘sea control’, according to the White Paper. But there is no explanation of why sea control is needed, and whether it can be achieved. ‘Sea denial’ is far easier to do, and would more cost-effectively meet Australia’s strategic objectives.

These are not easy questions. It is not clear whether Australia can afford the forces to give us the strategic weight of a middle power in the Asian century. But it is clear that we could only do it by spending every dollar as carefully as possible. That requires hard choices, based on rigorous analysis and an unwavering acknowledgement of the dynamics of Australia’s strategic environment. The new White Paper provides neither of these.