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In Beijing’s Shadow: the Future of Australian Defence Policy

July 29th, 2016

By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow

Despite the hopes of Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, this month’s elections in the country failed to produce a decisive outcome. Although Turnball’s Liberal-National Coalition is likely to be able to scrape together a governing majority, significant questions remain over both the current prime minister’s continued leadership and his wider policy agenda. Even though Australia is celebrating an unprecedented twenty-five years of sustained economic growth, stable government in Canberra is clearly some way off. However, one major aspect of Australian government policy that is unlikely to be significantly impacted upon by the absence of a strong government is the nation’s approach to security and defence. The support shown by the Australian Labor Party for the Liberal-National Coalition’s February 2016 Defence White Paper highlighted a remarkable level of cross-party consensus, including the increasing of defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP by 2021, and with regards to an overall ten year fixed funding model that will see an additional A$29.9bn spent on defence ($26.63bn) over the next decade.  Although pilloried by its detractors as a commitment to a ‘regional arms race’ and criticised by China, the White Paper represents a balanced, well-considered and fully funded vision for the defence of Australia and its interests. The main arguable flaw is that it takes a certain degree of interpretation to understand exactly what this vision entails.

The post-war historical evolution of Australian defence policy can be broadly split into four eras. The thirty years following World War Two saw the dominance of the ‘Forward Defence’ strategy – the key concept being that Australia would act in collaboration with its allies to engage regional threats before they could reach the Australian mainland. However, the trauma of the Vietnam War soured Australia on the concept of expeditionary operations and resulted in the US – a country with which Australia has a mutual defence treaty – drawing back on its commitment to protect its allies. The outcome of this was that Canberra adopted a ‘Defence of Australia’ posture, with efforts focused on the securing of the homeland. Finally, the experience of leading the UN intervention in East Timor in 1999 and a desire to reinvigorate the US-Australian alliance through greater international collaboration led to a further gradual recalibration towards a hybrid defence strategy. This retained self-defence as the priority, but also saw a return to regional and global operations – a concept referred to by some as ‘Forward Cooperation’. This was most clearly embodied in Australian operations during the Iraq War and in Afghanistan.

More recently – particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis that raised questions about the continued predominance of US power – the focus of Canberra has pivoted towards managing the rise of China. To many, the 2016 White Paper represents only a further incremental move in this direction, building on a shift which began in Defence White Papers published in 2009 and 2013. However, close examination of the 2016 White Paper allows for the teasing out of subtle yet critical differences from its predecessors. Most notably, the document lists three core strategic objectives for Australia’s defence efforts:

  • Deter, deny and defeat attacks on/or threats to Australia and its national interests, and northern approaches
  • Make effective military contributions to support the security of maritime South-East Asia and support the governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and of Pacific island countries to build and strengthen their security
  • Contribute military capabilities to coalition operations that support Australia’s interests in a rules-based global order

Whilst not exactly controversial, it has been noted with puzzlement by some observers that the Australian government has said that these priorities should be equally weighted in terms of importance. The main objection to this is straightforward: how can it be that the direct defence of Australia is not the overriding priority, as has been the case in all recent White Papers and Defence Updates? The somewhat dark answer to that question is that defending Australian territory is now so highly dependent on sustaining the existing regional system that the three priorities listed are near inseparable. Previously, the Defence of Australia strategy focused on securing the Sea-Air Gap between Australia and the Indonesian archipelago. However, it is now clear from a practical point of view that for it to ever become necessary to defend the country’s immediate approaches in a conventional battle, US-led power in the region would have to have already effectively collapsed. Defence of Australia lives on, but it is now anchored in the protection of the wider order of South-East Asia and the Pacific from the threat posed by China.

The notion that Canberra recognises that its own defence is ultimately dependent on holding the line as far to the north as possible helps to explain the White Paper’s repeated references (56 times in total) to sustaining the ‘rules-based’ international order. In terms of South-East Asia, ‘rules-based’ means the status quo, with the US remaining the predominant power in the region, and any attempt at significant Chinese territorial expansion contained. Evidence in both the White Paper and the real world suggests that Australia has identified that a priority must be to offer a meaningful contribution to supporting the US-led alliance in the region, at least in part to ensure that Washington does not so tire of feeling that it carries the burden alone that it reconsiders its position. The paper’s acknowledgment that “the levels of security and stability we seek in the Indo-Pacific would not be achievable without the United States” may on some levels be obvious, but its implications are crucial to understanding the Australian approach.

A notable shift towards what might be termed a ‘preservational strategy’ began to manifest itself several months before the White Paper’s publication, with the revelation that Canberra had waded into the dispute over China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea by joining the US in conducting freedom of navigation flights over the disputed territories. The White Paper itself declares that “‘Australia is particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities”. Although the desirability of becoming involved in the disagreement has been questioned by some, the motive becomes clearer if observed from the perspective of grand strategy and the loss of hope that Beijing will simply fit into the existing international system – the latter fear supported by China’s recent dismissal of the ruling of a UN tribunal on its South China Sea territorial claims. By confronting issues such as Beijing’s land reclamation as early on as possible and – more importantly – convincing the US that it will be supported in such exertions, Canberra appears to believe, or at least hopes, that such problems can be contained before they grow out of control. The great risk with such an approach is what happens if China calls the bluff of the US and its allies, a point perhaps reflected by Australia’s reluctance to meet US requests to deploy ships to the region to conduct freedom of navigation exercises. However, whilst sticking close to the US is a potentially dangerous proposition for Camberra, the alternative is to open the door to an eventual Chinese regional hegemony that Australia would be able to do little to counter.

How such an Australian strategy would play out if conflict commenced is open to speculation. Theoretically, the notion of Australian Defense Force (ADF) air, land and ground units being utilised as part of a wartime ‘blocking force’ in South-East Asia is the natural endgame for this expanded Defence of Australia stance. Additionally, this allows for compatibility between Canberra’s implied regional strategy and some of its force procurement decisions. This is not to imply full-throated Australian involvement in the US’s post-Air-Sea Battle plans for engaging with China. But there is nothing to stop a coalition contribution, with elements of the planned RAAF force of F-35A fighters being deployed north – alongside similar aircraft from the US and Japan. Further support could be provided by Australia’s imminently arriving EA-18G electronic warfare aircraft – the latter a type the US would dearly love to have more of at its disposal. The 2016 White Paper’s declaration that Canberra would procure a medium-range surface-to-air missile system and study options for a theatre ballistic missile defence capability also fit the narrative of an ADF structured to operate as part of a coalition against a highly capable opponent some distance from Australia’s shores.

Such a forward posture would also provide justification for one of the more interesting items in the White Paper – the purchase of land-based anti-ship missiles (LBASMs) for the Australia Army. Again, whilst some observers have claimed that this move lacks logic (the suggestion that they could be used to protect Australia’s offshore gas platforms is somewhat weak), it makes perfect sense in the wider context. LBASMs would be extremely useful in both the defence of key islands in the South and East China Sea, and in restricting People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) surface vessels’ freedom of movement in general. A significant problem is that the US military currently lacks such weapons, and is unlikely to acquire them in the near future due to budget pressures. However, were the Australian Army to deploy these systems, it would allow them to offer the US a key supporting capability. Naturally, none of these deployment possibilities are directly explored by the White Paper, but it is impossible to conceive that analysts in Beijing will not be reaching their own conclusions over potential intent.

Politically, the prominence of Japan in the White Paper is telling of Canberra’s forward-leaning strategy towards China. Although Japan and Australia have long been perceived as the northern and southern ‘anchors’ of the US-led regional system, bilateral security collaboration has until recently been limited. However, increasing alarm in Tokyo and Canberra at the rise of China has led to a steady tightening of the relationship between the two countries, a process which began with the signing of the Japan–Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in March 2007. Although it has been argued that the White Paper actually reflects a slight cooling of Canberra’s attitude to Japan since the era of former Prime Minister Tony Abbot – a perception perhaps boosted by the failure of Tokyo to secure a contract to build Australia’s new generation of submarines – the document still gives Japan a healthy billing as the country’s leading East Asian ally. The pledge to “continue to expand trilateral defence cooperation between Australia, Japan, and the United States for our mutual benefit”, and work together in “developing common capabilities like the Joint Strike Fighter, air and missile defence and maritime warfare technologies” indicate that, whilst not in the same hemisphere, Canberra and Tokyo are strategically on the same page in their need to maintain the regional order. More broadly, Australia’s effort to enhance its military capabilities is occurring in parallel to a similar drive by Japan.

None of the above is to argue that the defence of Australia proper is to be neglected. However, such measures must still be seen as part of an integrated whole as opposed to a distinct territorial defence policy objective. The return of a substantial US presence to Australia as part of the Pivot to Asia means that those ADF elements tasked primarily with homeland defence are essentially ‘double hatted’ to also protect US forces based in the country. It therefore makes sense to invest in notionally Defence of Australia capabilities from a more offshore standpoint: by providing a secure rear area and ‘strategic depth’ for US forces, Australia gets the over-the-horizon management of China that it requires to meet its strategic objectives.

The gradually increasing emphasis on anti-submarine warfare outlined in the 2016 White Paper is particularly important in this holistic defence context. For all the talk of the PLAN’s development of an aircraft carrier capability, the primary medium-term threat to Australia is from Chinese submarines in the context of their ability to both disrupt sea lines of communication – including the freedom of US forces to access Australia – and fire cruise missiles at land targets, with facilities being utilised by the US likely to be on top of the list. Against this backdrop, the White Paper opts to advance the Royal Australian Navy’s plans to double its fleet of submarines from six to twelve (paving the way for April’s selection of a French submarine design for the programme); build nine specialist anti-submarine warfare frigates to replace the current eight rather basic general purpose models; and increase the projected size of the future P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft fleet to fifteen aircraft. Although a force such as this would have little chance of success against China in isolation, it is safe to assume that in a wider conflict much of the PLAN’s submarine force would be concentrating its efforts on US Navy-led units in the South and East China Sea, and as a result the scale of the threat facing Australia would comprise of only a fraction of Beijing’s assets. By leading the protection of both the Australian homeland and the US rear area, Canberra would in effect be releasing US forces to ‘take the war north’. Given the projected fall in US Navy submarine numbers in the near future and the overextended nature of the US fleet in general, this type of genuine burden sharing would be appreciated by the Pentagon.

Australia does of course have a far broader set of security challenges than simply China, a fact which the White Paper goes to great lengths to outline. Whilst preparing for a conflict with Beijing represents a worst case scenario, much of what is planned is designed to form a flexible force that is capable of acting in a wide variety of scenarios. Instability in Australia’s immediate neighbours, including Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and a number of Pacific island countries, has been a cause of concern for decades. It is in this context, as opposed to any notion of high-intensity warfare against a major power, that the recent build-up of Australia’s amphibious landing capability must be seen. Further afield, counterterrorism operations are a priority, as can currently be seen in Australia’s contribution to the war against ISIS. Border control efforts will also continue to remain a high-profile – if controversial – tasking to which the ADF contributes. But just as during the Cold War the British never took their eye off the USSR despite the challenges of the country’s global commitments and Northern Ireland, China must be seen as Australia’s benchmark threat.

The 2016 Defence White Paper does require significant surface scratching and interpretation to identify its true focus. Quite correctly, Canberra has no desire to needlessly publically antagonise Beijing. In large part this is simple pragmatism – China remains Australia’s single largest trading partner. However, the underlying message – that although Australia does not seek conflict, it is alive to the reality of the region in which it sits – is helpful to friends and foes alike in setting their own policies.  Although it will be decades before many of the document’s initiatives are fully manifest, the commitments made indicate that Australia is facing its security challenges with a determination that is absent in much of the West.

About Rowan Allport

Dr Rowan Allport is a Deputy Director who leads the HSC's Security and Defence team. Rowan holds a PhD in Politics and a MA in Conflict, Governance and Development from the University of York, as well as a BA (Hons) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Hull. Specialising in strategic analysis and international security, Rowan's primary areas of interest lie in the defence issues in and around the NATO region, interstate conflict and US foreign policy discourse. He is also the lead author of HSC's recent ‘Fire and Ice: A New Maritime Strategy for NATO’s Northern Flank’ report. Rowan's publication credits include articles and commentary in Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Hill, DefenseOne, RealClearDefense, The Strategist, UK Defence Journal, Politics.co.uk and The National Interest. He has previously worked as a lobbyist for the Whitehouse Consultancy in Westminster, and as a Senior Analyst for RAND Europe's Security, Defence and Infrastructure team.