Desperate attempt

The ‘Indo-Pacific’ region has become a geopolitical reality as the risks, opportunities, disputes and strategies concerning relevant nations have infused the broad region into a single strategic unit.

In this increasingly volatile region, countries are being forced to make complex strategic judgments of their geopolitical options both long-term as well as short-term. Defence capabilities and the strategic posturing of a country’s might is becoming the most defining factor in the power-play that is currently engaging the concerned countries in the region.

In this regard, Australia has produced a ‘Defence White Paper’ to meet new challenges in the region. The idea is to prepare an Australian Defence Force that is strong enough and strategically guided to meet the difficult situations head on. However, Australia will have to do much more than just producing a defence paper to outline its role and interests in this very compettive region.

For one, they completely lack a long-term foreign policy that is consistent, which is a fatal idea for strategy and politics in today’s times. Secondly, although the aim of the defence paper is to present the idea that Australia’s prime concern is to protect and enhance its national security interests, the reality seems otherwise.

It seems like Australia’s desperate attempt to grab attention as an important player in the region’s ongoing strategic rivalries, which seems vague as neither does it have the fiscal means to considerably boost its defence posture, nor does it have any overarching reason to claim to be one.

Australia, with its defence paper, has tried to only cause a stir in the strategic circles, so that it is viewed as a formidable force. Its army has traditionally been understood as one that involves itself in peacekeeping operations, like in Afghanistan and Timor-Leste, apart from the obvious task of securing national interests and security. As such, Australia’s national interests seem undisturbed by the ongoing power-play in the Indo-Pacific region but it still seems to want to cut a piece of the pie for itself.

It is widely recognized that with every change in government in Australia, their views on foreign policy also changes. They don’t have much consistent thought when it comes to securing a foreign policy on countries like India and China, who have been given special references as important powers in the defence paper on several occasions.

Policy reform

For example, despite many overtures from India to enhance the bilateral relationship with Australia, Australia never reciprocated in a similar manner. They never attached any importance to India and its economy, until after India’s emergence as a rising power in Asia. In fact, Australia made an attempt with India only last year, by enhancing trade ties when the then PM Julia Gillard visited India looking for business opportunities to boost her countries economic situation while it was struggling to overcome the financial crisis.

Now Australia realizes that as the Indo-Pacific region becomes a single arc, India’s position is catapulted into a highly strategic one, which is why Australia is doing its best to consolidate relations. Interestingly, now it has decided to conduct naval exercises with India in 2015 to enhance their ‘’bilateral and strategic partnership’’, something which was not considered important when Australia decided to pull out of the Malabar naval exercises in 2007. India has always considered Australia’s intentions dubious which is why it has found it hard to trust Australia unconditionally.

Australia has thus mentioned India in the defence paper as a strategic consideration for altering its defence posture in the region, as it considers its rise an important factor in shaping the ‘Asia Century’.

It recognizes that India is whole-heartedly ‘Looking East’, but is not entirely including Australia in its relevant strategic policies. As the Indian coastline is the most important geopolitical asset in the Indian Ocean, apart from its rising fame as an economic and diplomatic actor in the region, Australia has an ulterior interest in courting India. However, India and Australia have a common ally-the USA, which is perhaps acting as the glue that binds their larger strategic goal of containing China’s emerging dominance in the region.

In addition, Australia’s Defence White Paper of 2013 tells us about its lack of domestic political consensus more than anything else.

It has been noticed widely that with every change in the political setup of the government, their views on China changes. The 2009 defence white paper used confronting language towards China. It warned that the ‘’the pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernization have the potential to give its neighbors cause for concern’’. Interestingly, that was the time when Kevin Rudd was Australia’s PM, and he was known as someone who was particularly close to China. It was also the time when his domestic popularity was at an all-time low, which is probably why such a statement was presented even though bilateral relations were otherwise smooth.

The Defence paper of 2013 highlights a different view on China. The threatening view of China’s rise has been mitigated and now China is described as a regional giant whose rise Australia cherishes, with subtle caution. It refers to the South China Sea Dispute as a neutral actor of sorts, suggesting the use of International law to solve the issue, even when it is openly known that Australia cannot tolerate the idea of China’s rising presence in its backyard.

Australia is, in a lot of ways, bowing to China’s pressure as well. Even though it goes unsaid that in the USA-China rivalry in the region, Australia is USA’s pawn, it cannot adopt an offensive posture towards China.

Although China and Australia’s bilateral relations are set to rise, as the two countries have decided to spread their relations in the energy sector well, their relations have somewhat cooled down. The Rio-Tinto incident considerably strained their relations and what became evident was that Australia’s position in China’s eyes was disturbed. Now Australia realizes the importance of not disturbing economic relations with a giant like China, who is undoubtedly aiding the global economy from crumbling. Australia simply cannot lose business with China, which is why it is adopting a softer tone while dealing with China’s aggressive expansion.

Defence budget

Thus, in a completely different tone from the defence paper of 2009, the 2013 version of the defence paper realizes the fiscal reality that Australia’s economy is facing. The Australian government realized that its ambitious claims in 2009’s defence paper could not be matched with its spending. In fact, it was the then PM Kevin Rudd obsessive diplomatic compulsion to envisage a role for Australia that was more assertive and active. Greater military muscle would help achieve this dream. Thus, the 2009 Defence White Paper included the ambitious aim of 3 percent growth per year in defence spending.

Now, Australia realizes the limitations of its economy, wherein it cannot afford to even claim 3 percent growth in defence spending because its GDP just won’t allow. To save itself from criticism, the paper now states that the Australian government plans to grow its defence budget to around 2 percent of it GDP (although it may be subject to change if the strategic and fiscal circumstances allow). It uses the reason that Australia is responding to the strategic realities of its region, something which was dubiously ignored in the previous defence paper.

To be fair, it is indeed true that Western economies, who have traditionally been the heavyweights in defence spending, are currently being forced to reduce their spending because of the adverse effects of the global financial crisis on their economies. 

The more adverse effects have been felt on the Western economies, which is consequentially shifting the economic and strategic weight to the eastern part of the globe. This phenomenon is resulting in a decrease in the defence budget of western economies and an increase in defence spending of Asian counties. China, for instance increased its defence spending by over 140% in real times between 2000 and 2013. India is the largest importer of arms in the world. Regional countries like Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia have also recorded a growth in their defence budgets.

On the other hand, western governments are reducing their defence expenditure. Over the next decade, the USA plans to reduce its projected defence spending to at least US $487 billion, while the UK has announced a 7.5% cut in real terms over four years.

Australia remains in the top 15 defence spenders, which it says is consistent with its economic size and strategic reach.

But this phenomenon doesn’t explain why Australia needs to alter its defence posture. In fact, quite the contrarily, if this is indeed the case, then Australia shouldn’t be manufacturing headlines with respect to its defence spending, posturing and reforming. It should be lying low and not attracting any attention to its defence force at all. This raises the question that why, after all, keeping all these factors in mind is Australia posturing itself as a strategic regional player now.

The international strategic environment has become such that countries now have to periodically and methodically review their respective strategic settings. This is precisely why the government of Australia committed in 2009 that the defence white papers of their country would be released every five years. Also, in keeping with the times, Australia’s defence paper has envisaged more defence capabilities in terms of undersea warfare, anti-submarine warfare, surface maritime warfare, air superiority, strategic strike, Special Forces, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and cyber security.

The recent defence white paper seeks to review, assess and alter the defence posture of Australia to keep up with the changing circumstances of the region which it believes can have a profound effect on Australia’s national security of course, that of its region. But this is also the case for every defence force in the region, which makes the drumming around Australia’s Defence White Paper quite redundant and self-professing.

Australia is indeed preparing its defensive front amidst the ongoing economic strategic and military shift to the Indo-Pacific amidst the effects of the Global Financial Crisis, the drawdown of international forces from Afghanistan (including its own troops), and its ongoing operations in Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands. This means that because the Australian Defence Force is also experiencing a shift, it will have to manage these developments, which is why the objective of Australia will then be to utilize its defence forces in support of their interests and security in the region.

Strategic interest

To give its Defence Force a sustainable reason for existence now, the defence paper clearly states: ‘Australia’s most basic strategic interest remains the defence of Australia against direct attack and the security, stability and cohesion of our immediate neighborhood. Australia also has a real strategic interest in the broader Indo-Pacific region and in a peaceful, rules-based international order.’

However, it seems to be a forceful imposition on part of Australia to unnecessarily announce its arrival on the strategic power-play tournament underway in the region, when it really doesn’t need to.

To this, the paper claims that the region is experiencing unprecedented growth, transforming countries like China, India, Indonesia and South Korea; it becomes Australia’s priority to enhance its sovereignty and national security.

The paper defines the Indo- Pacific as an emerging system which, due to its broad spread has a series of sub regions defining its security architecture. Indeed, this is true.

Australia realizes that its security environment will be significantly influenced by how the region’s security architecture evolves. Thus, security of the region is defined as a ‘mix of integration and competition’.

What assumes importance here are the multilateral forums that define integrations and regional cooperation. Forums like the East Asia Summit and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its extended bodies are acting like the peacekeepers, as they focus on mitigating regional security issues through meaningful negotiation, cooperation and debate. The forums contribute in maintaining the status-quo, at a time when historical, territorial or maritime disputes such as the South China Sea, East China Sea, regional flashpoints amidst growing military capacities of nations increases the risk of destabilization.

The new defence white paper notes that the ASEAN political cohesion will be an increasingly important contributor to peace in the region. It also states its unparallel support to the development of multilateral mechanisms like the EAS, ASEAN Defence ministers plus and the ASEAN Regional Forum, alongside its bilateral partnerships. In addition to strengthening regional forums, Australia is also building defence and military relationships to position itself strategically in the complicated environment.

In addition, the influence of other regional powers such as Japan, South Korea and Indonesia is highlighted as important by the paper. The increasing number of influential Asian states means that the region will evolve into a more complex and competitive one.

Thus, what Australia has now done has been quite predictable. It has again altered its foreign policy to seek legitimacy for its defence posturing and claim to fame. By lauding multilateral forums like ASEAN and the EAS, it has knocked two birds with one stone.

First it has committed itself to a self-proclaimed presence of importance in a forum like ASEAN, which could currently work better with minimum outside interference so as to not aggravate situations and secondly, it has committed itself to a stakeholder in the regional security architecture.

What it has not directly stated but has nevertheless dropped significant hints of is the fact that Australia has positioned itself as the strongest US ally in the Asia-Pacific region and it is also seeking firmer defence ties with China.

Australia has gone so far as mediating a trilateral naval exercise between itself, USA and China. It is still very much wary of China’s increasing dominance, but for economic reasons it cannot afford to blatantly expose its intentions. This is precisely why it has begun courting countries like India and Indonesia, who it has traditionally been apart from.

Therefore, it becomes extremely important for the purpose of strategic analysis to read between the lines as far as Australia’s Defence White Paper of 2013 is concerned. Not only does it highlight the extremely fluctuating domestic political stand of Australia’s government, it also highlights at the fundamental problem of a lack of foreign policy artistry on behalf of Australia’s diplomats and policy makers.

More importantly, it signals at an attempt to carve out a place for itself in the already volatile power-struggle, which can significantly alter the balance of power in the region.