Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:38 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 10:38 | SYDNEY

Defence debate: White-isms and the China bogey


Graeme Dobell

21 April 2009 11:01

This post is part of our debate on Australia's defence policy. Here are parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven and eight.      

Is the potential-possible-maybe threat of China enough to get the Rudd Cabinet to sign up to a defence spending binge out to the end of the next decade and beyond? Hugh White’s paper gives us a taste of the China scenarios that have shaped the Defence White Paper.

The China bogey is useful, even essential, in getting such a Cabinet commitment. Cabinets need to be persuaded to part with dollars. When it comes to Defence, a potential threat is a help, even a necessity. (And a big wish list that can be scaled back at the edges is also part of the game.) The question that has never been uttered at the Cabinet table is: ‘Are you sure that is enough money?’

The closest Defence has come to that sort of moment was in the amazing Howard era gifts of the Globemasters and the Super Hornets (billions of dollars of kit that the Air Force hadn't been game to ask for). Although that was only a few years ago, those purchases look like never-to-be repeated aberrations thrown up by a golden period of bumper tax revenues.

How convincing is Hugh’s China bogey? He has had a touch-up from the two other members of the ex-Defence deputy secretaries club. Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith read his paper as an argument that China will ‘inevitably’ pose a serious military threat to Australia.

The Cabinet critics of a big defence spend could deploy the Dibb/Brabin-Smith perspective that it’s highly premature to start preparing to confront the bogey:

‘It is too early to conclude that we need to decide now to embark on a significant expansion of the ADF tailored to the Chinese threat…Nor do we believe that we should plan to defend Australia against a large Asian power on our own. Otherwise, what is the US alliance for? If we really thought this, then it would be inexcusable not to consider nuclear options.’

So, add the ex-deputy secretaries to those siding with Canberra’s intelligence doves. Hugh, by contrast, is firmly with the military hawks, or at least the hedging realists. This Canberra typology (intelligence doves versus military hawks) is now our version of Washington’s dragon slayers versus panda huggers.

The argument about what sort of China is rising has become the intellectual contest running through the creation of the Defence White Paper. The doves interpret China’s military build-up as largely defensive and in line with China’s overall growth. The hawks worry that China will one day confront the US for military supremacy in Asia.

The endless international relations debate in universities between the Hobbesian realists and the more hopeful liberal internationalists is now getting a bit of a run through the bureaucratic corridors of Russell Hill.

Photo by Flickr user Mic*, used under a Creative Commons licence.