Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:31 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:31 | SYDNEY

Defence White Paper goes too far, too fast


Rory Medcalf


5 May 2009 12:41

It seems that everything has to be black and white in columnist Gerard Henderson’s view of the current debate about Australia’s Defence White Paper and China. He did not so much distort the argument in my recent opinion piece as miss the point entirely.

My point was not, as Henderson caricatured, that Australia should slavishly obey either Beijing or Washington (or, somehow, both). I think Australia is right to be concerned about China’s rising economic and military power. As my opinion piece said, of course Australia is right to hedge. Australia is right to continue increasing its strategic weight, including through a larger and stronger Navy, both on the surface and beneath it.

On these points, I would broadly support the direction of the White Paper. I am even persuaded that sooner or later Australia will need to increase its level of defence spending. And the government is absolutely right to seek to sustain a strong US alliance and presence in Asia.

Much of my criticism of the White Paper — and more particularly with the China-focused drumbeat of media leaks that preceded it — is on the plane of diplomacy. By signalling now, with fairly maximalist transparency, that we see China’s rise as the main driver of our strategic-level threat perceptions in the decades ahead, that we are comprehensively modernising our maritime forces as a consequence, and that we see relatively little scope for substantive security cooperation with China, we could influence strategic thinking for the worse, both in China and other regional countries.

In China, this could mean providing ammunition to the hardline and paranoid side of the debate over what sort of military Beijing should possess and how it should be used. (Make no mistake: there is a robust debate, and its outcomes are not preordained.) In other Asian countries, Australia's position could encourage those who already assume China's attentions are malign. We can't have it both ways: pretending that we are too small and benign for our military decisions to influence others' behaviour, yet trying hard to make ourselves appear (and become) bigger and meaner.

An increase in Australian maritime capabilities (especially in submarines and anti-submarine warfare) can be calmly justified as about keeping pace with regional trends — which indeed is part of the message Prime Minister Rudd has sought to convey. But we could have been more gradualist in unveiling our plans, especially since their actual implementation will take decades, and may never in their totality come to pass.

On capabilities, there are quite a few smart decisions in the White Paper, about which I will blog shortly. But the categorical announcement that Australia will arm its entire major combatant fleet with long-range cruise missiles was premature and unnecessary. This capability, more than any other, will reinforce the view that Australia is going too far, too fast in anticipating China conflict scenarios.

It is a needlessly dramatic signal to go from having not a single platform equipped with this 2,500km strike weapon to suddenly announcing that we intend to have about two dozen vessels thus armed. There would have been no harm in simply indicating that we were keeping this option open, against the possibility of deterioration in the strategic environment, while of course ensuring that the future fleet could be fitted with such weapons if necessary (as was presumably already the case with plans for the three Air Warfare Destroyers). Sometimes it pays to hide your capabilities and bide your time.

Photo by Flickr user Gigapix, used under a Creative Commons license.