Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:51 | SYDNEY
Saturday 21 Jul 2018 | 19:51 | SYDNEY

White Paper: China nightmare, Indonesian dream


Graeme Dobell

4 May 2009 11:42

Australia has decided to stop worrying about Indonesia and start worrying about China. The Defence White Paper has given formal sanction to the identification of China as the potential bogey.

As one of the safest countries in the world, the Australian quest for a foe is always difficult. But if you are a defence planner talking to the politicians with their hands on the money lever, you’ve got to come up with something that just perhaps, maybe, one day, potentially could be a threat.

The problem with the strategist mantra about capabilities, not present intentions, is that the methodology insists that you keep going until you find somebody with a capability. And that means measuring falling capabilities as well as those with growing power.

The big strategic changes identified by Australia this decade are picked out in one sentence in the preface to the White Paper by the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon: ‘the rise of China, the emergence of India and the beginning of the end of the so-called unipolar moment; the almost two-decade-long period in which the pre-eminence of our principal ally, the United States, was without question.’

The Minister’s description of the US fall from its sole seat on top of the mountain becomes a discussion in the White Paper about how US primacy will be tested. Australia describes the dilemma that would be posed by a US that becomes preoccupied, stretched or constrained in its ability to project power.

While currently unlikely, a transformation of major power relations in the Asia Pacific region would have a profound effect on our strategic circumstances. Of particular concern would be any diminution in the willingness or capacity of the United States to act as a stabilising force.

China keeps popping into the frame — implicitly and explicitly — as the unlikely-but-conceivable great power threat. The White Paper worries that over the next 20 years, major powers will clash dramatically in the approaches to Australia ‘as a consequence of a wider conflict in the Asia Pacific.’

Geoffrey Barker calls all this, ‘a distinct but cautious toughening of the Australian strategic assessment of China’s military expansion and rising official scepticism about China’s protestations of benign intent.’

To mark this distinct hardening of judgement, compare the previous White Paper in 2000 with the new effort. Nine years ago, China was the ‘fastest growing security influence in the region’. All that was envisaged were frank discussions with Beijing about ‘hard issues…such as different perceptions of the value and importance of the US role in the region.’ Viewpoints might differ, but lots of talking was the solution.

The 2009 version is much darker in its detail and direction. China is to be the ‘strongest Asian military power by a considerable margin’. China will develop the power projection capabilities of a ‘globally significant military’. The ‘pace, scope and structure’ of China’s military modernisation worries everyone else in the neighbourhood. And, so far, nobody is convinced by Beijing’s explanations.

The region sees a military machine going ‘beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan.’ When Kevin Rudd speaks of a regional arms build-up, he is speaking about China’s actions and the almost inevitable counter-reactions of other states.

If the build-up turns into a full arms race, Australia will have done its bit to up the ante. Doubling the submarine force is about lifting the numbers of an existing capability. Committing to cruise missiles is a change to Australia’s offensive arsenal.

Canberra has long agonised over the perception problems in Asia if Australia introduced cruise missiles into the equation. The White Paper acknowledges that this was once a deep concern to our strategic thinkers with some lawyerly justifications.

Acquisition of land attack cruise missiles is ‘fully consistent with Australian treaty obligations and customary international law.’ If that doesn’t convince, then the clincher offered is that cruise missiles ‘will act as a hedge against longer-term strategic uncertainty.’

As China rises, the White Paper lays to rest many of the nightmares about Indonesia that have haunted Australian military planning for decades. In the 2000 White Paper, Canberra’s vision of Jakarta was clouded by tumultuous events: the fall of Suharto and the bloody birth of East Timor. Australia hoped to reach beyond past difference and ‘lingering misunderstandings’.

In the 2009 version, Australia can hardly believe its luck at the way the defence relationship ‘has broadened and matured into a sophisticated partnership’. Even better, our most important neighbour is, for the first time in its history, offering a democratic lead to the rest of ASEAN.

Indonesia has made remarkable gains in the past decade. It has managed a successful transition to multiparty democracy, embarked on the long journey of economic reform, and proven to be a strong partner in the fight against terrorism. It is likely that these positive trends will continue, and that Indonesia will continue to evolve as a stable democratic state with improved social cohesion.

In musing about the potential nightmares posed by China, it’s worth recalling how many years Australia spent worrying about what could go wrong with Indonesia. Luck or good management means the dire Indonesian scenarios have transformed into something like a dream run. 

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