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Australia’s defense in the age of a rising China

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The great Scottish poet Robbie Burns craved the gift “to see ourselves as others see us.” The refrain kept going through my head as I read the Australian Defense White Paper published in February, which maps the strategic environment to 2035, identifies the threats Australia is likely to confront, and describes the steps it will take to meet these contingencies. This is the first defense paper to assess defense needs against two major trends that directly impact Australia’s security: the power transition and the changing technology of warfare, including the constantly mutating threats of international terrorism and cyber-attacks.

Rich, sparsely populated and perched on the edge of Asia, Australia is dependent for security and prosperity on long and vulnerable transportation networks. Its wealth makes it an attractive target for potentially hostile countries but also permits it to build and sustain a highly professional and capable defense force that necessarily has to be small. For decades the strategy has been framed in terms of the “air-sea gap”: If we can secure the air and sea gaps between potentially hostile forces and the Australian continent, we can prevent the enemy from attacking the homeland.

With advances in technology, attacks can be launched from over the horizon farther out, and therefore the strategic defense perimeter has to be stretched outward. This increases the importance of maritime security and Australia will invest accordingly in a substantial upgrade of surveillance, interception, interdiction and strike capabilities by air and, especially, sea in the Indo-Pacific theater. Wherever possible, it will do so in partnership with its global alliance leader, the United States, and regional states in Asia-Pacific. The potential for a security partnership between Australia, the U.S., Japan and India to defend the Indo-Pacific theater is obvious.

How China develops and evolves domestically and how it behaves internationally are the two most critical questions for its neighbors, for Asia and for the world. Unlike previous papers, the 2016 document does not ignore the accumulating flashing neon lights of assertive and belligerent provocations by China in a ring of disputes around its borders. The paper’s focus on the military rise of China and the militarization of its maritime disputes — “the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities,” the construction of military-grade airfields and the installation of missiles — is laser sharp.

The kid gloves with which China’s provocations were treated previously are being armor plated. China’s strategy has been to deploy strategic patience alongside below-the-horizon creeping expansion and militarization that induces strategic fatigue in Washington, weakens regional resistance to China’s growing presence and activities, promotes gradual accommodation and finally a resigned reconciliation with China’s primacy on Beijing’s terms.

Australia’s defense white paper, by contrast, seems to bet on China backing down if the U.S. and its allies demonstrate the intent to maintain U.S. primacy, and the existing regional order being maintained peacefully on this basis. The key strategic assumptions behind the white paper are thus questionable and the whole house of cards could come tumbling down if instead the U.S. quietly retreats and concedes primacy to China in its own region; or else tensions escalate into a war that Australia is obliged to join as a U.S. ally.

Is it wise to bet on a more robust forward deployed presence when the strategic environment is becoming tougher and Australia’s relative economic and diplomatic weight is shrinking, asks Hugh White, a former deputy defense secretary. Peter Jennings, another former deputy defense secretary who led an external experts panel advising the government on the white paper, praises its vision of “taking the fight into maritime Southeast Asia.” Not surprisingly, Beijing has attacked Canberra’s seeming reversion to a Cold War mentality.

In the 2013 white paper, the phrase “rules-based global order” was used five times. In 2016, it is used 48 times, plus another three references to a “rules-based regional order.” It is a pity that Australia does not conduct a full, frank and honest self-scrutiny on its own fidelity to global norms, rules and laws, including the sharp break between its obligations under the 1951 U.N. refugee convention and its treatment of asylum seekers. The failure to do so confirms the truth of the claim that we nurse grievances toward others because we suffer the consequences of their actions; but believe our own actions to be entirely understandable and ignore their consequences on others.

The paper asserts that “The stability of the rules-based global order is essential for Australia’s security.” One of the most sacrosanct rules of the existing global order is the prohibition on inter-state aggression. This was violated big time on three recent occasions: by Iraq against Kuwait in 1990, by the U.S.-U.K.-Australia coalition against Iraq in 2003, and by Russia against Ukraine in 2014. The 2003 aggression was especially egregious because it was against a country half a world away that posed no threat to anyone else’s security.

Washington reserves the right to take unilateral military action at will. In 2014 President Barack Obama insisted all countries must obey international law, having previously asserted at West Point the right to use force unilaterally if necessary to defend U.S. vital interests. Even a learned and intelligent president failed to see the contradiction in his speeches just five months apart.

But others take note and China as a rising great power is poised consciously to emulate U.S. behavior of threats and actions against those who would dare cross its will. Where the U.S. has led, China will follow: on exceptionalism, forward basing, threats and unilateral use of force, intimidation, belligerent rhetoric and actions, regime change, provocations, and illegal wars of aggression. America has been a good master and China might prove an excellent pupil. This is why the path to ensuring China’s compliance with a rules-based order runs through Washington.

With regard to bullying weaker neighbors into accommodating big powers’ interests, Canberra’s exhortations to Beijing are at odds with its treatment of East Timor regarding maritime resources, including a cavalier disrespect for lawyer-client confidentiality and the use of national intelligence services on behalf of commercial interests.

Western policy elites really do need to wake up and smell the coffee, and not just domestically a la Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Double standards and hypocrisy may have been possible in a different era of Western hegemony but are unsustainable as the power balance shifts. In the Internet age, the different standards are highlighted instantly. If we want China to respect rules-based regional and global orders, we had better learn to do so ourselves: no country has a god-given or self-proclaimed right to be the sole judge of both its own and everyone else’s compliance with rules, norms and laws.

Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.