The United States should welcome the more outward-looking defense posture embodied in the Australian white paper released on Dec. 6. Although the country’s armed forces will remain configured mostly for the defense of Australia, enhanced capabilities can also be used to contribute to allied coalitions farther afield. In particular, the decision to improve the capabilities of the surface navy shows that Australia intends to be a more credible ally of the United States.
Support for a much-needed boost in defense spending now exists because last year’s Australia’s U.N.-authorized intervention in East Timor revealed equipment deficiencies.
The white paper foreshadows increases in defense spending of 3 percent annually for the next decade. New capabilities will include four new Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, with the option of three more later. Air capabilities will be further enhanced by upgrades and eventual replacement of the F-18 strike aircraft; a follow-on for the strike capabilities of the aging F-111 strike aircraft; and new refueling aircraft. Improvements in maritime capabilities will include at least three new air warfare destroyers and the replacement of 15 patrol boats. Ground capabilities will be increased by maintaining six infantry battalions at high readiness, an increase of two battalions made necessary by the Timor deployment.
With many Indonesians still resentful of that intervention, Australia has sought to assure them that these new capabilities will not be pointed at Jakarta, and that Australia does not support secessionism in Indonesia. Despite political and cultural differences, Indonesia and Australia have congruent strategic interests. The unity of the Indonesian archipelago, and maritime passage through the straits, are vital interests for Australia, as well as for the U.S. and Japan.
Given recent instability in the “inner arc”‘ of South Pacific and Southeast Asian countries in Australia’s neighborhood, the U.S. will welcome Australia’s heightened capabilities. But Australia cannot assume that it will become a better ally simply through greater burden-sharing in the inner arc. That’s because Australia’s security ultimately depends on a stable balance among the great powers of North Asia. So the U.S. should be pleased that the new white paper is a further significant step away from the neoisolationism that marked the first Australian defense white paper in 1976.
The 1976 white paper was a consequence of the Vietnam War, in which Australia lost 500 soldiers. Neoisolationists sought to tie Australia’s defense forces so closely to continental defense that they would be incapable of participating in coalitions farther afield. By emphasizing conventional submarines and strike aircraft, they sought a technologically capable defense force — but at the expense of the surface navy. That would leave Australia unable to contribute much to coalitions in distant waters. Thus the neoisolationists sought to retain the benefits of alliance while accepting few costs and risks. That approach was reflected in the 1986 Dibb report, which alarmed the U.S. because it could be read as wishing to take Australia out of the alliance.
Aware of the risks in a policy that seemed to threaten the alliance, the Labor government in its white papers of 1987 and 1994 modified Australia’s security posture to “self reliance within a framework of alliances.” The ambiguity allowed for flexibility, as shown by Australia’s minimal commitment to the Persian Gulf War when it sent two frigates and an oiler. As a consequence of the force-structure decisions of the neoisolationists, it had little else to send.
In contrast, the 2000 white paper foreshadows giving Australia greater sea-control capabilities provided by surface ships and long-range air power. Those capabilities would enable Australia to make a more meaningful contribution to allied coalitions far from Australia’s shores. While long-range air power is usually provided by carrier borne-aircraft and foreign bases, Australia has neither. So the new white paper is a move in the right direction by giving Australia’s surface ships credible defensive and offensive capabilities, and by foreshadowing the purchase of air warfare destroyers.
Those capabilities will allow Australia to make a more useful contribution to a future North Asian crisis than it did in the Persian Gulf in 1990. True, political management of a crisis in the Taiwan Strait would be tricky. Few Australians see an interest at stake in the Taiwan issue, and Australia would not be automatically obliged to support a U.S. intervention in defense of Taiwan. Yet Australia does have a vital interest in the preservation of Taiwan’s de facto independence. If China succeeded in taking Taiwan by force or threat, that would be highly dangerous to regional security because of the precedent it would set, and its likely impact on Japan.
The force structure foreshadowed in the new white paper will give a future Australian government a wider range of options in any North Asian crisis. That should reduce the risk of a rupture in the alliance that might occur if Australia came to be seen in Washington as an irresponsible free-rider like New Zealand.
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