Alison Broinowski. Defence White paper – the China threat.

Mar 12, 2016

Strategically timid.


In his final book, which was too little noticed, Malcolm Fraser declared that we must reassess the strategic dependence which has determined our defence policy throughout settler Australian history. ‘We need the United States for defence’, he wrote in Dangerous Allies (2014), ‘but we only need defence because of the United States’. It is the ANZUS alliance, presented as guaranteeing our security, that poses the greatest threat to Australia, he concluded.

The reason most Australians in the security establishment held their noses, rolled their eyes, and looked the other way was that Fraser had said the unsayable. If any of them had suggested that the United States is a declining power and is unable or unwilling to defend Australia, their careers would no longer flourish. The reputation of ANZUS, as unilaterally invoked and extended by John Howard in 2001, remains like that of Caesar’s wife, beyond suspicion.

The very freedom we praise our armed forces for defending is not exercised in the security industry. Officials, academics, and mainstream media columnists are too timid to tell the unpalatable truth, face the facts, and sort out the consequences for something as vital as Australia’s defence.

The 2016 Defence White Paper was delayed for years, as political leaders and defence ministers came and went. But this cannot be the only reason it took so long. As the fundamental planning document for future defence budgets, activities, equipment, training and recruitment, it should prepare us appropriately for decades ahead by correctly reflecting changes affecting Australia since the last White Paper. Foremost among these changes are two: the further rise of China and the stationing of US troops in bases in Northern Australia.

American and Australian responses to China’s rise are ambivalent. On the one hand, consultations and exchanges of many kinds take place, and even exercises for military confidence-building. China ‘owns’ much of American debt, and Chinese corporations own the port of Darwin and Cubby Station. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and its saviour from the worst of the Global Financial Crisis. China is a massive sponsor, through student fees, of Australian higher education. China, Australia and the US regularly consult with our neighbours in the East Asia Forum.

On the other hand, China threatens to surpass the US as the world’s largest economy, and is testing American resolve in the South China Sea. Containment of China is the unspoken purpose of President Obama’s 2011 ‘pivot to Asia’, which Australia welcomed. Successive ministers have claimed Australia ‘does not have to choose’ between the US and China in the event of conflict in our region: but the fact is by offering northern Australia as an expanding base for US surveillance, troops, and now bombers, we have chosen already, and against our best interests. Australia is now implicated in any war the US wages in the region, and beyond.

The White Paper foresees US hegemony for the next 20-30 years, as a dependent ally must. But the United States, Obama admits, has neither the will nor the capacity to wage a land war in Asia, and is seeking to enlist Japan and Australia as its proxy combatants against China. Pushing back against China in the South China Sea, and risking a confrontation, could result in Japan changing its anti-war Constitution and both Japan and Australia breaching the terms of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, involving us in a war which would be unlikely to attract an endorsing resolution of the UN Security Council, and whose outcome might briefly benefit the US or China but not Australia or Japan.

Australians may be concerned about a well-armed China, but a declining United States which still owns weapons of mass destruction in massive numbers should raise equal anxieties. An overreaction from either of the rival superpowers of the future could be catastrophic. With such a prospect, an independent, self-interested Australia had an opportunity with this White Paper to seek a more sophisticated resolution of our ambiguity than ‘we don’t have to choose’. We have chosen, but in 2016 we were too strategically timid to admit it.

As a result of this White Paper – one which the ALP could itself equally have written – Australia has become even more strategically dependent on the United States and has postponed even further the prospect of regaining some form of sovereign control of our defence and foreign policy. Extending the usual spheres of security (land, sea, and air) to include space and cyber is a further exercise in sycophancy to the US and a further abandonment of independence.

Australia is less well prepared for this century than we were before the White Paper’s belated release. In spite of what some have claimed, the 21st century is not America’s, but the Asian Century. Yet without question, we now accept that answers to differences with our neighbours will be militarised, and that those disputes will be mediated by the United States. We are forgetting that under Howard, with a UN mandate, and without US boots on the ground, we managed a reasonably peaceful transfer of power in East Timor. Before Howard, we did the same in Cambodia. Now, we are forgetting our international obligation to refrain from threat or use of force against other countries.

We seem to have forgotten too, that in another White Paper, on Australia in the Asian Century (2011), China and Indonesia were among five countries to which Australia was urged to give priority status in broadening and extending relationships. Australians at all levels in government, academia, and business were exhorted to become ‘Asia-capable’, not just the young, but people who had been in their positions of influence for decades. Authors Ken Henry and Allan Gyngell offered a resolution to our ambiguity: but the Gillard government didn’t fund it and the rest is history.

Until the contradictory propositions of the 2016 Defence White Paper and the Asian Century White Paper are reconciled, Australia will continue to flounder between its defence alliance and its economic interests, its history and geography, and two superpowers.

Alison Broinowski was formerly a senior officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Director of the Australia Japan Foundation.  She is a Visiting Fellow at the ANU. 

Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!