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Observing China's Rise from Down Under

Australia looks to China's military expansion to chart its strategic future.

12:00 AM, May 15, 2009 • By ERIC SAYERS
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The Australian Department of Defence recently released its first defense White Paper in almost a decade. The much anticipated Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 addresses Australia's strategic priorities, taking the bold step of proposing a defense framework for addressing the rapid military expansion of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). Australia's prime minister Kevin Rudd appears to be convinced that, despite close economic ties, greater investment in the Australian Defense Force (ADF) is necessary.

Weary of the potential decline of U.S. primacy in the region, the new White Paper is a muscular declaration from Canberra that Australia plans to hedge against an uncertain future by maintaining its middle power status. Moreover, the strategic document may prove to have broader regional significance for other states that have witnessed China's military buildup with unease, but have remained unwilling to invest further in their militaries.

Although Australian Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon insists the White Paper is "not about China necessarily," Force 2030 acknowledges China will be a "leading stakeholder" in international affairs and potentially the strongest military power in Asia "by a considerable margin." The document's Sino-centric approach is readily apparent as it places a considerable emphasis on the balance of power between states. Concluding that it would be "premature to judge that war among states, including the major powers, has been eliminated as a feature of the international system," the White Paper also contends that "Islamist terrorism will continue to have inherent limitations as a strategic threat."

This is a stark deviation from the direction U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has proposed for the U.S. military in recent months. Gates has argued that the United States can afford to scale back procurement of its air and naval assets in preparation for a future of "hybrid" threats where the irregular military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan emulate the "trend(s) of future conflict." This view was also reportedly the position taken by the Australian intelligence community, which did not share the findings of the White Paper or its primary author, Deputy Secretary of Defence Mike Pezzullo.

In keeping with Gates' own focus, the document proposes an ADF with sufficient capabilities to contribute to stability operations in places like Afghanistan or East Timor. But it also offers an ambitious plan to grow Australia's air and sea power so that it can play a greater role in maritime control and denial operations in the Pacific. At the heart of this effort are 12 new next-generation submarines that will replace the current fleet of 6 Collins-class subs and grow the fleet by 6 more, 3 Air Warfare Destroyers, 8 next-generation frigates designed for anti-submarine missions, 8 new maritime surveillance aircraft, 24 naval combat helicopters, and 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

More significantly, the White Paper represents the first major strategic planning document from one of America's core allies in the region--not including Taiwan's Quadrennial Defense Review released this past March--to raise the issue of the strategic threat China poses while also declaring the need for a substantial defense reorganization to hedge against China's growing military power. Although Japan devoted greater attention to China in its 2005 National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG), it recommended only "to remain attentive to its future actions." The Japanese defense budget has continued to decline for the past 7 years.

While an arms buildup in the Asia-Pacific has been well underway for at least the past decade, only China has seen fit to participate. What then explains Australia's newfound willingness to not only recognize the strategic significance of China's military buildup, but also propose a costly and expansive defense modernization effort over the next 20 years?