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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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Part of the answer is being driven directly by China. Whereas Australia's last White Paper in 2000 viewed China as only one of a number of strategic concerns, in the past several years Australia has been more inclined to talk openly about China's military modernization. This document appears to represent the full maturity of this strategic perspective. According to the lead author of the 2000 White Paper, Canberra has "underestimated" the pace of China's recent military growth, which has generated "much more demanding future operational circumstances than were envisaged." China's uninterrupted double-digit increases its defense budget over the past two-decades were unexpected. The recent Department of Defense report on China's military budget observes that if trends in China's budget growth continue, its 2009 budget will be almost double its budget in 2005. This year, even in the midst of global financial uncertainty, China chose to increase its defense budget by almost 15 percent.

In the 1990s and 2000s the consensus in Australia was that it was premature to pursue a military expansion aimed at China. Prudence allowed for carefully observing strategic developments and delaying an aggressive procurement strategy to future decades. But China's rapid growth and development of its submarine and surface combatant fleet, anti-ship missiles, and cyber and space warfare technologies in the past decade have made it clear that in the coming decades, if the current trajectory is allowed to persist, the balance of military power in the region will tilt convincingly towards Beijing. Because strategy tends to outpace force structure, long-term defense planning requires long-term acquisition planning. It can take 15-20 years just to design, test, build, and field new defense systems; for Australia, the time to begin planning for the future is now.

Some early critics of the White Paper argue that Canberra should work to cooperate with Beijing, instead of committing to a hasty military competition. Cooperation across the military and economic spectrum is critical. But as long as Chinese defense budget enjoys double-digit increases, Australia simply cannot afford to take Beijing's word that its unprecedented peacetime buildup is purely defensive in nature.

But the even greater development that appears to be driving Force 2030 is not be the rise of China, but the potential decline of U.S. military primacy. For decades, the U.S. military has been responsible for maintaining an uncontested order in the Asia-Pacific that has served to greatly benefit Australia. The decline of American primacy in the coming decades would jeopardize Australia's security by fueling strategic competition amongst the economically charged powers of the region.

While Force 2030 concludes "the United States will remain the most powerful and influential strategic actor over the period to 2030," it is concerned that American power may become too stretched as it seeks to content with emerging events, further constraining its ability to respond. "This is likely to cause the United States to seek active assistance from regional allies and partners, including Australia, in crises, or more generally in the maintenance of stable regional security arrangements."

Perhaps drawing on the lessons of Australia's inaction during the decline of British hegemony, Force 2030 seeks to build a force that will enhance Australia's capacity to contribute to U.S.-led operations, while also granting the nation the ability to operate more independently if it needs to.

The divergence of opinion between Secretary Gates and Australian defense officials may also have a lasting impact on Australia's defense posture. The outcome of the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review could prompt an even more hasty erosion of U.S. primacy as Washington diverts more resources towards irregular warfare and stability operations, while trimming back its conventional capabilities in a bid to tighten the defense budget. belt. Nevertheless, a more dynamic ally, able to assist the U.S. internationally and contribute substantial assets towards ensuring peace and stability in the region should be a welcomed development for Washington.