Australia’s Defence White Paper 2016: Middle of the Road for the Region’s Biggest Middle Power?

By Helen Clark —

An Australian Light Armored Vehicle operating in Tangi Valley, Afghanistan. Source: ResoluteSupportMedia’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Australia’s newly released 2016 Defence White Paper indicates that Canberra has chosen to rely on the continued primacy of U.S. power and a vision for international order in line with Washington.

How Australia sees itself as a nation remains a vexed question. Are we displaced Anglos? An Asian nation with a difference? A top 20 nation? Or, help us all, a middle power? Australia is after all a member of the Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, Australia (MIKTA) group.

White papers and their ilk are a good way for other nations to assess what the progenitor considers important for strategy and policy. An explanation of defense strategy also provides a window into how a nation sees itself and its security environment. What does Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper say about Australia’s conception of itself and its capabilities?

In this case, Canberra’s long delayed white paper provides a strategic basis for continued close relations with the United States and indicates Australia sees itself as a middle power. The minister’s introduction argues the white paper is, “the most rigorous and comprehensive in Australia’s history.” The paper could have been released far earlier in 2015, but was stalled, memorably after a new shipbuilding announcement.

Despite this rigor, there is still a lack of new information in key areas. Which nation will build Australia’s submarines remains an obvious blank spot. Australia’s government reiterated its commitment to a fleet of 12 submarines and 72 F-35 fighters. The 2 percent of gross domestic product going towards defense as a firm commitment announced in the document is new, however. The budget will go up to 2 percent by 2021, part of Australia’s pledge to the United States to help out more in the region.

If one believes that middle powers tend towards rules based systems, multilateralism, and international organizations while preferring the status quo then this white paper provides support for the idea that Australia sees itself as a middle power.

Crispin Revere, writing on the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog, says that the phrase “rules based” are repeated 56 times in the 191-page document. He suggests that this is actually an “admission of this epochal strategic shift” (in the waning of U.S. primacy) that worries Australia, hence such focus on the rules, something absent in previous papers.

However, American primacy is very much alive and well in the paper, as U.S. experts have pointed out. For example, the paper argues, “The levels of security and stability we seek in the Indo-Pacific would not be achievable without the United States.”

A reliance on the centrality of U.S. power to Australia’s security interests, but also “rules-based order” might sound like a minor contradiction. Especially if one infers from the latter a firm belief in the importance of institutions and consensus within them for steady and safe global governance, and to act as a brake on imperious great powers. However, Australia has framed those rules as those of the United States, thus there is far more confluence than contradiction.

A “rules-based order” was on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s mind when he was recently in Washington, telling a public audience that “the U.S.-anchored rules-based order has delivered the greatest run of peace and prosperity this planet has ever known.”

The U.S.-Australia alliance remains front and center in the White Paper. Though questioned in some corners down under, and by Turnbull in the past, it is unlikely that there will be any serious rethinking of the deep ties between the United States and Australia given the strategic uncertainty in the South China Sea regarding Chinese actions (which Turnbull addressed in his first interview as prime minister). Whether Australia will join the United States, or conduct its own freedom of navigation patrols is not known.

And China? The importance of balancing China’s economic benefits with the United States’ strategic prowess is never far away from strategy talk or newspaper columns. Hugh White, one of Australia’s better-known realists and a professor at the Australian National University, has written extensively on this issue. China has already lambasted the White Paper and Beijing has thrown in some references to a Cold War-esque mindset.

Yet the white paper is definitely less meek when it comes to tackling China’s increasingly assertive behavior and makes clear it wishes Beijing to follow that “rules-based” order, given that it is “newly powerful,” something China would likely vigorously contest.

What about the rest of the world, not just the two large powers Australia sometimes feels caught in between? Indonesia, Australia’s stable mate in the middle power club MIKTA, has by some assessments been ignored to the detriment of the relationship between the two countries. While commitment to a close relationship is there, ideas for improving Indo-Australia ties are not. The rest of the Commonwealth does not get much attention. Australia retains its commitment to the Pacific and nations like Papua New Guinea.

The reception of the paper has been mixed. Defense analyst and serving member of the Australian Defence Force Cate McGregor spoke highly of the document to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s The Drum. But others, such as commentators at the Lowy Institute, have wondered if it is not strategically low-key, beyond sticking to the rules and international order as a bulwark against China. Is playing by the rules a way for a middle power to stick to the middle of the road in a changing world?

Ms. Helen Clark is an Australian journalist and former Vietnam correspondent. She is currently the Oceania correspondent for The Diplomat where she writes on Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.


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