By Elke Larsen —
The Australian 2016 Defence White Paper released February 25 is proof that Australia is uncertain about the future of the Indo-Pacific region, and has moved to mitigate risk by expanding hard power capabilities.
Due to geographic location, much of Australia’s prosperity is dependent on peaceful maritime trade and open access through Southeast and Northeast Asia. According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, two-way trade was worth $472.5 billion in 2014-15, with six of Australia’s top ten trading partners situated in Southeast and Northeast Asia.
However, with many of its neighbors militarizing against a backdrop of potential flashpoints, Australia’s core interest in regional stability may be threatened. The South China Sea and East China Sea disputes threaten to disrupt major sea lanes. Moreover, the rise of great powers such as China and India will ultimately challenge the current rules-based order favored by Australia, as they jockey for a greater voice in regional affairs.
As discussed in the White Paper, it is to Australia’s ongoing benefit to support the current rules-based order that has been guaranteed by a strong U.S. presence in the region. The reasons for this are twofold. In the short term, the United States’ regional involvement balances tensions, secures freedom of navigation, and broadly aligns with Australian values. As such, much of the White Paper is focused on boosting interoperability with the United States with the implicit commitment to greater burden sharing in the future.
In the long term, a continued U.S. presence may help force a more gradual change to the rules-based order as regional giants begin to challenge the system. The White Paper says “the stability of the rules-based global order is essential for Australia’s security and prosperity. A rules-based global order means a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules which evolve over time.” Australia clearly intends for this to be a slow and inclusive transition where the rules change rather than the order itself.
Despite this aspiration, it is undeniable that Australia recognizes it is facing a more complex strategic situation than ever before and thus finds it difficult to fully forecast what the landscape will look like in the next 20 years. As a result, the White Paper also says that Australia “needs to be able to independently and decisively respond to military threats” – a policy that has been supported by a commitment to increase high-tech capability in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The Turnbull government will raise defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2020-21, approximately $20 billion more than previously promised under the Abbott government. Aside from promising 5000 additional defense personnel, the White Paper also outlines several notable acquisitions including 12 new submarines that will begin replacing the Collins class sub by 2020, 72 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, and upgrades that will mechanize Australian infantry.
By building these capabilities Australia will not only be better equipped to protect its own maritime borders but its force projection will also provide Australia a more credible and independent voice in regional politics and disputes.
Overall, the underlying message in the 2016 Defence White Paper is one of uncertainty over what the future may hold in the Indo Pacific. Australia is clearly building capability to support the United States’ continued presence in the region. Its strategic goal is equally clear in promoting the ongoing rules-based order which underpins the region’s stability. Yet we must also view Australia’s commitment to increase capability independently from its close relationship to the United States – Australia is building a platform on which it can build greater regional influence. In a region where rising powers are rapidly building their military capabilities, Australia also needs to have a strong foundation if it is to have a voice in the region’s future.
Ms. Elke Larsen is an M.A. Candidate in Strategic Studies at the Australian National University College of Asia & the Pacific.