Rocking the Boat: Why you should care about Australia’s Defence White Paper

The Australian Government’s Department of Defence released a new Defence White Paper (DWP) 25 February 2016 outlining their long-term plans for future defence investment. In an international bureaucratic arena awash with thought pieces, policy papers and publications, the fact that this release sent shockwaves across the Asia-Pacific region seems baffling. Within 24 hours of the policy paper being released by Canberra, the Chinese Defence Ministry accused Australia of promoting a ‘Cold War mentality’, pushing one of the most important bilateral relationships in the region towards the rocks at an unexpectedly rapid rate. So, why was the paper such a big deal?

Image courtesy of Royal Australian Army © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Royal Australian Army © 2012, some rights reserved.

The answer lies in the South China Sea. As has been widely reported, China has recently been ramping up their policy of DIY island building. By dredging sand from the sea floor and piling it upon reefs, they have constructed new island military bases close to some of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Although this has been ongoing for some time, it has recently gotten a little too close to home for Australia.

The DWP outlines Australia’s dissatisfaction bluntly. It clarifies fully funded strategic aims for the future, providing a firm commitment to countering what Canberra views as the biggest threats to the Australian nation. Although the declassified version is ambiguous in language— basing Asian threats in ‘points of tension’ where ‘newly powerful countries’ seek to ‘challenge the rules that govern actions in the global commons of the high seas’— it is clear that Australia is pulling no punches. In total, the restructuring promises an extra 30 billion Australian Dollars of defence funding before the year 2025.

Canberra has promised the delivery of 12 new ‘regionally superior’ submarines, alongside a strengthened anti-submarine warfare division, comprised of both aircraft and frigates. An investment in ‘near sea’ protection, it is bolstered by the reinvigoration of a number of northern-situated military installations, hardening a martial buffer between Australia and Asian neighbours. Of particular interest is a large investment in the Air Force base on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Sitting some halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka, and within reach of South Asian shipping lanes, the Australian Overseas Territory is pledged AUD200 million of investment in its military infrastructure. The island’s location, far closer to the Chinese island building sites than the Australian mainland, makes it the perfect spot for drone surveillance and increased intelligence reconnaissance reach.

This all adds up to a pretty firm commitment to higher levels of military readiness in Southern Asia. This was pretty unexpected, both to China and to the world. For some time, Australia has been reserved in its approach to China’s island building. Treading what has been referred to as ‘the middle ground’ between the U.S. and China, Canberra has taken a step back, hopped up on the fence, and kept quiet, at least in public.

For some time, the in vogue diplomatic move against the Chinese island policy has been ‘Freedom of Navigation Operations’ (FONOPs). The U.S. has carried them out for some time, disregarding Chinese claims to sea around the islands by patrolling ships and aircraft in what is still claimed to be ‘international space’. Australia denied taking part in such FONOP sorties, only to be caught in the act by a BBC journalist in late 2015. ‘China Navy, China Navy, We are an Australian aircraft exercising international freedom of navigation rights…’ came the crackly voice over the receiver, the surprised BBC reporter unexpectedly stumbling upon some rather delicate diplomacy meant for private eyes only. In an attempt to keep the Sino-Australian relationship strong, the Australians were making signals of their displeasure without expressing public discontent. By pushing discrete military assertiveness without the mass diplomatic fanfare that has heralded a similar FONOP policy from the U.S. Navy, Australia showed their commitment to the middle ground.

Why did Australia take this position, when the U.S. were already publicly disputing claims and much of the international community had voiced its displeasure? It all comes down to economics. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, and Australia reciprocates by being the leading source of resources for the Chinese state.

Such economic closeness has only increased in recent years. Stemming from a visit to Beijing by the Australian Prime Minister in 2013, the two countries established a ‘high level dialogue’ platform, making Australia one of only a handful of states to talk on such terms with China. Focusing on economic and security issues, President Xi Jinping proclaimed ‘Our two countries should increase dialogue and exchanges and deepen political trust, expand result-oriented co-operation, and work together to sustain peace, stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific’. The outcome of this diplomatic back-slapping? The China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, or ChAFTA for short. Signed in summer of 2015, ChAFTA removes various barriers to trade and has already led to mass investment of the Chinese Sovereign Wealth Fund in Australian resources and infrastructure. This was a level of economic closeness worth fighting for, and the ailing Australian economy would undoubtedly benefit from the fresh blood of free trade, even despite worries as to slowing levels of Chinese economic growth.

This regional relationship in the Sinosphere obviously matters to Australia. This is why the DWP is such a big deal in Asia Pacific relations. Unexpected and unequivocal, it represents a clear re-articulation and redress to such past fence-sitting built on economic hopes. It’s the real deal in Australia’s increased displeasure— combining clear policy posturing with a funding strategy to match. For Australia, their cards are now on the table. Potentially risking a new, fruitful trade relationship through a public stance against the Chinese state, this could signal a new turn in the South China Sea. Not only is China receiving the condemnation of international heavyweights like the U.S., but now one of the most important regional partners has, to their outrage, begun to turn the ship around. With a faltering economy, where economic growth is at a twenty five year low, the potential of China as a prominent trade partner for Australia is losing its shine (the bonds of trade in Australia are already looking to other emerging nations with reliable growth). Therefore, the softly-softly approach to diplomatic signaling is no longer necessary for the Australians, and this hawkish Defence White Paper is the first in what will undoubtedly be a number of steps to quell an encroaching Chinese state.