Another Defence White Paper – the second from the current Labor Government and almost a sideshow in the lead-up to the Federal Election and the Budget. Unlike past papers, this one drew headlines for a day then faded into obscurity, to be left for analysis by academics and retired senior military figures in front of equally specialised audiences. The general public moved on.
What do we really know about the paper? During its single day of fame the media honed in on a softer approach to China which, given the current administration in Canberra, was inevitable after the harder line taken by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in the 2009 White Paper.
The possibility of our relationship with Beijing going pear-shaped at some future date was strong enough for Rudd, who knew China well, to put emphasis on the acquisition of military hardware. While hardly countering China’s fast-increasing military might it at least put Beijing on notice that Australia was in the game.
That was then. Now Rudd’s successor, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, gushes over China, her Pollyanna approach refusing to look beyond the smiling faces, diplomatic handshakes and banquets in the Great Hall of the People.
For her the Asian Century (which is really the Chinese Century if it is anything at all) is the one and only way of maintaining Australia’s prosperity and must be conjured up, even if in reality it isn’t here yet. The Beijing sun must shine whatever the clouds that might be gathering on the horizon.
Of course, the momentum established by Rudd can hardly be countered by a stroke of the pen, or even the publication of a White Paper. Contracts entered into and the delivery of weapons systems is a matter of years, even decades. However, Australia’s withdrawal from Iran and Afghanistan leaves Defence as a tempting target for current and future Treasurers desperate to return the country to the Holy Grail of Budget surplus.
The argument against a peace divided has been put by Peter Dean of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Centre. He argues that despite current constraints on Government spending, the Australian Defence Force must have a stronger presence in the north and north-west of Australia and into South East Asia and the South Pacific.
“The necessity for an increased presence in these areas can be achieved by staging the ADF in robust, updated, forward bases to provide increased capacity for training, exercises and deployments in this region,” Dean says.
His words are echoed by a colleague at the Strategic and Defence Centre, John Blaxland, who says that with the Afghanistan commitment winding down, the ADF should be refocusing on bolstering security and stability in Australia’s “inner arc”.
Blaxland emphasises the role the ADF can play in disaster relief and other humanitarian activities, and certainly what is becoming known as “military diplomacy” has a role. However, it is important to remember that the inner arc he speaks of has in the past been an arc of instability (think Timor-Leste, Vanuatu, Bougainville) and might easily become so again.
Fiji remains a dangerous wild card, with its military dictator dragging his feet on a return to democracy as the taste for power becomes addictive and the relationship with China, which will certainly not be advising him to liberalise his regime, grows in strength.
So what does the White Paper say about our relationship with our neighbours and the role we should play there?
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