Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

Asia-Pacific at the Crossroads - Implications for Australian Strategic Defense Policy

Academic journal article Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice

Asia-Pacific at the Crossroads - Implications for Australian Strategic Defense Policy

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. This paper examines the changing geo-political situation in the Asia-Pacific Region from an Australian defense policy perspective. The article focuses on China, the US, and Indonesia and examines Australia's strategic defense needs for the coming decade. The paper concludes by laying out four strategic defense options for Australia, 1. maintaining the US alliance, 2. going back to "fortress Australia," 3. towards Asian integrations, and 4. the "New Zealand" option.

Keywords: Australia; defense policy; China; United States; Indonesia; strategic competition; Asian integration

1. Should Australia Engage Asia in Fantasy or Reality?

Since the Australian Government's last White Paper on defense in 2009, there have been rapid changes within the Asia-Pacific region. As a consequence, the forthcoming Australian defense white paper will be perhaps the most important that has ever been prepared. With a rising assertive China, the US adopting an "Asia Pivot" doctrine, and a host of rising Asian powers, the Australian Government cannot defer the strategic complexities of the region to the "never never" of 2030 like the 2009 paper did.

Australia has long lost its ability to project military power overseas. The retirement and scrapping of the last Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne in 1982, and the Hawke Government's decision not to replace it, and subsequent air squadron decommissioning left the Australian armed forces "land based."1,2 The country did not take the opportunity in the 1950s to possess nuclear weapons as a deterrent when it arguably could have. Consequently, today Australia is facing the prospect that some Asian nation's economies will overtake it very soon, and will develop superior military forces within the region.

Australia is left with small professional military services that would have little impact "on the ground" in any strategic operations. Australia has largely invested in hardware to suit strategic tasks, like frigates to accompany US task forces, and submarines capable of patrolling the waters of North-East Asia, based on a defense doctrine of supporting the US alliance. Australia's military forces are configured for different types of threats than are emerging today, based on the assumption that Australia should be a middle power.

In terms of "soft power" where Australia's needs have already been reflected in the "Australia in the Asian Century" white paper, the country has a mammoth amount of work to do before it can be even thought of being influential within the region. As the author discussed in other places, there are obstacles to achieving these ambitions which the Asia White Paper has not even identified as barriers for Australia to overcome.3

Arguably, Australia's influence declined in South-East Asia during the Howard years, due to his administration's focus upon an inherited geopolitical orientation based upon a world view originating during the Menzies era that placed the US alliance as the government's policy centerpiece.4

Consequently, Australia is now within a region where it no longer has superior military capabilities. The only natural defensive asset at its disposal is the air-sea gap between the Australian mainland and South-East Asia, which must become a major consideration in future defense scenarios.

The new defense white paper is coming out at a very appropriate time where a very objective account of the shifting strategic environment must be honestly portrayed. The 2009 paper missed on this, and in addition presented a flawed asset acquisition plan, with some "opportunistic" purchases. Submarine purchases seem to have been based more on commercial rather than strategic considerations. Financial plans also appeared to be flawed, where some monies were actually returned to Treasury because purchases could not be made in time.

Thus the 2013 paper must be prudent enough to shape Australia's approach to the emerging new world order, before it happens. …

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