Australia's 2015 Defence White Paper: Seeking Strategic Opportunities in Southeast Asia to Help Manage China's Peaceful Rise

By Lee, John | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2013 | Go to article overview

Australia's 2015 Defence White Paper: Seeking Strategic Opportunities in Southeast Asia to Help Manage China's Peaceful Rise


Lee, John, Contemporary Southeast Asia


The victory of the conservative Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott in the September 2013 general elections means that Australia is now committed to the preparation of a new defence white paper --the country's third in six years--to be released in early 2015. The timing was pre-determined on the back of public promises by Abbott and then shadow defence minister David Johnston during the campaign to deliver the new white paper within eighteen months of entering government. Plans are already underway to ensure that the document will be delivered on time. (1) While the top priority for defence planners over several decades has been to ensure the "defence of Australia" by acquiring military capabilities to repel any direct enemy advances against the mainland, the 2000, (2) 2009 (3) and 2013 (4) defence white papers delivered by the John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard governments, respectively, have all upheld the importance of "ensuring strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific" as a critical national security interest. This was reaffirmed in the pre-election policy document released by Senator Johnston who has now been sworn in as Australia's Defence Minister. (5)

Although the somewhat meaningless phrase "Asian Century" (6) is now widely used in Australian strategic, defence and economic discourse, some of Australia's neighbours suspect that Canberra focuses too heavily on large Northeast Asian powers such as China and Japan, and not enough on major Southeast Asian players, the latter region defined in this article as the subregion of Asia consisting of countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, west of Papua New Guinea and north of Australia. To be fair, Canberra's attention is appropriately directed towards its three largest trading partners in Asia--China, Japan and South Korea --which are all in Northeast Asia, while the structural causes of potential region-wide instability is primarily a Northeast Asian phenomenon as possible instability is primarily driven by China's re-emergence as a Great Power.

Even so, previous Australian defence white papers have tended to take a predominantly "risk management" approach to Southeast Asia in that they posit that Canberra should ensure that it has adequate military capabilities to manage and contain risks to its national interests should adverse developments occur in that region. While this is a sensible and prudent position to take, little ground has been made in terms of exploring the strategic possibilities of Southeast Asia, and in particular how Australian relationships in Southeast Asia and the capabilities that it brings to the table can contribute to the broader objective of ensuring strategic stability in Asia.

In other words, the strategic analysis underpinning the next defence white paper ought to do several things. Rather than treating Southeast Asia as a standalone strategic region, it needs to link bilateral and multilateral opportunities in Southeast Asia with the future shape of strategic decisions made by powerful players in East Asia, and China in particular. In addition, in conceiving of Australia's future place and role in Southeast Asia, Canberra needs to go beyond its risk management approach. Instead, Canberra should view Southeast Asia as a region filled with strategic opportunity, which directly feeds into the goal of ensuring greater stability throughout Asia. In making this argument, the paper comprises three parts. First, it offers a brief summary of recent Australian strategic and defence thinking on Southeast Asia. Second, it outlines why China is the key variable when it comes to strategic stability or instability in the region, and how China's strategy in achieving its objectives can be shaped and influenced by events and relationships in Southeast Asia. Finally, the paper offers some suggestions as to the role Australia can seek to play in Southeast Asia that will contribute to strategic stability in Asia more generally. …

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