No Middle Ground: Australia Chooses Washington Over Beijing

US President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (US Government work). 


For the third time since 2009, Australia’s DoD has released a new Defense White Paper (DWP). Typically released every decade, the document is intended to guide long-term military planning. Yet, due to Australia’s frequent overhauls, some observers suspect the enterprise of drafting a new white paper is just a way to keep defense professionals busy. Considering Australia is currently on its fifth prime minister in as many years, however, it is more surprising that a government remained intact long enough to approve the 188-page document. Thus, given a tenuous political environment, the 2016 DWP exceeded expectations by providing more than another watered down description of rapidly evolving threats in an increasingly complex world. In fact, the document does not merely acknowledge a difficult strategic environment, but newly appointed PM Malcolm Turnbull has committed Australia to challenge China’s rising status in the Pacific.

Under former PM Gillard’s tenure, the DWP appeared a bit too polite to China, whose recent regional aggression has increasingly agitated its neighbors, and bordered on naive. In contrast, the 2016 DWP makes a stark strategic break, painting a grim picture of future Australian-Chinese relations. China’s expanding activities in the South China Sea over the last few years undoubtedly contributed to this shift, which includes placing advanced surface-to-air missiles on disputed islands last February. The Australian government is accepting the fact that its ability to influence China’s rise down a cooperative path will demand serious military effort and resources. The 2016 DWP repeatedly states Australia’s commitment to upholding a “rules-based order” in Southeast Asia that “serves to deal with threats before they become existential threats to Australia.” Of course, China is rarely called out explicitly for threatening this order, but there is little doubt the term, “newly rising power,” is a euphemistic reference to China.

These statements would be empty if the plan did not align the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) capabilities to this new strategic vision. Consequently, PM Turnbull is accelerating Australia’s plans to raise defense spending to 2% GDP by 2021 – two years earlier than the previous target. This means that an additional AUD30 billion will be invested in defense in the next five years. According the 2016 DWP, intelligence, surveillance, and cyber-defense missions are the priority. This is to be expected, considering Australia’s goal to improve coverage of its vast maritime border and surrounding waters.

Moreover, procurement numbers that were slashed in 2013 have been bumped back up and this time with a realistic funding plan. Previous procurement goals depended on making cuts in other areas of defense, but the new plan does not include this illusion. Australia is increasing its order of P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft from eight to fifteen. It will also operate seven RQ-4C Triton maritime surveillance UAVs. In addition to a planned purchase of 100 F-35s, Australia is open to acquiring unmanned aircraft for strike missions. Other additions include an increased transport capability, upgraded attack helicopters, and increasing the ADF’s personnel by 5,000.

Australia’s reinvigorated emphasis on its naval programs is by far the most expensive and consequential. The 2016 DWP restores targets to purchase 9 future frigates, 12 patrol vessels – and most importantly – 12 submarines to replace the Collins class (up from a previous 8). A fleet of 12 submarines means roughly 6-8 submarines can be deployed at any time. This improvement will allow Australia to make a meaningful contribution to U.S. strategy, which includes deterring conflict over disputed territory, ensuring freedom of navigation, and strengthening the current framework of international maritime law. The 2016 DWP leaves the question of where Australia will get the submarines unanswered, but a purchase of Japan’s Soryu class appears most likely. The Soryu class submarine, with a range of 6,100 nautical miles, will enable an increased capability to exert significant influence in the South China Sea and create another link in the security cooperation between Australia, Japan, and the U.S.

Because of this noticeable shift in policy, the 2016 DWP has drawn widespread commentary. Supporters generally approve its “forward” strategy, while others claim it “fails to deal” with the strategic implications of China’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the region. Both these positions, however, do not account for the uncertainty that surrounded Turnbull’s China policy prior to his ascension to PM. When he was voted into the position last September, he would not commit to return defense spending to 2% of GDP as his predecessor, Tony Abbott, had pledged. Hugh White, the principal author of Australia’s 2000 DWP, gave a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in which he suggested Turnbull may trash Abbott’s defense plans and start again. Some suspected Turnbull’s business and personal ties would lead him to prioritize Australia economic relationship with China and not resist Beijing’s inevitable regional hegemony. His strategy would “urge accommodation” between the U.S. and China rather than apply pressure. This did not happen. The 2016 DWP demonstrates that Turnbull will not simply rely on his understanding of China or diplomatic nuance to shape his expectations for the region.

Reactions to the 2016 DWP have also underestimated the attractiveness of taking a more neutral position between the U.S. and China. China is an insatiable customer of Australian commodities and Chinese students are keeping Australian universities flush with over AUD17 billion in fees annually. Furthermore, Australia does not claim any territory in the South China Sea or face a realistic threat of conventional attack. Therefore, considering the availability of staying out of the geopolitical fray, the plans laid out in the 2016 DWP are a clear and firm strategic choice by the Australian government to strengthen its alignment with the U.S. and challenge Chinese regional dominance.

Turnbull has removed any long-term uncertainty over whether Australia’s national interests are better served with the U.S. underpinning regional security and equips the ADF to support this order. Australia’s strategy will “double-down on the American alliance for the long-term.” Not surprisingly, China reacted negatively to the 2016 DWP, but it has strengthened U.S. plans for the region. The U.S. pivot to Asia is not sustainable without increasing contributions from its capable allies – most importantly Australia and Japan. Because of Australia’s recent affinity for new prime ministers and DWPs, some may doubt that this strategic vision will last. Yet, by taking a deliberately strong position in its choice between Beijing and Washington, Turnbull has ensured that whichever PM decides to back down will have to swallow a huge loss for Australian credibility abroad.

Cameron Hobbs conducts research and analysis of defense technologies, export control regimes, and the international defense market. He has experience inside the defense industry assessing aerospace and defense markets globally, but with particular focus on the Asia-Pacific. He holds an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a B.A. from the University of South Carolina Honors College.


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