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Australian Defence White Paper 2016

Positive signal to South-east Asia

The Australian government released its Defence White Paper last Thursday in the midst of shifting geopolitics in the Asia- Pacific and rising concerns over terrorist attacks on Australian soil.

This version provides an update to the previous White Paper published in 2013. The latest Defence White Paper frames Australia's long-term strategic outlook within the rising tensions in the South China Sea and growing non-traditional security risks relating to climate change, terrorism, border security and cyber security.

This White Paper emphasises the United States-Australian strategic alliance as a key driver determining Australia's security milieu to 2035. Therefore, much focus has been on how well Australia's military planning for the next two decades responds to the reality of US-China cooperation and competition in the Asia-Pacific.

In essence, the Defence White Paper promises to increase defence spending by A$30 billion (S$30.1 billion) by 2020/21, maintaining the total five-year budget of A$195 billion within 2 per cent of GDP. The last time Australia spent more than 2 per cent of GDP on defence was in 1995.

The paper also projects an increase of personnel in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to 62,400, from the current estimate of 60,000 active personnel. Key military assets announced include the building of a dozen submarines between 2018 and 2057. Because of the timeframe and scale of these increases, there is no immediate cause for alarm.

Yet observers have been quick to note that this White Paper indicates an increased focus on South-east Asia, in particular the South China Sea, by the ADF.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaking during the presentation of the Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra last Thursday.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaking during the presentation of the Defence White Paper at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra last Thursday. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Prior to the release of the White Paper, Canberra had briefed key partners, including China and Indonesia, to gauge their reactions. The Chinese spokesman stressed the level of cooperation between China and Australia but was "dissatisfied" with the paper's reference to the South China Sea and East China Sea. Since China has been Australia's largest trading partner since 2007, Beijing's views need to be carefully considered by the Malcolm Turnbull administration.

But what would the reaction be from Australia's partners in South-east Asia vis-a-vis the Defence White Paper?

It is important to note that most South-east Asian countries do not comment on the policies and politics of other nations, so it is likely that official statements on Australia's latest defence planning will be few. Nevertheless, Canberra's announcements on its concern about rising tensions in the South China Sea, as well as the likelihood of joining the US in its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS), will play out at different levels in South-east Asia.

Within the context of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, there is a strong interest to maintain peace and stability in the maritime area among the claimants and the non-claimant states. This emphasis on stability is shared, at least verbally, by China, the US and Australia.

That the Defence White Paper explicitly mentions the tensions in the South China Sea as an Australian strategic concern is an indication that Australia is willing to carry some burden in maintaining peace and stability in the region. The political leadership of South-east Asian states should be receptive towards this move.

That the Defence White Paper explicitly mentions the tensions in the South China Sea as an Australian strategic concern is an indication that Australia is willing to carry some burden in maintaining peace and stability in the region. The political leadership of South-east Asian states should be receptive towards this move.

Strengthening of Australia's defence posture should receive the loudest applause from Singapore and Malaysia. Australia and the two countries, together with New Zealand and the United Kingdom, are close strategic partners in the Five Power Defence Arrangements.

Through regular dialogues and joint military exercises, this formal defence partnership has been a vehicle for defence diplomacy and enhanced relations among the five powers. Australia's sustained interest in South-east Asian stability sends the right message to both Singapore and Malaysia.

Indonesia's interpretation of Australia's defence posture for the future will be of greatest concern to Canberra. Plans for the building of new submarines are not new and have already attracted analyses by keen observers. The significance of bolstering Australia's maritime capabilities seems to lie in the timing of Indonesian President Joko Widodo's plans to position Indonesia as a "maritime fulcrum".

As an archipelagic country, Indonesia's new maritime doctrine makes good sense. It would be disturbing, nonetheless, if Australia's improvement of its capabilities at sea is construed by Jakarta as a form of response to Indonesia's naval build-up. If anything, both countries look to be well-positioned to enhance maritime cooperation in the region and become more effective in search-and-rescue and anti-piracy operations in their shared waters.

Modern Philippine-Australian relationship dates to the nations' involvement in the now-defunct South-east Asia Treaty Organisation. Although the organisation no longer exists, both Manila and Canberra maintain their mutual defence agreements with the US.

The possibility of Australia joining the US Navy in FONOPS in the South China Sea will be welcomed by South-east Asian states that claim parts of the maritime area against China.

Such FONOPS will hopefully facilitate the development of a Code of Conduct among interested parties of the South China Sea disputes, since they aim to maintain the status quo of the area before the sovereignty issues can be resolved.

Australia's Defence White Paper 2016 sends a positive signal to South-east Asia and potentially contributes to the region's stability and peace.

  • The writer is a research fellow with the Military Studies Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Positive signal to South-east Asia'. Print Edition | Subscribe