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Asian Century White Paper: Defence WP preview?

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This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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30 October 2012 11:30


This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Dr Andrew Carr is an Associate Lecturer in Strategic and Defence Studies at the ANU and a former Assistant Editor of The Interpreter.

While the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper is largely focused on economics, there is a chapter on security which may give us some insight into the promised 2013 Defence White Paper. It is moderate on China, views regional defence spending as a function of modernisation rather than arms racing, and embraces a broad, regionally focused conception of security.

The most notable insight of the paper is the language on China's rise. Where the 2009 Defence White Paper struck a note of concern, the Asian Century White Paper is welcoming. Here is the 2009 Defence White Paper (p.34):

A major power of China's stature can be expected to develop a globally significant military capability befitting its size. But the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build coincidence regarding its military plans. 

Now here is the Asian Century paper (p.228):

We accept that China’s military growth is a natural, legitimate outcome of its growing economy and broadening interests. It is important that China and others in the region explain to their neighbours the pace and scope of their military modernisation, to build confidence and trust.

This is an important though expected shift, given the criticism the '09 paper attracted, both from China and at home. The Government's views might not have changed, but it has learnt to better conceal them. There is a stark phrase on p.229 that '(t)his is not a world in which anything like a containment policy can work or be in our national interests'. This is no doubt a message Australia hopes is read in Washington as much as Beijing.

Also notable, though more consistent with the 2009 Defence White Paper, is the depiction of the significant military spending increases in our region as part of a modernisation of Asia's militaries, rather than part of an arms race. This is the mainstream view among scholars and commentators, given most of the defence spending seems driven by domestic factors such as economic growth and increasing capacity, rather than by high levels of international tension.

While the South China Sea has been a source of increasing competition and acrimony, it will be some years before we can be sure this has led directly to new arms purchases. For now, it seems the Australian Government is maintaining its 2009 view that the region is modernising, rather than getting into an arms race. I'd recommend this lecture by Geoffrey Till if readers want to go into the debates and arguments about an arms race in Asia.

Finally, the Asian Century White Paper takes a broad view of security, with multiple mentions of cooperative or 'sustainable' security. It doesn't quite endorse Paul Keating's famous line that Australia should seek security in Asia rather than from it, but it does argue Australia should continue to promote a 'region of sustainable security in which habits of cooperation are the norm'. This is not just about the US-China relationship, but also non-traditional security challenges such as terrorism, piracy, criminal networks and the environment.

The concept of human security is also strongly embraced, featuring in one of the national objectives (#21), which should please the authors of a compelling new book on the integration of human security into Australia's foreign policy.

We're told the Defence White Paper will 'set out in more detail the role we will play with regard to defence and security throughout our region'. If Australia truly is to find its place in the Asian Century, then ensuring Defence White Paper supports the economic and foreign policy goals of the Asian Century White Paper will be an important step.

Photo courtesy of Lowy Institute/Sydney Heads.

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