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Australia's strategic environment: 10 propositions

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COMMENTS

15 June 2012 14:20

Robert Ayson is Director of Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Wellington.

Here are ten propositions about the strategic environment which I think the writers of Australia's 2013 Defence White Paper need to keep in mind:

1. The overarching factor is the shift in the distribution of power within Asia (especially as China continues to become more influential) and towards Asia as Western power becomes less dominant.

2. The Asia Pacific region will continue to combine tensions and interdependence between the strong powers with fragility and stagnation among weak powers. Australian strategic policy needs to keep both of these in mind and not seek artificial choices between them.

3. Many regional countries are asserting their maritime interests as part of a rediscovery of territoriality, which is helping to fuel the Indo-Pacific moment. As James Brown's recent post indicated, CDF Hurley recently summed this up in a speech at Lowy with the words that 'the Pacific and Indian Oceans are emerging as a single strategic system that is straddled by the South East Asian archipelago'.

4. This assertion of national territorial interests is accompanied by renewed nationalism, including in Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Australasia. China is not the only country thinking about its core interests.

5. Regional (and international) institutions will struggle to deal with these assertions of interest. At the same time, one cannot build enduring relations in Southeast Asia without acknowledging the regional multilateral element.

6. Alliances, both formal and de facto and involving the US in particular, are being renewed and built just as the economic foundations are shifting beneath them. Their benefits are therefore likely to be more short-term than long-term.

7. The focus of external and great powers on Asia will be partial, not complete, as the violence and disorder in the Middle East and North Africa continues. There will be a long pause in the enthusiasm for intervention but the pivot will not be easy to sustain.

8. Domestic politics will be the main driver of change and this is the factor over which we have the least control. This applies to the approaches we will see from Indonesia, China, the US, India, Japan and PNG.

9. The development of advanced conventional weapons systems and postures in Asia (especially in the maritime environment) is more significant than nuclear proliferation. There are few signs that the main contributors to this advanced conventional military competition have rules of the game and ideas for restraint. Cyber capabilities will grow without fundamentally altering the balance of power.

10. Game-altering geopolitical change is still possible, including on the Korean Peninsula, whose unification would change the regional balance. A system-altering change in sentiment is also possible: eg. if the US does decide to seek to contain China.

Even if only a few of these propositions hold, Australia needs to prepare itself for a variegated strategic landscape with the US-China contest not ruling every roost, with some shocks and surprises possible due to domestic sentiment in a range of regional countries, and with an inability to switch off from problems further afield. Ministers will probably want a variegated set of defence options, but the task of the White Paper authors is to define Australia's core interests in a more disciplined fashion, and assemble an ADF based around these. Designed for core missions, that defence force would then present options for conflicts of choice further afield.

Photo by Flickr user woordenaar.

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