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Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 08:22 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Feb 2018 | 08:22 | SYDNEY

Defence White Paper debate: Round 2



22 September 2008 15:05

Guest blogger: Lachlan McGoldrick is participating in our student blog debate on the Defence White Paper. Lachlan edits The Australian Interest and studies at GSSD.

Sam's description of Australia's force structure as 'provocative' is mistaken. In fact, Australia could have a much heavier military without alarming our neighbours, provided that it focusses on air and maritime capabilities and limits land capabilities. The reason is that in Asia, all eyes are looking north to the potential emerging superpower, not south towards Australia's modest military and tiny army. If recent reports are anything to go by, Australia's South East Asian neighbours will welcome an increase in Australian air and maritime capabilities, because they know that Australia is likely to help protect South East Asia in a contingency.

Of course, diplomacy and defence do need to match. Australia should deepen defence cooperation with South East Asia and make security guarantees more explicit, in such a way that it only commits us when we would want to contribute anyway. More importantly, though, Australia should start listening to our South East Asian neighbours rather than trying to impose our ideas (eg. the Asia Pacific Community) on them. Australia cannot expect to lead when its population and economy are as small as they are and its culture is so different. Australia will gain more influence as an enthusiastic equal.

In specific capabilities, submarines are the stand-out option. They can contribute to the US alliance (the backbone of our defence), and they are the capability most likely to be useful to Australia in any significant confrontation in the foreseeable future, as new generations of missiles make naval surface warfare more difficult.

The 'non-traditional' security threats Sam mentioned (terrorism, changing climate, disease and economics) are nothing new and do not need much in the way of new defence efforts. However, traditional threats do need to be fully prepared for. Historically, the emergence of a new power has always been accompanied by war. What is more, with Asia rapidly growing both economically and militarily, and showing strong nationalist tendencies, it is madness to think that over the medium-to-long term the chance of Australia being dragged into a regional war is small.

So, I think keeping most of Australia's current high-tech military purchases — with the exception of moving the emphasis on new fleet purchases to submarines — is the best bet for Australia. This would allow us to help South East Asia defend against a major Asian power if necessary, provide for the contingency that Australia had to defend itself from one of its neighbours, and help maintain the US alliance. 

Australia's defence spending is small in historical terms even as our region becomes more difficult, so it should not be cut. However, DFAT is desparately underfunded, and funding other areas where a small investment can give a big gain, such as building soft power in South East Asia with scholarships, or a small cyber-war capability, should also be considered.

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