Well, you can't say we couldn't have seen this coming. Early last week former PM Tony Abbott wrote an op-ed for The Australian basically saying that his support of the Turnbull Government's defence white paper, due to be released later that week, was conditional on the Government maintaining the commitment Abbott had made to raise defence spending to 2% of GDP.
Abbott followed this with a trip to Japan, where he delivered a speech in which he strongly backed the Japanese bid for the Australian submarine contract — Euan Graham wrote eloquently on why that move was so incendiary.
Then yesterday came the most astonishing move of all: Abbott contributed quotes to a Greg Sheridan story which also contained extracts from a leaked draft of the Defence White Paper. Abbott pronounced himself flabbergasted that the final White Paper apparently delays the acquisition of new submarines by up to a decade (this has been denied by Turnbull and the Defence Department).
A number of commentators have interpreted this stoush as a proxy war: on Radio National this morning, for instance, journalist Paul Bongiorno said (I'm paraphrasing; the podcast is not up on the site yet) that the best retrospective judgment the electorate could offer on Abbott's short term as prime minister would be for it to throw the Turnbull Government out at the next election. Bongiorno also said Abbott was looking to burnish his legacy in anticipation of the release of a highly critical book about the Abbott Government by journalist Nikki Savva, due for release next week.
But let's not forget that there are real differences in worldview between Abbott and Turnbull at play too, helpfully summarised by Shadow Defence Minister Stephen Conroy in an important Interpreter piece last week:
Mr Turnbull displays a starkly different worldview from Mr Abbott. Mr Turnbull warns of the perils of Australian governments having a 'doe-eyed fascination with the leader of the free world'. He talks of Americans 'developing an inferiority complex', and of the 'risk that a combination of fear, envy and resentment will lead America into treating China as an enemy'.
Mr Turnbull has said that 'China has shown no interest in territorial expansion beyond, at some future date, reuniting Taiwan' and, on the South China Sea, that 'China is hardly alone in claiming islands and rocks far from its shores'. He also states that the 'best and most realistic strategic outcome for East Asia must be one in which the powers are in balance, with each side effectively able to deny the domination of the other'.
That last quote gets to the heart of the matter. What divides Abbott and Turnbull is the idea that American primacy in the Pacific can be maintained indefinitely, and that China's rise to the status of America's strategic equal can be resisted. If Turnbull maintains the view he put in that last quote, then he clearly believes this is not possible. Abbott (and Conroy, it seems — this is an issue that divides parties internally and crosses party lines) believes it is possible. To do it, he wants Australia to tie itself more closely to the US and Japan, and increase defence spending.
The problem with this view is that it doesn't come to terms with the scale of the challenge presented by China and other rapidly growing Asian states. Look at this graph from the 2016 Defence White Paper:
The Defence Department's own analysis is telling us that Chinese defence spending will be roughly equal to that of the US by 2035, and that Indonesian defence spending will match ours by that same year. If these forecasts are accurate, we're facing economic trends which we simply cannot resist; the issue of whether we get our new submarines in ten years' time or fifteen is beside the point. A much more substantial boost in defence spending would be needed to counteract those larger trends, something closer to the historical levels Hugh White talked about in his op-ed in the Fairfax papers on Monday. But defence hawks such as Abbott show no sign of wanting to face this reality.
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