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Intriguing passages in the Defence White Paper

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COMMENTS

4 May 2009 14:17

Defence White Papers are complex documents, and alongside the big issues there are often smaller nuggets to be gleaned. Here are a few that caught my eye.

1) The paper contains a strong assertion of the enduring importance of nuclear weapons to American power and the global order (paragraphs 4.16 and 4.59), which seems somewhat at odds with the Prime Minister’s high-profile drive for nuclear disarmament through the international commission headed by Gareth Evans.

2) There is a curiously pungent statement on national missile defence systems (paragraph 9.103) which appears on any plain reading to commit the government to oppose America’s current National Missile Defence program. I wonder how this will go down in Washington? It implies that the US should accept a mutual nuclear deterrence balance with China — something that I agree with, but which US policy remains rather ambivalent about.

3) A new twist to the way Australia describes China’s future international role. Hitherto Rudd has echoed the US in using the ‘responsible stakeholder’ formula, which has always seemed too weak to me, because it does not recognize that China is not just one of the gang but one of the leaders. The White Paper (paragraph 4.25) uses a much better phrase — ‘Leading Stakeholder’ — which I have not seen before. I think it is rather neat, but again I am not sure how Washington will react.

4) Much less neat is the odd language in the paper which suggests that Australia would use armed force to support internal stability in Indonesia. In paragraph 5.2 it says that a strategic interest is one we might contemplate the use of force to support. In paragraph 5.10 it says that a stable and cohesive Indonesia is a ‘vital strategic interest’. I would tend to write this off as a simple muddle, except for that word ‘vital’, which — at least as I use it — reinforces the implication that force might be used.  Does the government really believe that we should be able to help militarily to stabilise Indonesia the way we might do in PNG? If so we really do need a bigger army!   

5) Finally, a strange take on the relationship between economic power and political power. As I have argued elsewhere, the White Paper seems deeply ambivalent about the future of American power in Asia, asserting both that it will wane and that it will persist. At one point (paragraph 4.23) it suggests that China may overtake the US economically (on some measures) by 2020, but then tries to undercut the clear strategic and political implications of such a rapid and profound power shift by suggesting that the US would nonetheless remain paramount because trade, aid and financial flows support its economic strength more than the raw size of its economy.

Really? I would have thought that in each of these issues the US position is actually weaker than would be suggested by its economic size, especially vis-à-vis China, with whom the balance of trade and financial flows are distinctly adverse, and compared to whose highly focused aid program America’s seems ill-suited to maximising global influence. And a second puzzle: for some reason these three factors are described as ‘market-exchange based measures’. I’m no economist but I’m not sure what is meant by that: did the authors mean to refer to market exchange rate measures of GDP — as opposed to PPP measures — in terms of which US GDP stays predominant much longer? 

Photo by Flickr user joabe brill, used under a Creative Commons license.

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