Given that the forthcoming Defence White Paper will be the third in six years, one could be forgiven for being slightly cynical about the overarching political exercise. Labor clearly felt the messaging, both domestic and international, of the 2009 White Paper was sufficiently problematic as to warrant a rewrite in 2013. Then, upon coming to office, the Abbott Government announced it was commissioning yet another White Paper but did not really explain why this was needed beyond a vague justification for its commitment to make defence spending 2% of GDP.
More than a year has passed and the Paper's publication remains some way off. But in a speech in Melbourne last Friday, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews provided the first official hints about just what we might expect. There was more detail than one might have anticipated – it was more Powerpoint than dance of the seven veils – yet none of it marks a meaningful break with the recent past.
Indeed, for a government that has put defence and security squarely at the heart of its purpose and electoral messaging, it is striking how similar the ideas set out in the Ministers' address are to the 2013 paper. Some notable points:
The Indo-Pacific is back
During the Rudd-Gillard governments the notion of the Indo-Pacific strategic arc became steadily more prominent in official thinking. Yet since 2013 the Coalition Government has tended to keep the idea out of strategic discussions.
But the Minister's speech suggests the Indo-Pacific has found redemption and looks to be once again the regional framework for Australia's international engagement. Yet notwithstanding the reasonable idea that the Indian and Pacific oceans are ever more connected through the energy, commodities and goods trade, it's not clear that the Indo-Pacific headline will lead to a properly Indo-Pacific Australian strategic posture. This is particularly true given the emphasis on East Asia in the Minister's remarks and the single-sentence reference to India. [fold]
China: Competition and cooperation reaffirmed
The 2009 White Paper pointed the strategic finger at China as a disruptive influence, and consequently one of main purposes of the 2013 paper was to signal that Australia no longer believed this to be the case, at least not officially and not in public. Minister Andrews reaffirmed this view of the regional outlook. Competition among major powers will occur but the risks of this becoming conflict are low because the region's states will cooperate more due to their thick web of shared interests, he argued. [fold]
Military modernisation required
But this sits a little uneasily with other messages the Minister sent. The major piece of strategic communication that the 2015 White Paper needs to achieve is to explain why Australia needs to increase defence spending and why it needs to be the magic figure of 2% of GDP.
The Minister's comments indicate that Australia needs to spend more on defence for two main reasons. First, Australia will have to write bigger cheques to retain its strategic advantage in a region where defence spending is growing dramatically. As the region invests in greater military capability, Andrews said, Australia must up its commitments in order to stay ahead of the curve (although we are not yet in an arms race dynamic, this is very much how they begin). Second, transnational terrorism is back in business. Transnational security challenges will be growing risks for all states, Andrews said.
The Minister also took the opportunity to state publicly Australia's opposition to China's recent reclamation activity in the South China Sea. The language (Australia opposes 'any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo') echoed the Foreign Minister's December 2013 statement responding to China's announcement of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone. Of course these maritime disputes turn on precisely what the status quo entails. Australia is once again siding with the US and its allies to oppose China's actions.
Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions from short ministerial speech. But based on these hints, it seems clear that there will be no major surprises in the White Paper.
The language will be carefully calibrated not to offend, the alliance will remain at the heart of defence, Australia will be an active participant in Asia's defence modernisation process and we will continue to acquire a greater capacity to project force and maintain air and informational superiority in our immediate surrounds. Some of the recent events in the East and South China Sea, as well as Russia's adventurism in Crimea, will be deployed to justify the increase in spending, but those commitments have long been made.
Apart from packaging and domestic political signaling, not much has changed since 2009. Indeed, if anything, this White Paper process invites more cynicism, as it appears designed to be a post facto justification for spending and policy promises made some time ago.