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What the new defence white paper will say about China

What the new defence white paper will say about China
Published 23 Sep 2013   Follow @SamRoggeveen

John Kerin's interview with Defence Minister Senator David Johnston in today's Financial Review is worth quoting at length:

Senator Johnston signalled there would be no going back to the central tenet of Kevin Rudd’s 2009 defence white paper, which was predicated on the potential for Australia to be involved in a war in North Asia...

...“We [the Coalition] obviously prefer a balanced approach [to the US and China], [Foreign Minister] Julie Bishop and I are both from Western Australia where our relationship with China is strong, very professional and very commercial,’’ Senator Johnston said. “We don’t subscribe to the concept that you must choose between the US and China,” Senator Johnston said. “We see that there is a balance between our relationship with China and sustaining our strong alliance with the United States...

...Senator Johnston said he subscribed to a similar view as recent former US ambassador to Australia Jeffrey Bleich, who suggested the economic interdependency of the US and China mitigated against the two countries heading towards some sort of “doomsday scenario’’...Before his departure from Australia, Mr Bleich said he believed the US was more afraid of China failing than succeeding and that Beijing felt the same about Washington. “I think he’s spot on,’’ Senator Johnston said.

For all the reasons laid out in the Lind & Press article I flagged earlier today, this strikes me as naive. US-China relations are not fated to be peaceful and mutually beneficial. But Senator Johnston's remarks can be interpreted in other ways: [fold]

  1. The Coalition is cutting its cloth: there is no money for substantially increased defence capability, so why talk up your concerns about US-China strategic dynamics if you can't do anything about it?
  2. Johnston has adopted Mark Thomson's logic that Australia 'cannot realistically hope to make a strategic difference to the great power politics of North Asia through military means, so we shouldn’t waste our time and money trying'.
  3. Johnston and the Coalition are worried about the future of US-China relations, but see no benefit in saying so publicly.

No. 3 is too cynical for me, and no. 2 too unambitious for a Coalition government. So I tend to favour no.1. The Coalition has grasped at a benign analysis of regional security dynamics because if came to less benign conclusions, it would have to find money to cope with it.

That's pure conjecture, but if it's true, its more or less the opposite of what wonks aim for when they talk about 'evidence-based policy', in which evidence is collected and assessed first, and the policy follows.

Photo by Flickr user lee.s.sun.

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