The Australian Defense White Paper 2013: Meeting the Chinese Challenge


2013-05-10 At the heart of the Australian strategic future is how to deal with China as an economic and military power?

Clearly, the relationship with the United States is a key part of shaping a set of answers.

But much will depend as well upon how the Chinese play out the game and define their approach.

And much will depend as well on what kind of Australia will prove to be to players in the region, in terms of real capabilities as well. 

The new Australian White Paper on Defense is a statement certa 2013 of how the current government sees the challenges.  It can only be a statement at a point in time, but the challenge is to shape an effective policy based on real capabilities.

Some of those capabilities highlighted in the White Paper are as follows:

Maintaining credible high-end capabilities enables us to act decisively when required, deter would-be adversaries and strengthen our regional influence…. The Government remains committed to delivering core ADF capabilities, including:

  • 12 future submarines;
  • three Air Warfare Destroyers;
  • two Landing Helicopter Dock amphibious ships;
  • 24 MH-60R Seahawk naval combat helicopters;
  • ten C-27J Battlefield Airlifters to replace the Caribou aircraft;
  • six C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift transport aircraft; 
  • new maritime patrol aircraft;
  • the Joint Strike Fighter;
  • new armored and logistics vehicles for the Australian Army as well as additional Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles;
  • seven new CH-47F Chinook helicopters;
  • replacements for our Armidale Class patrol boats, supply vessels HMA Ships Sirius and Success and Anzac Class Frigates;
  • and the EA-18G Growler electronic attack capability.

 This commitment to prioritizing core capability delivery will ensure that the ADF remains one of the most capable forces in our region and can deliver on the Government’s priorities.

Australian White Paper 2013

But critics are concerned that the resources might not be there for the essential modernization and there has been concern expressed as well with regard to the ability to play the key role which Australia will need to play in the region.

As one Australian defense expert, Rory Medcalf, has put it:

From a diplomatic point of view, Canberra’s new document is an admirable balance between affirming alliance ties and not unduly insulting China. Indeed, defense diplomacy is one of the paper’s big themes, with pages devoted to how Australia’s small military is busy deepening constructive engagement all around the region, from Indonesia to India to Vietnam and Japan as well as China. 

Yet it is hard to the escape the suspicion that one reason diplomacy gets such a big run in a supposedly military document is that it is much cheaper than preparing for war. For the worst-kept secret of Australian defense policy is that the fiscal cupboard is pretty much bare. The Australian economy has done much better than most developed economies in the post-financial crisis era, but the government still faces a serious budget deficit and a long list of domestic spending priorities in an election year. 

This cut-price approach will make it increasingly hard for Australia to possess the cutting-edge forces it would need to contribute substantially to high-end contingencies alongside the United States in Asia. Moreover, highly constrained defense spending is at odds with the white paper’s expansive view of Australia’s national interests and military tasks – from stabilizing South Pacific nations to patrolling the Indo-Pacific commons and protecting the nation’s vast territories and offshore resources.

Another Australian analyst, Michelle Grattan, emphasized that although the post-Afghan white paper focused on the regional priorities, but funding remains a problem.

The Government’s new Defence White Paper has adopted a conciliatory tone towards China, focused attention on the region and announced the purchase of a dozen new high-tech fighter planes. 

Julia Gillard said there would a modest increase in defense spending – currently at its lowest level since the late 1930s – but emphasized that returning to 2% of GDP was a longer-term objective “as and when fiscal circumstances allow”. 

The purchase of 12 EA-18G Growler planes replaces the government’s previous plan to upgrade 12 of its 24 Super Hornets. This is to ensure “a first-class air combat capability” while Australia waits for delivery of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, which have previously been delayed. 

The Government has reaffirmed its pledge for a dozen new submarines – and ruled out the option of buying off-the-shelf overseas models and assembling them here. 

The options have been narrowed to either building an “evolved Collins Class” design or going with new design options considered best to meet Australia’s strategical requirements. Meanwhile, a new “future submarine industry skills plan” will be launched to preserve the expertise needed to build the subs. This program has an eye electorally to South Australia and Victoria. 

The White Paper, which was bought forward a year, refocuses Australia’s defense stance for the post-Afghanistan era, concentrating on the region.

It puts the Indo-Pacific front-and-center, saying this “strategic arc is beginning to emerge, connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia”. 

“The emerging Indo-Pacific system is predominantly a maritime environment with Southeast Asia at its geographic centre. The region’s big strategic challenges will last for decades and their mismanagement could have significant consequences,” it says. 

The paper says that more than anything else, the United States-China relationship will determine the regional outlook. “Some competition is inevitable, but both seek stability and prosperity, not conflict.”

Specifically, former Deputy Chief of the Air Force, John Blackburn, questions the Defence white paper recommendation to purchase new Hornets. He says it will potentially divert funding from the Army and Navy, with limited long-term benefit.

The Blackburn comments can be seen on the following video:

We interviewed Blackburn earlier on the challenges of Australian defense modernization as well.

In short, the Australian defense project is a work in progress, but one central to the United States, regional Asian partners and the PRC.  It will be a project determined by interaction among the key players in the region, and not solely determined by Australia.