Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) directs Australia’s strategic attention towards maritime Southeast Asia. While the 2009 and 2013 Defence White Papers also focused on this region, the 2016 DWP bluntly expresses Australia’s concerns in the South China Sea. In addition, it inaugurates an assertive strategic policy that may have significant consequences for Southeast Asia’s security.
In the 190-page long document, Canberra pledges to increase capital investment in defence capabilities from the current AU$9.4 billion (US$7.1 billion) to AU$23 billion (US$17.4 billion) in 2025–26. Most of this investment will be channelled to the maritime domain. However, what does this investment means for Southeast Asia and the South China Sea?
Graphic added by EconMatters.com
The 2016 DWP reflects continuity with the two preceding Defence White Papers in two key ways. First, the 2016 DWP reiterates the primacy of maritime strategy emphasised in previous White Papers, with a focus on the sea–air gap along Australia’s north. Maritime capabilities will be central in this enterprise, especially submarines that can provide what the 2016 DWP describes as ‘a strategic advantage in terms of surveillance and protection of our maritime approaches’. Second, the 2016 DWP echoes the previous two White Papers in highlighting ‘maritime Southeast Asia’ as a region that ‘will always have particular significance to [Australia’s] security’.
This emphasis on Southeast Asia is highlighted in the DWP’s list of Australia’s ‘strategic defence interests’. These interests are the security of Australia’s northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communications, a secure nearer region encompassing Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, and a stable Indo-Pacific region with a rules-based global order.
What differentiates the 2016 DWP from the previous ones is its selective emphasis on the South China Sea. While all the strategic defence interests are critical, the 2016 DWP puts great emphasis on the second. According to the 2016 DWP, ‘Australia’s reliance on maritime trade with and through South East Asia means the security of our maritime approaches and trade routes within South East Asia must be protected, as must freedom of navigation’.
Nowhere is freedom of navigation being challenged so close to Australia than in the South China Sea. Although the 2013 DWP called the South China Sea disputes to Australia’s strategic attention, the blunt emphasis of the 2016 DWP is unparalleled. ‘Australia does not take sides on competing territorial claims in the South China Sea but we are concerned that land reclamation and construction activity by claimants raises tensions in the region’, particularly ‘the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities’.
Such a robust statement encapsulates the reactionary assertiveness implicit in the 2016 DWP. This new strategic stance may involve Australia conducting military ‘freedom of navigation operations’ in the South China Sea, as well as anticipatory measures against China’s larger military modernisation drives.
Australia’s concerns about China can partly, if not entirely, explain what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull describes as ‘an historic modernisation’ of Australia’s naval capabilities, including the acquisition of 12 regionally superior submarines, three additional air warfare destroyers and nine new anti-submarine warfare frigates.
That the 2016 DWP elicited a predictably strong criticism from Beijing is not necessarily bad news. A stronger Australia can give Southeast Asia greater leverage vis-à-vis China in the South China Sea disputes. Australia’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia can also create more opportunities for defence cooperation. Regional countries can selectively draw upon Australia’s unique access to US defence technology and intelligence to complement their own military modernisations.
Australia’s bilateral and multilateral defence operations in the region, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangement, may begin to involve more sophisticated exercise scenarios that will benefit its Southeast Asian partners. Australia’s middle power status arguably makes it a politically less sensitive defence partner for Southeast Asia than major powers, such as the United States.
However, despite these opportunities, Southeast Asia should also be aware of the associated risks that accompany Australia’s reactionary assertiveness. Given the region’s sensitivity towards the divisive prospect of major power influence, the 2016 DWP begs the question of whether Australia’s strategic policies are chiefly based on their own raison d’etre or are largely a reflection of those of its principal ally, the United States. While the strategic interests of some ASEAN countries may align more closely with Australia’s, ASEAN should remain cautious of being drawn deeper into Sino–American strategic competition, which could potentially undermine its unity.
At the operational level, Australia’s reactionary assertiveness might affect Southeast Asian maritime security with far reaching effects. Sandwiched between Australia and China, Southeast Asia would likely be the first region affected by a miscalculation involving Chinese and Australian maritime forces in the South China Sea. Controlled or orchestrated escalation during freedom of navigation operations is not foolproof.
Regardless of whether the plans of the 2016 DWP are achievable, they are a bellwether of Australia’s future strategic policy. Australia’s assertiveness is not tantamount to greater instability in Southeast Asia but ASEAN should not react idly to Australia’s new strategic direction. Unless Australia’s reactionary assertiveness takes the interests of Southeast Asian states into account, it will remain part of the problem rather than the solution.