Australia’s defence white paper is a holding exercise that pulls punches on security challenges posed by China and risks undermining Australia’s capacity to discharge alliance obligations, according to a top US defence expert.
Lack of funding means Australia risks losing its whole anti-submarine warfare and sub-surface fleet capability “at a time when there is a submarine arms race in Asia”, said Patrick Cronin, a senior director at Washington’s Centre for a New American Security.
While Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, India, China and Vietnam are all operating submarines in seas where Australia sails and trades, the white paper outlines plans for 12 new submarines that “don’t add up”, Dr Cronin said. “It doesn’t make sense from an Australian strategic perspective,” he said, and not from an American point of view either.
The US alliance was “not the be all and end all” of Australian defence, but Australia was a “linchpin ally” of the US with alliance responsibilities in sectors in the region.
“You won’t be able to maintain those responsibilities or play that role 10 years from now without some intelligent investment,” he said.
Dr Cronin, who has met opposition spokesman on defence David Johnston, expressed confidence in the Coalition’s “commitment to trying to increase the defence budget” which he said was “pretty strong”.
“They recognise that it has sunk too low and they are going to have to put more resources into defence.”
Dr Cronin said the federal government had made it impossible to come to easy decisions on submarines by insisting they be built in Adelaide to high capabilities and at low cost. “Trade-offs have to be made and it sounds like the Gillard government has just basically said we are not going to make that decision,” he said.
“I think an Abbott government . . . will make it in the first six months.
“The solace here is that everybody is expecting a new government in September.
“It’s really a holding document until the next Australian government has a chance to fashion a longer-term defence plan.”
A Coalition government would face the same difficult challenge of managing rising economic expectations and concerns about a rising China with the US alliance in particular and relations with other Asian countries, he said.
The white paper “sort of lists China among all these other countries and the reality is that’s obscuring the fact that Australian defence will not come from China, even with military-to-military relations. It’s not the same as the military-to-military relations that Australia will be building with India or Japan or the United States,” he said.
The Obama administration didn’t comment on the white paper. Dr Cronin said the administration would likely “accentuate the positive” and focus on areas of strong co-operation, such as on cyber-defence.
He said the US shared the broad goal of constructive relations with China alternating between competition and co-operation, and the white paper’s “squishiness” on this was not a big surprise.
The problem was in squaring the white paper’s goals of acquiring new submarines and continuing to play a key role in regional defence with the inadequate budget.
“I think the issue is that Australia wants to have its cake and eat it too. [It] wants a strong military insurance policy with the US and it wants growing trade and economy with China, like every other country in Asia. We don’t begrudge that,” he said.
He said last year’s Asian century white paper “only focused on the economic bounty that awaits everybody”.
But “the defence white paper you’d expect to be more hard-hitting and point out that there are real concerns and this white paper pulls its punches”, he said. “So there’s nothing that’s really objectionable but it really does obscure some of the serious security challenges that Australia faces. They’re just delaying and postponing and stretching out hard decisions.”