A focus on humanitarian assistance, natural disasters and military diplomacy close to home has been praised by an ANU defence analyst as sound policy for a white paper.
Launched on Friday, the latest Defence white paper played down the threat of China – a key differentiation from the 2009 version.
A focus on humanitarian assistance, floods, cyclones, earthquakes and disaster relief operations was instead given priority.
It was sound policy, given troops were returning from Afghanistan, and the likelihood of Australia needing to defend itself from a major international power was low, said Dr Peter Dean from the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.
“[It] means the first practical focus on the ADF is on a stable and secure South Pacific and Timor Leste,” Dean told ABC radio on Wednesday.
He pointed out Australia had already attended the first annual South Pacific Defence Minister’s meeting, held earlier this month in Tonga.
“Which showed Australian leadership and our willingness to engage in the region,” he said.
He did not believe the ADF needed to focus on redeploying its forces.
“I think it’s more about enhancing particular bases to the north, those in Townsville and those in Darwin, and particularly some of our bases in the northwest.”
Asked if the bases were needed because of an “arch of instability in Melanesia”, Dean said the area had been of interest to Australia’s defence capabilities for some time.
“I think this arch of instability is something that still resinates with a lot of people,” he said.
Moves to reconcile hostilities would bring about “an arc of opportunity,” he reasoned.
Others have criticised the white paper for lacking substance.
At a forum hosted by ANU on Monday night, Professor Hugh White said the paper was overly optimistic – mostly because it was based on “assumptions” that were not well thought out.
“It’s always nice to see someone being optimistic. But not defence policy makers,” he said.
Assumptions that a major conflict between China and the US was unlikely to emerge were “heroic” said white.
Admiral Chris Barrie, a visiting fellow at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, questioned the timing of the new white paper, given the next federal election was just four months away.
“If we were to criticise this white paper for a lack of substance, that partly explains it,” he said.
Listen to Dr Peter Dean's interview at the Radio Australia website.
Article by Belinda Cranston.