Piecemeal approach to defence

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith at the launch of the white paper. Photo courtesy of Prime Minister's Office.
08 May 2013
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Defence Minister Stephen Smith at the launch of the white paper. Photo courtesy of Prime Minister's Office.

Australia’s latest defence white paper is an exercise in hope, reports Belinda Cranston.

There is always something beguiling about hope, but not when it is packaged by defence policy makers, an ANU expert has warned.

Speaking at a special panel hosted by ANU on Monday night, Professor Hugh White argued the much anticipated 2013 Defence white paper was overly optimistic – mostly because it was based on seven “assumptions” that were not well thought out.

These included the naïve belief that China’s relationship with the United States was of no future concern to Australia, because it was most likely to be “fine.”

“There’s a lot to be said about the validity of that judgement, suffice to say it’s very optimistic,” said White, a 2000 Defence white paper author, now based at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

“I don’t rule out the possibility that the US and China will get along well in the future.

“But, the idea that we assume that for the basis of a defence policy is heroic.”

Launched on Friday with much pomp and ceremony at Canberra’s Fairburn Air Force base, White further criticised the paper for lacking detail on what kind of relationship Australia should pursue with Japan and Indonesia.

It wasn’t a matter of simply saying “let’s be friends,” he said.

White went as far to say the document could have more aptly been named ‘The Audacity of Hope’.

It didn’t address problems, rather, “it was assuming them away”. 

“There is always something beguiling about hope, something inspiring about hope,” White said.

“It’s always nice to see someone being optimistic. But not defence policy makers.

“Hope is not a policy - it’s certainly not a defence policy.”

Speaking alongside White, ANU emeritus professor Paul Dibb questioned the Federal Government’s vow to beef up defence capabilities with cutting-edge Joint Strike Fighters, 12 new submarines, and “growler” warfare electronic technology.

“If we are no longer structuring the defence force to fight a major power in high intensity combat, why do we still need 12 of the world’s largest conventional submarines?” he asked.

He likewise contested the need to acquire more super hornets, describing the plan as “contestable”.

Both the Federal Government and Opposition want to see Defence spending increase to two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) at some time in the future, when the economic situation allows for it.

Given defence spending amounted to around 1.5 per cent of GDP, that would mean finding an additional eight billion dollars a year, Dibb said.

He expressed concern funding allocated to other budgets could suffer as a consequence.

“Where is this sort of money going to come from?” he asked.

“Education? Health? Aged Care? Welfare?”

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.

On Friday Opposition defence minister David Johnston said the new white paper lacked a solid plan and schedule, while doubting funds were available to implement its recommendations.

However, if the Opposition won the upcoming federal election, Dibb didn’t believe it would throw the paper out.

“That remains to be seen but my judgement and information is they will be reasonably comfortable with this strategic analysis,” he said.

He called on the Opposition to be clear about any defence plan it had in mind.

“We need clear judgements about what is vital to Australia’s defence security, and what is just nice to have,” he said.

ANU visiting fellow Dr Richard Brabin-Smith, was receptive to plans to pay more attention to the rise of Indonesia as a global player.

At the same time, he said Australia might need to adjust its attitude towards the country.

“No more flying off the handle, if they kill our cows in ways which we don’t like,” he said.

Likewise Admiral Barrie said he quite liked “the cute emphasis given to Indonesia”.

“I think, frankly, we have neglected Indonesia, not in high-level terms, but across the board in defence over the last 12 years,” Barrie said.

“And as we are on the cusp of deciding what to do with our military forces, as we withdraw from Afghanistan in great numbers, and from other parts of our region, in numbers, I think re-emphasis on our relationship with Indonesia deserves a lot of attention.”

A video of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre white paper discussion panel will be available at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific in the next few days.






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