Can Australia Defend Itself?
This Friday, Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will visit President George W. Bush. Security and defense are on the agenda for discussion, in particular America’s ongoing commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming only weeks after an earlier visit to the president by Australia’s previous prime minister, John Howard, the ideological contrast between these two men should be readily evident to the president.
Of major concern to the United States right now is whether Australia’s new and largely inexperienced government will seek to water down the strong support that Australia has shown to American foreign policy over the past decade and more. Of concern to many Australians will be whether these talks between Mr. Bush and Mr. Rudd give any guarantee of the continuance of Washington’s involvement in support of Australia’s defense and security within the vast Asia Pacific rim. The White House and the Pentagon will be keen to hear of any advance knowledge of recommendations being included in a white paper on Australia’s defense and security that is currently being drafted in Canberra in accordance with a key election promise of the Rudd government.
A hint of just what that white paper might contain was publicized in the Australian press this week.
On the eve of Mr. Rudd’s departure to the U.S., Prof. Ross Babbage, adviser to Australia’s new Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon and a co-author of the white paper, called for a massive upgrading of Australia’s defense capability. Writing for the Kokoda Foundation, Babbage highlights the “markedly altered future we seem likely to face.” He warns that Australia’s most significant challenge will, in all probability, arise from Asian powers to its north. Pointing to the rapid growth being experienced by Indonesia, India and China, the professor declares, “Nevertheless, despite the myriad uncertainties, the seemingly irresistible strategic tide with which Australian defense planners will need to come to terms is that the country will be walking among giants, some of whom may not be friendly” (Age,March 24).
The gap in Australia’s defense capability is quite significant when one compares the sum of its total national power to the collective national power of all of the nations arrayed to its north. Within that context, Australia is a non-nuclear-armed minnow floating on the southern rim of a rapidly expanding nuclear-enabled East Asian bloc.
Australia is aligned neither culturally nor ideologically with its northern neighbors. Though the nation’s land mass is impressive, it lacks the population to mount any military force of real significance compared in numbers to the teeming masses of greater Asia. Australia’s trade imbalance with Asia is huge. Its dependence on Asian nations, particularly China and Japan, as customers for its prime source of wealth—mineral resources—is excessive.
A strategic challenge to both Australia and its Asian customers is that its port facilities are proving inadequate to handle the huge demands for its raw materials, especially from China. Already involved in ownership and operation of Brisbane Container Terminals on Australia’s east coast, China would like to exploit Australia to its own strategic advantage by developing seaports on the island continent’s western coast to speed up loading and delivery of Western Australia’s iron ore and bauxite. This strategy is of similar nature to China’s development of the Port of Gwadar, built on Pakistan’s coastline, to give China strategic access to the Persian Gulf and Middle East oil resources.
Since Japan entered World War ii, Australia has relied largely upon the good graces of its big brother and fellow Anglo-Saxon nation, the United States, to shore up its security. This strategic alliance has given America a friendly base for its Asian and South Pacific operations in exchange for Australian troop commitments in numerous combat zones and for support in its Asia-Pacific diplomacy.
Australia’s increasing importance to American strategy in the Pacific and East Asia became clear in the run-up to President Bush’s visit to the country last year. As Stratfor wrote, “The United States and Australia signed the Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty on September 5, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (apec) summit in Sydney on September 8-9. The agreement is similar to one London and Washington signed June 27. The treaty, a small piece of a bigger picture, illustrates Australia’s increasing prominence in U.S. strategic thinking—a prominence that will continue to grow until Australia is on par with the United Kingdom as a U.S. ally” (Sept. 5, 2007).
The significance of the signing of that treaty by the U.S. and Australia is borne out by the fact that, as Stratfor highlights, “Canberra fully intends to leverage this closer legal standing in order to secure its own regional military dominance” (ibid.). It will be interesting to see the extent to which Prime Minister Rudd uses this leverage effectively to help close Australia’s defense gap. What will be of even greater interest is, if a Democrat gains the U.S. presidency in November, the extent to which the new administration will feel bound to honor the spirit of this treaty.
As Stratfor correctly points out, there are four key changes in the Far East that have Washington worried at this point: the increasing dominance of China, including its penetration of Australia’s key mineral resources market; Australia’s decreasing ability to protect the forces of democracy in the region; Russia’s refined focus on the region, including efforts to buy into strategic Australian mineral resources such as uranium; and the overt effort of Asian institutions such as asean Plus Three (asean, China, Japan and South Korea) and the East Asia Summit to block the U.S. from entering dialogue in the region and work to bend Washington to the East Asian powers’ will.
The immediate challenge that Australia faces right now in relation to national security is significantly one of ideology. The Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty was drawn up under, and signed by, two conservative leaders: President Bush entering his last year in office and John Howard within months of his being voted out of office in Australia.
Australia has since swung left, with Kevin Rudd immediately following through on his promise to withdraw Aussie troops from Iraq—not a good sign in terms of continued support to U.S. defense initiatives. Though this gesture may have been essential to quell the media-driven acrimony against what the liberal press labels “Bush’s war,” the Rudd government has stated that Australian troops will remain in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.
By November, the U.S. will have a new president. If America also swings left in its national elections, this could have huge impact on U.S.-Australian defense cooperation. It may even lead to a more isolationist America, leading to a drawdown of U.S. military commitments in the Asia Pacific region, leaving the door wide open for Asian powers to fill any vacuum thus created.
Markedly Altered Future
Perhaps Ross Babbage has this in mind when he referred to the “markedly altered future we seem likely to face.” Either way, his call for a drastic escalation in defense spending to close the gap in Australia’s current defense capability certainly has the ring of urgency about it. That gap was revealed some 10 years ago during Australia’s involvement in quelling anti-government ructions in East Timor, an island nation barely 600 kilometers from Australia’s northernmost city of Darwin. The Australian Air Force and Navy proved incapable of the timely transfer of equipment and personnel needed for the operation. The logistics, technology and, crucially, personnel gap in Australia’s defense forces, as compared to the Asian powers, has continued to widen since.
Australia’s navy, faced with securing a coastline almost 60,000 kilometers long, of which 40 percent encircles islands, simply does not have the sea power to cope with its task. By way of example, in terms of Australia’s submarine fleet alone, Babbage calls for “30 submarines … at a time when the crew-strapped Royal Australian Navy can barely keep three Collins Class subs operating out of a fleet of six” (Australian,March 25).
Two powers presently eye each other as prospective replacements for U.S. dominance in Asia and the Pacific: Japan, possessing an advanced blue-water capable navy, and China, a nuclear-armed nation, possessor of most of the Pacific’s major seaports. Ever watchful of the foreign policies of these two nations is India, which is rapidly building its own naval force, not to mention Russia, revitalizing its rusting hulks and adding new naval hardware to its nuclear fleet. Then there are the 200 million Indonesians just east of Timor. Indonesia possesses a navy with personnel strength three times that of Australia.
The lengths to which Australia would have to go to achieve any semblance of real strength in the face of any threat from Asia is reflected in Professor Babbage’s call for expenditure to cover a “Massively restructured Australian Defense Force equipped with a fleet of 400 advanced combat aircraft and 30 submarines … needed to provide for the nation’s security and counter the rise of Asian powers” (op. cit.).
Added to the question of Australia’s defense gap is the matter of just how prepared the nation is to ensure its own internal security. With such a mix of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East having settled in the southern continent, many totally uncommitted to becoming acculturated into Australian society, a possible elevation of fifth-column activities within the country poses an increasing risk. Though largely kept at bay by the previous conservative government for over a decade, the more politically correct policies of the Rudd government are likely to allow individuals and organizations that work against Australia’s interests to begin to raise their heads.
Australia stands at a crucial crossroad as U.S. power wanes. Will its Mandarin-speaking prime minister be able to hold the balance against an increasingly expanding China with its voracious appetite for Australia’s raw materials? What of Russia’s increasingly eyeing those resources, in particular the raw material for nuclear power, uranium? Then there is Japan, traditionally a hard bargainer when it comes to dealing with Australian business, now competing directly with China for Australia’s mineral wealth.
In the face of all this, little notice is being taken of another contender for a slice of Australia, one that sees the southern island continent as an ideal platform to expand its own interests into Asia and the Pacific as U.S. power in the region increasingly weakens. That power is Germany. As German-Foreign-Policy.com reported some years ago, “With the takeover of Australia’s second-largest construction company, the Bilfinger Berger ag is continuing its expansion abroad. To the German economy and Berlin’s foreign policy, the country represents a springboard to all of Southeast Asia, where Berlin wants to exercise its influence against the diminishing hegemony of the usa and the coming great power of China. The dominating position of the Anglo-American states in Australia is said to deprive Berlin of a formerly effective instrument for creating bonds of long duration between the Southeast Asian elites and Germany” (Nov. 3, 2003; emphasis mine).
Surprisingly, while Canberra gazes fixatedly on Asia—being particularly concerned about Australia’s relations with China at this moment—quietly in the background the greatest single trading bloc on Earth, the German-dominated European Union, is steadily making inroads into Australian business, finance and industry, with a view to exploiting Australia for its own ends as it seeks to gain increasing influence in the greater Asia Pacific region. You will hear more of this in the news in the months and years ahead. The time is fast approaching when the continent of Australia will be caught in the crossfire between two great, economically and militarily expanding power blocs, the European Union and a great pan-Asian bloc.