Australia braces for regional arms race

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 September, 2008, 12:00am

For all the talk about Australia's love affair with China in recent years, a creeping reality is setting in among policymakers. That reality, on the Australian side at least, seems to be increasingly focused on the possibility of China's growing military and strategic strength and how Australia should respond.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said as much in recent weeks, and his government's Defence White Paper, due to be released in November but likely to be delayed until next year, will no doubt have sobering observations about the rise of China and its implications for Australia's defence.

On September 9, Mr Rudd, at a conference of returned servicemen and women, flagged the direction of the White Paper and prepared the Australian taxpayer for the prospect of increased defence spending.

The economic strength of the Asia-Pacific region, led by China, will inexorably result in 'huge increases in military spending here in our region', Mr Rudd said. And that 'presents challenges in terms of Australia's ability to defend its own sea lines of communication'. Australia therefore needs to become a serious maritime power in the region, according to Mr Rudd.

In short, Australia needs to join the regional arms race, Mr Rudd appears to be saying. And he may be right, according to Hugh White, a defence expert in Australia.

'You've got to ask yourself why are countries like China building up their armed forces as quickly as they are, and I think the key reason is we're seeing emerging, intensifying strategic competition between the US and China for primacy, and I don't think we can just assume the US will come out on top of that,' Professor White told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation recently.

Australia has never wanted to be forced to make a choice between its traditional ally, the US, and China, which is - because of its reliance on Australian coal and iron ore - insulating the Australian economy against the global economic crisis.

This reluctance may be the driver behind Australia's recent signals on the need to increase its naval capacity. It may be that Mr Rudd thinks Australia will be taken more seriously as a middle-ranking power in the region if it beefs up its defence capability.

Peter Varghese, head of the Office of National Assessments, the intelligence agency that reports to the prime minister, said last week that by 2030, those countries 'with a broad sweep of capabilities, especially economic and military power and diplomatic skill, will be among the most influential'.

And he acknowledged that China's real defence budget 'could rise to half that of the US', with most of that military power focused regionally.

Given this scenario, it would be foolish for an Australian government not to contemplate increasing its military strength.

This is not to say Australia should antagonise China, but if it wants Beijing to respect its power in the region, then having a serious defence capability will surely help.

Greg Barns is a political commentator in Australia and a former Australian government adviser