Australia’s multibillion-dollar defence spending boost is no threat to China

Ashley Townshend says Canberra’s white paper presents a sober assessment of the challenging security situation in the Indo-Pacific, and is not aimed at containing China in an increasingly militarised region

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 11:22am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 10:28pm

Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper has received a frosty response from China. But Beijing should consider its strategic rationale, which is about hedging against “greater security uncertainty” in Indo-Pacific Asia and not about containing China’s rise. Unlike its predecessor, the paper presents a sober assessment of emerging regional threats to Australian security interests. Competition between the US and China, South and East China sea tensions, and Asian military modernisation are stoking Australian anxieties. These concerns have driven an unprecedented rise in spending and high-end defence capabilities.

READ MORE: China to boost maritime presence in disputed sea zone

Major procurements include 12 future submarines, 72 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters and 14 P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft. To pay for this, Australia will spend an extra A$30 billion (HK$174 billion) over the next decade. This should not alarm Beijing. In fact, it represents a measured response to rising strategic uncertainties. As Asian countries modernise their defences forces, Australia is facing an increasingly militarised region in which it must update its force to keep up with the balance of power.

A direct threat remains a remote possibility. Nevertheless, the spread of advanced power-projection platforms creates uncertainty and poses a latent risk to Australia’s ability to exercise military superiority in its northern approaches, the centrepiece of Canberra’s defence strategy.

While Australia’s spending hike is a hefty rise, it’s not out of step with regional trends. In coming years, China’s defence budget is expected to grow at 7 per cent, Indonesia’s at 14 per cent, and Vietnam’s at 7.5 per cent, making Australia’s 4.5 per cent increase appear relatively modest.

READ MORE: China’s military budget boost the lowest in six years

The white paper expresses serious concerns about China’s future role in the Asia-Pacific, particularly “the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities” in the South China Sea. It also opposes “coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the East China Sea”. But this doesn’t mean Australia-China defence relations are deteriorating.

Australia undertakes more military exercises with China than almost any other nation

On the contrary, the paper outlines Australia’s intention to continue military-to-military exchanges and defence cooperation. Australia undertakes more military exercises with China than almost any other nation, and values working with China on anti-piracy, maritime safety and the search for MH-370.

While Australia is hedging for an uncertain strategic future, it remains committed to advancing regional security and international rules with Beijing, Washington and other Asia-Pacific partners.

Ashley Townshend is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Asia-Pacific Cooperation and Governance at Fudan University, Shanghai, and a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia