Aus­tralia boosts de­fense plan in re­sponse to China

Will help U.S. ‘free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion’

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY LUKE HUNT

CAN­BERRA, AUS­TRALIA | For more than two decades, Aus­tralia has danced a del­i­cate two-step with the United States and its long­time Pa­cific al­lies on one hand and a not-so-friendly but big-spend­ing China on the other.

It was a split-the-dif­fer­ence ap­proach that raised eye­brows — and blood pres­sures — from Wash­ing­ton to Tokyo and Seoul to Manila, where the view of Bei­jing’s de­signs on the re­gion is col­ored far more in terms of po­ten­tial threats than trade-re­lated part­ner­ships.

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, at a Group of 20 sum­mit in late 2014, asked Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott the mo­tives driv­ing Can­berra’s re­la­tion­ship with Bei­jing. His re­sponse: “Fear and greed.”

Chi­nese de­mand for iron ore, nat­u­ral gas and other raw ma­te­ri­als poured bil­lions of dol­lars a year into Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment cof­fers, even as Bei­jing re­lent­lessly spread its trade and mil­i­tary wings across the re­gion, chal­leng­ing the bal­ance of power in the South China Sea. A tougher line on China on se­cu­rity threat­ened to de­rail the eco­nomic gravy train.

“It is dif­fi­cult to see how Chi­nese hege­monic pres­sure can be re­strained,” said Keith Loveard, a re­gional con­flict an­a­lyst with Jakarta-based Con­cord Con­sult­ing. “The most im­por­tant ques­tion is: What should the rest of the world do when China es­tab­lishes de facto con­trol of the re­gion? There are very few an­swers to this.”

But a big change is in the air Down Un­der. A 10-year de­fense blue­print un­veiled this year re­veals an Aus­tralia that has grown deeply skep­ti­cal of China’s long-term am­bi­tions for the re­gion.

Un­der the plan, Aus­tralia will sharply in­crease de­fense spend­ing and har­den its stance against Bei­jing’s ag­gres­sive push and con­struc­tion of man-made is­lands in the hotly dis­puted South China Sea, of­fer­ing sup­port to the U.S. Navy’s “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion” mis­sions di­rectly chal­leng­ing China’s ter­ri­to­rial claims.

Un­der the De­fense White Paper, Aus­tralian de­fense spend­ing will nearly dou­ble from $23 bil­lion in fis­cal year 2016-2017 to $41.1 bil­lion an­nu­ally by fis­cal 2025-2026. The most am­bi­tious in­crease of its kind in the na­tion’s his­tory will in­clude money for a dozen new sub­marines and in­vest­ment in high-tech de­fense R&D.

“We are a mar­itime power,” Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull said in Can­berra when the de­fense road map was re­leased. “An is­land na­tion needs a strong navy. It par­tic­u­larly needs a strong navy in this en­vi­ron­ment.”

When a U.S. guided-mis­sile de­stroyer re­cently passed within 12 nau­ti­cal miles of the Chi­nese-oc­cu­pied Fiery-Cross Reef, China de­nounced the pas­sage as an il­le­gal threat to peace. Aus­tralia backed the U.S., and Mr. Turn­bull called Pres­i­dent Obama to voice Can­berra’s “strong com­mit­ment to free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion.”

Forced to pick sides, Aus­tralia is throw­ing in with the U.S. and its al­lies in the strug­gle to shape the evolv­ing bal­ance of power in the re­gion, said Ray Leos, a re­gional aca­demic with Pan­nasas­tra Uni­ver­sity in Ph­nom Penh.

“The linch­pin of Aus­tralia’s strate­gic pol­icy, which has pretty much been the con­sen­sus view shared by its ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties over the years, is that the U.S. is Aus­tralia’s most im­por­tant strate­gic ally, and it also plays a cru­cial role in pro­vid­ing sta­bil­ity in the Asia Pa­cific,” Mr. Leos said.

Speak­ing out

An­a­lysts said Aus­tralian politi­cians were find­ing speak­ing out on China has be­come a lit­tle eas­ier amid weak com­mod­ity prices and grow­ing anti-Bei­jing sen­ti­ment. Bei­jing’s case has not been helped by an in­flux of Chi­nese money buy­ing up Aus­tralian real es­tate, from cat­tle sta­tions to sub­ur­ban homes, which has been blamed for pric­ing lo­cals out of their own mar­kets.

With a na­tional elec­tion loom­ing July 2, Mr. Turn­bull’s right-wing gov­ern­ment blocked the sale of Aus­tralia’s big­gest sin­gle land hold­ing — the Kid­man cat­tle em­pire en­com­pass­ing 1 per­cent of the vast, con­ti­nent­sized coun­try, or 39,000 square miles — to a Chi­nese-led con­sor­tium.

The sale, for $288 mil­lion, was deemed as “may be con­trary to the na­tional in­ter­est” — an awk­ward po­lit­i­cal step for the con­ser­va­tives whose strong pro-mar­ket men­tal­ity has dom­i­nated their three years in power and is wear­ing thin on vot­ers.

Anti-China sen­ti­ment has also been stoked by a back­lash against pro-Bei­jing ac­tivism by eth­nic Chi­nese liv­ing in Aus­tralia and even com­plaints by the queen of Eng­land. Bri­tain’s Queen El­iz­a­beth II, Aus­tralia’s for­mal head of state, said Chi­nese se­cu­rity staff were rude dur­ing a visit to Lon­don by Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping.

There is also resid­ual re­sent­ment over the leas­ing of the port of Dar­win to a Chi­nese com­pany. Com­plaints that the pub­lic was not con­sulted widely enough and fears the deal could com­pro­mise se­cu­rity sur­round­ing a po­ten­tial ro­tat­ing force of 2,500 U.S. Marines gar­risoned nearby have been made loud and clear.

Pol­i­tics and French sub­marines

It was against that back­drop that Mr. Turn­bull an­nounced that French ship builder DCNS had fended off com­pet­ing bids from Ger­many and Ja­pan, win­ning a $40 bil­lion con­tract to build the Aus­tralian navy a new class of sub­ma­rine, which will be armed with Amer­i­can-made com­bat sys­tems.

An­a­lysts say the tight se­cu­rity re­la­tion­ship be­tween Can­berra and Wash­ing­ton has meant se­nior U.S. of­fi­cers were in­volved with the bid­ding process and ini­tially fa­vored the Ja­panese bid be­cause of press­ing se­cu­rity is­sues in the South China Sea.

Ja­pan, fac­ing es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions with China over the Senkaku Is­lands, hoped to use the project to kick-start an arms ex­ports busi­ness of its own, but there was spec­u­la­tion that a suc­cess­ful Ja­panese bid would have an­gered China.

Hugh White, a de­fense scholar with Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, ar­gued that a sub­ma­rine deal with Ja­pan would ul­ti­mately push Aus­tralia closer to a con­flict with China.

Con­cord Con­sult­ing’s Mr. Loveard added that China was not mak­ing many friends in the re­gion with its in­sis­tence that the large swaths of the South China Sea — known as the East Sea in Hanoi and the West Philip­pine Sea in Manila — is its in­alien­able ter­ri­tory.

“But, given that it is not a front-line state in this ar­gu­ment, it is hard to see why Aus­tralia feels the need to adopt a tough stance against China, which af­ter all is a ma­jor trad­ing part­ner,” he said. “The tra­di­tional al­liance with the U.S. should not be seen as the only game in town and Aus­tralia might be far bet­ter po­si­tioned to adopt a more neu­tral tone to­wards China.”

The push­back against Bei­jing’s claims can also be seen in Pres­i­dent Obama’s mes­sage­send­ing trip to Viet­nam, a high­light of which was the an­nounce­ment that Wash­ing­ton was lift­ing the ban on mil­i­tary sales to Hanoi that dated back to the Viet­nam War. Aus­tralia and Viet­nam agreed last year to hold their first joint naval ex­er­cises, and Aus­tralia has of­fered to help train the Viet­namese mil­i­tary.

But re­vis­ing Aus­tralia’s tra­di­tional bal­anc­ing act be­tween a once-dom­i­nant U.S. and a steadily ris­ing China comes with risks, Mr. Leos said.

“The most ob­vi­ous chal­lenge for Aus­tralia is how to walk that fine di­plo­matic line of not only main­tain­ing a close se­cu­rity re­la­tion­ship with the Amer­i­cans, but also main­tain­ing a strong trade re­la­tion­ship with China,” he said.

“This may be par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing for the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment since U.S. de­fense of­fi­cials have ex­pressed con­cern over the Chi­nese mil­i­tary buildup in the South China Sea and the need to main­tain a cred­i­ble de­ter­rence to China’s mil­i­ta­riza­tion.”

“It is dif­fi­cult to see how Chi­nese hege­monic pres­sure can be re­strained. The most im­por­tant ques­tion is: What should the rest of the world do when China es­tab­lishes de facto con­trol of the re­gion? There are very few an­swers to this.” — Keith Loveard, an­a­lyst with Jakarta-based Con­cord Con­sult­ing


Chi­nese Premier Li Ke­qiang wel­comed Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull and his wife, Lucy, to Bei­jing. The del­i­cate re­la­tion­ship be­tween their coun­tries is about to change.

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