The 2016 Defence White Paper: A missed opportunity

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The 2016 Defence White Paper harks back to a bygone era of Cold War tactics and containment policies, and places Australia on perilous ground with China, writes James O'Neill.

THE RECENTLY RELEASED 2016 Defence White Paper has been hailed in some quarters for its hard nosed attitude to China — perceived as the greatest threat to Australian security. 

That reaction, together with the fundamental strategic assumptions underlying the White Paper, reveals the extent to which Australia is trapped in a defence strategy that has been fundamentally unchanged for several decades.

The fall of Singapore to the Japanese Army in December 1942 cured Australia of reliance upon Britain as the defender of its security from the Asian masses to its near North. 

Rather than taking the opportunity to fundamentally rethink Australia’s national interests in a way that reflected its geographical position, allegiance was simply transferred from Britain to the United States.

This has led to a long series of foreign policy blunders. Australia has been engaged at different times in wars in Korea, Malaysia, the three Indo-China nations of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and most recently Syria.  It has now adopted a military posture that, if unchecked, will inevitably lead to confrontation with China.

Thinking that new submarines (still at least 15 years away), nine new frigates and a continuing commitment to buy the F35 Joint Strike fighter, (the latter still not able to safely fly and the most expensive boondoggle in American military history) are going to be militarily significant, is magic thinking.

The belligerent posture toward China that underlies the whole of the White Paper’s strategic thinking (or lack thereof) is based on a number of unsustainable propositions.

The most important of these is that U.S. military hegemony, that briefly flowered following the collapse of the Soviet Union, will be a continuing bastion of Australian security for the foreseeable future.

It is true that the U.S. is capable of using its military capability for destruction, as the recent examples of Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, to name but a few, amply testify. Destroying a country’s infrastructure, killing millions of people, forcing millions more to flee either internally or abroad and laying waste to a civil society is not the same as winning. Neither is it particularly laudable.

President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” has seen the deployment to Asia of 60 per cent of the U.S. Fleet. It has seen the opening of yet more U.S. military bases (adding to the 800 plus already in existence) including in Australia, and a vast increase in aeroplanes, machinery and military personnel. All of this has had one overriding objective — the “containment” of China.

The hubris inherent in that containment policy is itself revealing. It presumes for example, that China will accede to this pressure by backing down from American belligerence and provocation. That betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of Chinese history, culture and strategic thought.

China had a culture and a civilisation thousands of years before the Europeans even set foot on the American continents. It has had the opportunity during those millennia to invade and dominate other nations, as the great fleets of the 14th century demonstrate. In each and every case, it chose to remain within its own legitimate sphere of influence.

Today, China has land borders with more nations than any other country on earth, extending over thousands of kilometers. Its history, however, is one of overwhelming peaceful co-existence. What we are witnessing today is the re-emergence of China to its historical role as the world’s greatest power. In this context, to speak of “containment” is foolhardy and dangerous, not to say profoundly ignorant.

The current posturing by the United States in the South China Sea illustrates many of these points. Flying nuclear-armed bombers over Chinese occupied rocks and sailing warships in close proximity to Chinese claimed territory cannot be described as other than provocative. 

The United States has invited Australia to join them in this demonstration of military power. It will be a measure of the Turnbull Government’s maturity as to whether or not it accedes to this foolishly provocative behaviour.

These provocations are ostensibly carried out in defence of “freedom of navigation” and the defence of vital sea routes. But these sea routes are equally important to Chinese shipping — China being the world’s largest exporter of goods by sea by a very large margin. Nobody has yet to demonstrate a single rational reason why China would seek to jeopardise these sea-lanes and neither can they point to a single instance when this has happened.

“Freedom of navigation” has an especially hollow ring to it. The U.S. has never hesitated to mount naval blockades of countries with whom it has policy differences, or to enforce its self-defined right to sanctions.

If maritime law was such an essential element in the American policy cabinet, one might expect that the U.S. would ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It refuses to do so. The American disregard for a “rules based system” on which the Defence White Paper places such reliance, makes it an uncertain ally in the event of any real confrontations in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

It is, of course, too much to expect that the Australian Government would recognise that the U.S. is in fact one of the world’s more lawless nations, reserving for itself under the rubric of “exceptionalism” — the right to basically do as it pleases, regardless of international law.

The collection of rocks, shoals and outcrops that formed the Spratlys come within the so-called “Nine Dash Line”. The Kuomintang Government of Nationalist China first formulated this maritime claim in 1947 — two years before the People’s Republic of China came into existence.

The present government of Taiwan (the Kuomintang’s successor) makes the same claims in the South China Sea as does the People’s Republic of China. Yet it is only the latter that is invariably referred to in the western media as exhibiting “aggression” over its maritime claims.

It is not China that is the “aggressor”. Rather than engage in an endless series of foreign wars of aggression that marks post World War II U.S. policy (as Blum, Chomsky, Scott and Vidal among others have amply demonstrated) China has preferred to focus on peaceful co-operation and mutually beneficial development with its neighbours.

BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO, soon to be expanded with the inclusion of India, Iran and Pakistan) the AIIB, and the One Belt, One Road, massive infrastructure developments, whose pace has accelerated in recent years, are illustrations of this changing geopolitical reality. The mainstream media has chosen to keep its readers mostly in ignorance of these developments.

Similarly, the Defence White Paper recognises none of this new reality. Neither does it recognise that China’s modern military technology, including nuclear ICBMs, hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and space technology capable of destroying communications infrastructure, would mean that any Australian involvement in a shooting war with China would be very brief and end disastrously.

Rather than clinging to the coattails of what former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a “dangerous ally”, the White Paper should have taken the opportunity to explore an alternative, needs based defence policy that reflected Australia’s national interests.

It chose instead to reflect the thinking of a world that no longer exists and to pursue the military strategies that have been spectacularly unsuccessful and created more problems than it solved.

In the 21st century such magic thinking has no place. When Napoleon was in exile he was asked what he considered might be the greatest area of concern to the world in the centuries to come.

He replied that it would be when the dragon wakes:

“Let China sleep; when she wakes she will shake the world."

That such an awakening was a concern in the 19th Century is still reflected in the latest White Paper.

That wakening is surely happening, as China throws off three centuries of European oppression and exploitation. Rather than seeing it as a threat, as our policymakers clearly do, it should be seen as a wonderful opportunity to refashion Australia’s place in the world.

James O'Neill is a former academic, and has practiced as a barrister since 1984. He writes on geo-political issues, with a special emphasis on international law and human rights.

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