Australia softens China stance in new military outlook

Australia welcomed China's rise and said it did not regard the Asian giant as an adversary, in a military roadmap which marked a shift from rhetoric that has angered Beijing in the past.

  • Published: 3/05/2013 at 02:49 PM
  • Newspaper section: news

Australian Navy's HMAS Melbourne at a dockyard near Sydney on May 3, 2013. Australia welcomed China's rise and said it did not regard the Asian giant as an adversary, in a military roadmap which marked a shift from rhetoric that has angered Beijing in the past.

The defence white paper, which includes an Aus$1.5 billion commitment to buy 12 new Boeing EA-18G Growler jets to counter delays in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, was seen as more measured than its predecessor.

Beijing was rankled by warnings in the 2009 edition that the "pace, scope and structure" of its militarisation could concern regional neighbours -- straining diplomatic relations with Australia, a major trading partner.

The latest paper is significantly less hawkish on China, welcoming the Asian giant's rise and describing its military expansion as a "natural and legitimate outcome of its economic growth".

"The government does not approach China as an adversary. Rather, its policy is aimed at encouraging China's peaceful rise and ensuring that strategic competition in the region does not lead to conflict," it said.

It also noted India's emergence "as an important strategic, diplomatic and economic actor" and said the Indian Ocean is becoming one of the world's most strategically significant areas, with Southeast Asia as its centre.

"The region's big strategic challenges will last for decades and their mismanagement could have significant consequences," it said.

Australia's resources-rich Indian Ocean coast is the hub of its mining and energy exports to Asia and the paper identified an "enhanced and more visible presence" in the country's northwest as a priority.

The blueprint said war games took place in the region last year based around resources and energy assets and the defence force "needs to be postured to support high-tempo military operations in Australia's northern and western approaches."

As expected, it emphasised the importance of Australia's ties with the US, its major military partner, noting the beefing up of the alliance since 2009 with the stationing of 2,500 Marines in northern Darwin.

It noted that Australian troops will complete their handover in Afghanistan in December in a major drawdown, allowing the nation's military to focus on humanitarian and security issues in the region for the first time in a decade.

Foreign policy analysts commended the broadening in focus to include the Indo-Pacific and saw the overall plan as a less ambitious but more sophisticated view of the region and recalibration of priorities.

"It's pleasing to see the statement finally tackling, and dismissing, the tired shibboleth of having to choose between China and the US," said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

"Neither wants us to choose, nor is it in our strategic interests to do so."

Funding was the central question, with commentators and conservative politicians asking how the government would pay for the Growlers and 12 previously-promised submarines outlined in the paper.

"Major projects are being cut or delayed because the government simply cannot afford them," said Sam Roggeveen from the Lowy Institute foreign policy think-tank.

Canberra slashed Aus$5.5 billion from defence coffers last year, delaying acquisition of 12 JSF jets, sacking 1,000 staff and cancelling artillery orders in a bid to find savings.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith said there would be "no further cuts in the defence budget" when the government delivers its 2013-14 spending plans on May 14.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard underlined Canberra's commitment to the F-35 JSF project, which has laboured under soaring costs and delays, describing the Growlers as a "transition" phase to the radar-evading next-generation warplane.

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Writer: AFP
Position: News agency

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