Defense White Paper: One American's View
May 9, 2013
Australia’s new Defence White Paper has its flaws, but the first thing that struck me about it was the hope that the Pentagon could produce as coherent a strategic document with the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). As David Berteau and I noted in our congressionally mandated independent assessment of U.S. forward presence strategy for the Asia Pacific region, the Obama administration has not been able to articulate to Congress or the region what strategic assumptions and principles underline the so-called rebalance to the Asia Pacific. U.S. deputy secretary of defense Ashton Carter’s recent speech at CSIS was a major step forward in that regard, but I hope the Pentagon’s strategic planners read the Australian Defence White Paper for some further clues on how to do these things.
I liked the White Paper's emphasis on the Indo-Pacific concept and the focus on protecting the maritime approaches to Australia. This broader framework, in the tradition of naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, is probably more appropriate to Australia's maritime setting than past Labor Party strategic concepts that seemed to rely too heavily on stopping the enemy at the beaches or in the Coral Sea.
The emphasis on preventing hostile powers from using coercion or intimidation in this Indo-Pacific zone is particularly relevant, given that Beijing arguably attempted just that in the East and South China Seas in recent years. This theme in the White Paper will resonate with evolving U.S. thinking and declaratory policy.
Other aspects of the White Paper may not be as compelling. I suspect the document will be seen elsewhere in the region as a partial repudiation of the 2009 White Paper, and therefore a retreat from attempting to maintain a favorable strategic equilibrium as Chinese power rises. The fact that Australian defense spending is at 1.56 percent of GDP, the lowest level since 1938, will only reinforce this view, despite aspirational assertions in the document that the government will eventually target defense spending at 2 percent of GDP.
The defense engagement section also struck me as a lost opportunity. Yes, the Australian Defence Force is doing a lot with a lot of countries (the list is actually quite impressive), but if the Indo-Pacific strategic space is so important and the objective of Australian strategy is to impair hostile coercion strategies in that space, why not explain how Australia will work with other like-minded maritime states facing the exact same challenge? It seems to me that countries like Japan and India merit a more ambitious vision for strategic levels of cooperation, but perhaps this is a case where good manners (not upsetting Beijing) prevented explicit discussion of what should be an obvious dimension of an effective Indo-Pacific strategy.
Overall, though, the White Paper holds together well. And if current political trends continue and the Liberal Party-led opposition coalition wins power in elections this year, the Pentagon might get yet another Defence White Paper to study .
All good homework as we prepare for the 2014 QDR.
(A version of this commentary originally appeared May 6, 2013, on the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s blog, The Interpreter , where it is part of a debate; click here to see how this debate started and developed. It was reprinted with permission in the May 9, 2013, issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)
Michael Green is senior vice president for Asia and codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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