Defence and Strategic Relations

Australia has probably the closest defence relationship with China of any of the members of the US-led ‘Five-Eyes’ intelligence-sharing network. There are regular bilateral exchanges between the Australian Defence Force (ADF) and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). However, the ‘rise’ of China’s geopolitical influence in Asia and rapidly strengthening Chinese military capabilities are widely viewed as Australia’s major strategic challenge. The relationship remains one characterised both by cooperation and by misgivings. Some observers posit that Beijing-Canberra defence exchange is essentially perfunctory — a ‘necessary supplement’ to the broader economic relationship — and ‘on closer examination … there is hardly any substantial military dimension in the bilateral ties’.

In December 2014, Beijing hosted the seventeenth annual session of the official Australia–China Defence Strategic Dialogue. The previous round, held in Canberra in January 2014, endorsed an augmented agenda for military exchange known as the Australia–China Defence Engagement Plan. This plan built on a suite of existing bilateral defence initiatives such as high-level officer visits, naval ship visits, strategic policy forums, humanitarian relief drills and cultural exchanges. It facilitated PLA Navy vessels operating under Australian command during the US-led ‘Rim of the Pacific’ naval drills held in July 2014, and a US-China-Australia trilateral military exercise in northern Australia in October 2014 called Exercise Kowari 14.

The bedrock of Australian defence is the 1951 Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) — a formal military alliance between Australia and the US generally interpreted as including a mutual security guarantee. Australia hosts significant US intelligence facilities at the Pine Gap satellite tracking station in central Australia, the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station and the Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt. Since World War Two, the US has enjoyed military primacy in Asia and in light of this Australian defence policy focused upon the direct defence of Australia, to the extent analysts accused Australia of ‘free-riding’ on US military supremacy.

However, concordant with China’s rapid economic growth in recent decades, the PLA has pursued a program of military modernisation that is challenging regional American hegemony. Recent investments in aircraft carriers, attack submarines, long-range missiles and an emerging ‘blue water’ navy, mean that China is approaching its objective of ‘area denial’ capabilities within the ‘first island chain’ surrounding China (in the West Pacific stretching from Japan to Borneo).

The rise of China has had a notable effect upon Australian strategic thinking. US officials have stated that Australia would be expected to ‘contribute’ to any US conflict with China. China’s periodic belligerent assertions of sovereignty over disputed territories in the East China Sea and (especially) the South China Sea have been accompanied by the ADF acknowledging a ‘broadened’ concept of Australian national security extending beyond previous concepts of ‘homeland defence’, given that ‘any disruption to key regional sea lanes and to Australia’s ability to trade would have a fundamental impact on our nation.’ And Australian defence actors increasingly cite the relative decline of American power and rising Chinese military spending (growing an average of over ten percent each year and estimated at US$200 billion for 2014) as due cause to increase Australia’s defence budget.

There has been much public debate in Australia over whether Australia needs to choose between the US, its strategic ally, and China, its most important economic partner [topic link: economic relations]. Prominent voices, such as those of academic Hugh White [topic link page] and China-invested business elites argue for the greater accommodation of China’s interests. The Australian defence and political establishment, however, remain overwhelmingly in favour of robust support for the US alliance, with, for example, bipartisan support for the deployment of US marines to Darwin under US President Barack Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’. [Topic link page].

In February 2011, the defence analyst and 2009 Defence White Paper [Topic link page] advisor Ross Babbage caused a storm in Australian policy circles with the release of his Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030 report. In it he argued that the PLA would pose ‘direct challenge[s] to Australian sovereignty’ by 2030 and, in close cooperation with the US, for the ‘urgent need to refocus’ the ADF on ‘the direct defence of Australia to offset and deter the rapidly-expanding PLA in Australia’s approaches’. Babbage’s report received considerable media coverage, but was widely censured by defence commentators for its alarmist tone.

The Chinese government itself insists it is pursuing a ‘peaceful rise’. But China perceives the US Pivot as a strategic manoeuvre to contain Chinese power and state-affiliated media warned Australia could be ‘caught in the crossfire’. China also reacted furiously and warned of ‘consequences’ for Australia in response to the Rudd government’s [topic link page] 2009 Defence White Paper that advocated a A$275 billion defence force upgrade in response to ‘concerning’ Chinese military expansionism.

Perhaps wary of such intense Chinese reactions, the Gillard government’s [topic page link] 2013 Defence White Paper (released the month after Gillard succeeded in upgrading the bilateral relationship to a ‘strategic partnership’) used far more conciliatory language to express Australia’s attitude towards Chinese military modernisation, labelling it ‘natural and legitimate’ and stressing that Australia ‘does not approach China as an adversary’.

However, the current Abbott government [topic page link] is seen as an unabashed supporter of a US-led regional order and has taken a firmer stance against Chinese maritime ambitions. This firm stance includes intensified military collaboration with the US and deepened security relations with Japan, China’s closest strategic rival — likely to include the groundbreaking purchase of Japanese submarines. The Abbott government has committed to increasing defence spending to two percent of GDP and will issue a new defence white paper by August 2015.

But even within the Abbott government, opinions remain somewhat divided on how far the white paper should go, with Defence Minister Kevin Andrews saying China will be ‘a key consideration for Australian planning’ in a ‘more challenging’ security environment. The chair of the white paper’s advisory council says that Australia should be ready to send military assets to prevent China controlling disputed territory covering shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

Cyber security is also likely to be a future flashpoint in bilateral defence relations. Australian government departments, defence units, multinational corporations, media organisations and individual politicians have all reportedly suffered from hacking attacks or cyber espionage originating in China and attributed to the PLA. The most serious incidents so far were a yearlong infiltration of the Australian parliamentary computer network in 2011, and the alleged theft of top-secret blueprints for the new headquarters of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) in Canberra, reported in May 2013. The Australian intelligence establishment also believes that Australian infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber threats and that China ‘has the ability already to turn off our electricity supply’. Cyber attacks are now a stated Australian security priority, and both the Abbott and Gillard governments have banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei [topic page link] from participating in the National Broadband Network due to cyber security concerns.


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