On 2 May 2009, then prime minister Kevin Rudd and defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon launched a Defence White Paper entitled Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Its lead author was the senior defence official Mike Pezzullo.
The White Paper argued that Australia’s core strategic interests lay in the Asia-Pacific region. It emphasised China’s growing military strength, predicted that US primacy in the Asia-Pacific would decline, that the region would develop into a more multipolar system, and advocated a A$100 billion upgrade of Australia’s naval and air force power.
The White Paper argued that ‘the pace, scope and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern’, and that if China does not explain its military plans, ‘there is likely to be a question in the minds of regional states about the long-term purpose of its force deployment plans, particularly as the [military] modernisation appears potentially to be beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan’.
This apparent contemplation of military conflict with China created controversy within Australian media and policy circles. Comment was divided between arguments that the White Paper was a ploy to boost defence funding; that the White Paper was Rudd’s response to domestic misgivings about him being too close to China; and, that the China aspect was being overblown.
The Australian media also reported that the White Paper was written in spite of reports from the Defence Intelligence Organisation and Office of National Assessments arguing for the defensive nature of China’s military build-up and dismissing this as a national security threat. Furthermore, US Pentagon staff had endorsed these reports in meetings with Australian defence officials before the launch of the White Paper.
The debate was further politicised when then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull blasted the paper’s ‘highly contentious proposition that Australia is on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China’. A retired rear-admiral at China’s National Defence University criticised the White Paper for playing up a dangerous ‘China threat thesis’ that could accelerate a regional arms race.
While the official response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry was muted, Wikileaks cables released in 2010 showed that in spite of public denials that China raised concerns with the White Paper, Defence was forewarned by furious Chinese military leaders that Australia would ‘suffer the consequences’ if it singled out China as the focus of its defence strategy.
The next 2013 Defence White Paper attracted far less public debate, possibly due to the fact that it affirmed that Australia ‘welcomes China’s rise’ and ‘does not approach China as an adversary’, and since it described China’s military modernisation as ‘natural and legitimate’.
Defence White Papers
- Australian Government, Department of Defence, ‘Defence White Paper 2009’, 2 May 2009.
- Australian Government, Department of Defence, ‘Defence White Paper 2013’, 3 May 2013.
- Cameron Stewart and Patrick Walters, ‘Defence Chiefs Spurned by US on China Risk’, The Australian, 15 April 2009.
- John Garnaut and Brendan Nicholson, ‘Defence Plan Ruffles the Chinese’, The Age, 1 May 2009.
- Nick Dryant, ‘Fortress Australia’, BBC News, 2 May 2009.
- Malcolm Turnbull, ‘Government Errs in its Strategy’, The Australian, 2 May 2009.
- John Garnaut, Michelle Grattan and Anne Davies, ‘Military Build Up Risks New Asian Arms Race’, The Age, 4 May 2009.
- Hugh White, ‘Muddled Report Leaves Gaps in our Defence’, The Australian, 4 May 2009.
- Graeme Dobell, ‘White Paper: China Nightmare, Indonesian Dream’, The Interpreter, 4 May 2009.
- Gerard Henderson, ‘A Prudent Approach on China’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May 2009.
- Rory Medcalf, ‘Defence White Paper Goes Too Far, Too Fast’, The Interpreter, 5 May 2009.
- Michael Sainsbury and Cameron Stewart, ‘China a “Peaceful Force” in Beijing’s Response to Defence Paper’, The Australian, 6 May 2009.
- ABC, ‘Defence White Paper Shifts Focus to Asia-Pacific’, The Drum, 6 May 2009.
- Rod Lyon and Andrew Davies, ‘Assessing the Defence White Paper 2009’, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 7 May 2009.
- Guo Chunmei, ‘Playing Up the China Threat’, Beijing Review, 21 May 2009.
- Hugh White, ‘Australia’s Strategic Future After the White Paper’, East Asia Forum, 19 June 2009.
- Ross Cottrill, ‘Talking Tough: Defence White Paper 2009’, The Asialink Essays, July 2009.
- Rod Lyon et al, ‘Regional Reactions to the Australian Defence White Paper 2009’, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 21 September 2009.
- Patrick Walters, ‘The Making of the 2009 Defence White Paper’, Security Challenges, vol. 5, no. 2, Winter 2009.
- John Langmore, Calum Logan and Stewart Firth, ‘The 2009 Australian Defence White Paper: Analysis and Alternatives’, Nautilus Institute, 15 September 2010.
- Philip Dorling and Richard Barker, ‘China’s Fury at Defence Paper’, The Age, 10 December 2010.
- Brendan Nicholson, ‘Secret ‘War’ with China Uncovered’, The Australian, 2 June 2012.
- Hugh White, ‘What to expect from Australia’s 2013 Defence White Paper’, East Asia Forum, 9 April 2013.
- ‘Debate: Defence White Paper 2013’, The Interpreter, 2–21 May 2013.
- Max Blenkin, ‘White Paper Says China Not a Threat’, The Australian, 3 May 2013.
- Michael Brissenden, ‘Government poised to release Defence white paper’, ABC News, 24 June 2013.
- Simon Cullen, ‘New Defence White Paper Changes Tone on China’, ABC Radio National, 3 May 2013.
- Michelle Grattan, ‘White Paper brings new planes and ‘modest’ defence spending rise’, The Conversation, 3 May 2013.
- John Garnaut, ‘Softer Tone, But China Wariness Remains’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 May 2013.
- Brendan Nicholson, ‘Defence White Paper Pivots Over China Threat’, The Australian, 4 May 2013.
- Cameron Stewart, ‘Defence White Paper Goes Down In Flames’, The Australian, 4 May 2013.
- David Wroe and Deborah Snow, ‘Radar Still on Chinese, But it’s All Friendly Fire’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 May 2013.
- Greg Sheridan, ‘Making a Bang Without a Buck? It’s Pure Fantasy’, The Australian, 4 May 2013.
- Didi Kirsten Tatlow, ‘Australia Strives to Balance China and the United States’, The New York Times, 5 May 2013.
- Adam Lockyer, ‘Politics First as White Paper Fails on Big Issues’, Canberra Times, 6 May 2013.
- Andrew O’Neil, ‘Defence White Paper Pulls its Punches on China’, The Interpreter, 6 May 2013.
- Graeme Dobell, ‘The tacit consensus for the White Paper’, The Strategist, 6 May 2013.
- Peter Hartcher, ‘We rely on the US at our peril’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 7 May 2013.
- Andrew Phillips, ‘Defence White Paper: super-sizing Australia’s strategic geography for the Asian Century’, The Conversation, 7 May 2013.
- Amy King, ‘A change of tone on China’, The Drum, 7 May 2013.
- Eliza Borrello, ‘China still the key to future Defence strategy’, ABC News, 8 May 2013.
- Mark Thomson, ‘The Defence White Paper – between the lines’, The Strategist, 14 May 2013.
- Kerry Brown and Bates Gill, ‘China: it’s time to get some perspective’, The Drum, 24 May 2013.