SYDNEY: The early signs from the Australian military’s new strategy make it clear that this demographically tiny nation that fights far above its weight is readying itself to refocus on China and Indonesia as it prepares to cope with the end of the war in Afghanistan.
The Ministry of Defence in Canberra is deep in the throes of preparing a strategic White Paper on the future of the Australian military. An early version of the paper was leaked to The Australian, one of the premier national papers here. I understand a number of important changes will be made to the final version, but the leaked version offers some tantalizing quotes.
The biggest point in the draft: the Sino-US relationship will be the determining factor in shaping Australia’s “strategic environment in the coming decade.” Combine that with “the proliferation of long-range strike and power projection capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region,” and you’ve got a potent mix of strategic challenges for the military charged with safeguarding the 22.5 million Australians.
But we understand the version of the White Paper obtained by The Australian has been superseded, although many of the fundamental points in it are likely to remain largely unchanged. One place to watch — which will not surprise those familiar with Australian national security policies — is Indonesia. The two countries have long had a volatile, though quite close, relationship. Australia is constantly pressing Indonesia to release or cut the sentences of stupid Aussies who get caught smuggling drugs. Among those who have become high profile cases are those of the so-called Bali Nine, two of whom were sentenced to death by firing squad, and Schapelle Corby, whose sentence for smuggling marijuana was reduced in May last year.
In addition to such second tier issues (for the Indonesians at least) Indonesia also sits right on top of Australia and boasts both a rapidly growing economy and a burgeoning population that is already over 243 million scattered across 17,500 islands. That population is expected to grow to more than 288 million by 2050. Add to this the fact that Indonesia controls half of the island on which sits Papua New Guinea. PNG, which some uncharitable observers might call an Australian client state, is known for instability and violence as well as tremendous natural resources.
While Indonesia may not figure prominently in Australian military planning per se, it will certainly shape Australia’s strategy and its national security planning.
Another issue that is likely to shape the Australian military will be how to manage its army as it draws down from the most intense combat engagement it has had since the Vietnam War. The service may need reshaping and the balance between Australia’s commandos, SAS and the regular Army are likely to change.
Finally, the White Paper draft makes clear Australia remains committed to doubling its submarine fleet, buying and fielding 12 submarines to replace the Collins class currently plying the Pacific. We bet the Chinese are very unhappy that Australia is increasing its sub fleet at the same time that the US plans to increase the size of its fleet in the Pacific.
[I just returned from a month-long visit to Australia, with which I have deep family ties.]