Rory Medcalf

Rory Medcalf


First, if you could, please give us your general feelings and thoughts on the White Paper. What did you like? What did you not like?

In general, the White Paper was a pleasant surprise — some sophisticated strategic analysis about the challenges ahead in Asia, a balanced approach diplomatically, and an acknowledgement that Australia needs to lift its game in defense spending and modernizing its military. I particularly welcomed the official endorsement of an Indo-Pacific framework for defining Australia’s strategic environment — this makes Australia the first country in the world to incorporate such forward-looking geopolitical thinking into policy. It recognizes that the Indo-Pacific is the new map of Asia, reflecting trade, energy, diplomatic and security linkages between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. But what I like least about this new defense White Paper is the fact that it did not include any serious commitments or budgetary frameworks about maintaining or sustaining levels of Australia defense spending commensurate with the challenges ahead — we simply have to take government at its word.

One aspect I found interesting is the clear elimination of a nuclear submarine option for Australia as well as a resounding call for domestically built conventional submarines. Considering some of the problems with the Collins-class subs, what are your thoughts on these decisions?

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

This was not surprising. The Australian Labor Party is allergic to all things nuclear. It would have been in the national interest for nuclear-powered submarines at least to have been given open-minded consideration, given their obvious suitability for the range and endurance required for the Navy of a country like Australia, with its enormous challenges of distance. And cheaper off-the-shelf conventional designs should also have been looked at more closely, perhaps with a view to acquiring a mixed fleet — especially if there are genuine concerns about contingencies requiring submarines arising in the next 10 to 20 years, and there are. The existing Collins class fleet of 6 boats has had serious technical problems, and at times reportedly only between one and 3 boats have been in a condition to put to sea. Unfortunately, we are seeing a triumph of politics over strategy here — all we really know about the new fleet is it will be built in Australia, Adelaide to be precise, and will have an American combat system. The cost, time frame, the actual design and frankly the feasibility of all this remain unclear.

The White Paper sets some big goals in terms of new equipment at a time when Australia’s budget is less than what many consider a goal of allocating two percent of GDP to defense. Can Australia meet its stated defense goals with the present budget realities?

In short, no. Australia is a very unusual country in that it claims for itself very large interests, not only its continent but also maritime territories and responsibility for security in the South Pacific, plus support for a rules-based order, a stable Indo-Pacific Asia and the U.S. alliance. These may all be legitimate and justifiable interests and objectives, but they simply cannot be met by a medium-sized country spending about 1.5% of GDP on defense. Either Australia has to restrain its expectations and objectives, or resource its military at a higher level. In fact, historically Australia has been capable of sustaining defense spending around 2% of GDP, or even higher, and we need to see a credible plan from both major political parties about how we can return there. Both sides recognize the 2% goalpost as desirable in principle, but that’s about all. Yes, Australia has a budget deficit, worse than the government had anticipated, and yes this year is an election year. But I suspect Australian politicians underestimate how much the public really cares about national security and defense. I hope it doesn’t take a crisis for that message to become clear.

Australia’s relationship with China and the United States is of course a major part of the paper. How do you feel the White Paper does at laying out the goals and challenges presented in both important relationships?

The White Paper does pretty well on the score. Whereas Kevin Rudd’s 2009 White Paper was needlessly provocative regarding China — especially in the drumbeat of briefings, speeches and media coverage surrounding that document — the new paper strikes a smart balance. Of course, the U.S. alliance is the bedrock of Australian security, and there is no way that an enhanced diplomatic relationship with China, as we are pursuing now, is going to change that. While it may have been nice to see the white paper being a bit more forthright on issues like Chinese responsibility for cyber intrusions and China’s lack of defence transparency, I think everyone knows what Australia’s security establishment thinks on those issues by now, which is that they are a problem. The fact that we are strengthening tangible security ties with the United States should speak louder than some carefully-worded public document.  Still, one risk here is of course that each country may read into the White Paper what it chooses to read, which could give rise to misunderstandings in the future. So I hope there are active explanatory briefings being delivered by Australian diplomats to ensure that each country gets precisely the right private message Canberra needs it to receive, and that includes India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and others, not just the United States and China.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief