Does China Worry Australia?

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Does China Worry Australia?

Australia has done well out of the U.S.-led Pacific order. So how will it respond to a rising China?

The Diplomat speaks with Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to discuss Australia’s recent decision to strengthen its alliance with the United States, China, and Australia’s strategic and military outlook.

Australia recently recommitted itself to a stronger alliance structure with the United States. In your view, is this a correct strategy for Australia to pursue?

It’s easy to read a bit too much into the recent announcements. In practice, Australia was already very firmly in the U.S. camp. [For more on this see Davies’ recent report here].

Writing in The Diplomat recently, defense commentator Ross Babbage suggested Australia lease or purchase U.S. or British nuclear submarines. Would you agree with his assessment? Do you think advanced diesel submarines like those of the Collins class, with an incremental step up in technology, would be a better fit? Is there any other weapons system Australia could acquire that could project similar power in a military conflict?

Australia’s requirement for its future submarine as articulated in our 2009 Defense White Paper could best be described as a “conventionally powered nuclear submarine” – i.e. we want all the things a nuclear sub can do, but don’t want the power plant. To that extent, Babbage is right. That said, there are some substantial impediments to such a solution. Australia has no domestic nuclear industry, and so we lack the core expertise in nuclear engineering required to support such boats. Also, the stringent regulatory overheads that come with the operation of nuclear submarines would be hard to implement and police without an industrial base in place. It’s no accident that the countries that operate nuclear submarines (the U.S., UK, France, Russia, China, India) all have extensive civilian nuclear infrastructure as well.

So a nuclear submarine option for Australia would probably have to see the Royal Australian Navy operating nuclear boats from U.S. facilities. That would be a substantial step up in commitment, and would also carry some sovereignty risks – Australia’s submarines would in effect become part of the 7th fleet, rather than an autonomous force.

China’s military build-up is obviously a hot topic in the defense circles of most nations in the Asia-Pacific. Overall, does Australia view China as a present day security threat, or more in the future? Is there a certain aspect of China’s current defense program that seems of most concern to Australian defense planners?

Australia has done very well and has been happy with the U.S.-led order in the Asia-Pacific since 1945. Anything that threatens that order will necessarily cause Australian planners some angst, and the rise of Chinese power is an obvious threat to uncontested U.S. primacy. If Australia was convinced that China was happy to play by the established rules, I don’t think there would be a problem. But there have been enough indications that China has its own view of things like maritime conventions and territorial claims that there’s some concern. I think Australia’s very visible backing of the U.S. is a support of the current order.

There have been some suggestions in the last few years in the press that China may attempt to place strategic assets in East Timor or Fiji. If such moves were to take place, how would Australia respond? Would such a move by China change Australia’s defensive planning?

Australia has seen itself (with New Zealand) as the natural leader in the South Pacific in many respects. The loss of Australian influence in Fiji has caused quite a bit of consternation in Canberra, and Australia remains deeply engaged in stabilization operations in East Timor. China’s increased engagement in the region isn’t, by itself, a bad thing. But when it has the effect of undermining the consistent emphasis on good governance and democratic values that Australia has tried to apply, there’s obviously scope for friction.

If China was to place “strategic assets” in those countries, it would no doubt gain the attention of Australian planners, especially East Timor due to its proximity to Northern Australia. It would depend on exactly what was done – intelligence gathering facilities, while not welcomed, would be less threatening than naval or air assets. The likely Australian response would be an increased emphasis on its own air and maritime forces, likely accompanied by a shift in force posture towards the north. Having said that, I’m not aware of any Chinese plans to locate forces in either country. The current Chinese approach is to provide aid and other support, such as building a new military HQ in East Timor.

Some have argued that Australia would be well served to strike up a strong strategic partnership with India. With debate raging over the sale of Australian uranium to India, could such a partnership be formed? What would be the benefits and limits to such a partnership?

I’m much less convinced than others of the value of a “strategic partnership” (one of those terms that’s easy to say but harder to define accurately) with India. India’s strategy during the Cold War was one of non-alignment, and I’m not convinced that they are yet willing to give up on that idea to embrace a relationship with the west to the exclusion of others. Australia’s change of heart on uranium sales seems to have extracted little in the way of concessions from India, and in that regard mirrors the previous experience of the U.S.