The Language of Australia’s New Defense White Paper: In Tune With U.S.?

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The Language of Australia’s New Defense White Paper: In Tune With U.S.?

“Canberra and Washington singing the same strategic tune can only be welcomed, in language and in policy.”

The release of the Australian Defense White Paper (DWP) has attracted much international attention and commentary. Some analysts have noted the more conciliatory language on China compared with the 2009 DWP. While there is some truth to this claim, there is no basis to argue that the positions taken on China in the new DWP are too “soft” or that they suggest a disconnect between Canberra and Washington. The DWP’s references to the possibility that hostile powers might employ coercion or intimidation in the Indo-Pacific zone or that miscalculation could result in rising tensions in the South China Sea are undoubtedly said with China in mind.  Moreover, the similarity of the DWP’s language on China and that used by the Obama administration is quite striking.

For example, the DWP stated that “Australia welcomes China’s rise,” and that “its policy is aimed at encouraging China’s peaceful rise.” When Hu Jintao visited the White House in January 2011, President Obama stated at a joint press conference that “We welcome China’s rise.” In February 2012 he told visiting Xi Jinpingthat he welcomed China’s peaceful rise and said he believed that “a strong and prosperous China is one that can help to bring stability and prosperity to the region and to the world.” U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that the rebalancing to Asia strategy is not aimed at curtailing China’s rise.

The Australian Government declared in the DWP that it “does not approach China as an adversary.” In one of Hillary Clinton’s first speeches as secretary of state, she rejected the view that China is an adversary. “To the contrary,” she said, “we believe that the United States and China can benefit from and contribution to each other’s successes. President Obama did refer to China once as an adversary—in the final 2012 presidential debate with candidate Mitt Romney—though he also said it was a potential partner. At the time, his statement was seen as a slipup, and contrary to the policies of his administration.

The DWP proclaims that Australia doesn’t have to choose between the United States and China.  Indeed, U.S. officials share this view. Former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell has underscored that countries don’t need to choose and in fact benefit from having good relations with both the U.S. and China. This explicit rejection of Hugh White’s “choice” thesis by the Australian government in the DWP will help move the discourse forward to a more constructive space conducive to closer relations with both China and the U.S.

Canberra and Washington agree that China’s defense spending and military modernization are to some extent reasonable. The DWP says they are “a natural and legitimate outcome of its economic growth.”  Former Secretary of Defense Panetta similarly said on a visit to China in September 2012 that China’s military modernization is “understandable given its economic growth.” Such language has not gone unnoticed by Beijing, which has welcomed the acceptance of China’s military rise.

Both the U.S. and China seek to develop their military relations with the PLA to promote miscalculation and promote mutual understanding.  The DWP states that “Australia is committed to developing strong and positive defense relations with China through dialogue and appropriate practical activities.” Panetta said in China that the U.S. vision is for a “substantive and sustained” military to military relationship with China that “builds trust through cooperation.” But not all strategists down under are convinced. Robert Ayson asserts that the DWP errs on the optimistic side when it come U.S.-Sino relations. Such analysis goes against the grain of what the U.S. is seeking with a peaceful rise of China in the Indo-Pacific, and what the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is attempting to achieve in this respect.

Moreover, if one examines the DWP language more carefully, just as the U.S. is clear-eyed about the potential threats that are posed by China’s rise, so too is Australia. The DWP states that it is in Canberra’s interests that “no hostile power in the Indo-Pacific is able to coerce or intimidate others through force or the threat of force.” Regarding the South China Sea, Australia supports a resilient regional community to help achieve these objectives and mitigate strategic risks and reduce the chances of misjudgment or miscalculation. Both these references can be seen as having China in mind given its strategic behavior over the last few years. So while Andrew O’Neill asserts that the language of the 2009 DWP should not be seen as inflammatory, such analysis misses the more nuanced assessment of possible strategic flash points in the Indo-Pacific that could involve China.

The similarity of Australia’s new rhetoric to U.S. policy pronouncements is a pleasing sign from a U.S. perspective. Beijing’s not-so-muted triumph that it is not viewed as the strategic threat that China was explicitly labeled only four years ago will be beneficial—as long as China doesn’t misinterpret the shift as weakness. This new DWP can be viewed as a synchronized framework for Australia and U.S. to further engage with China on issues of strategy and defense, and continues to dispel any notion that China’s rise and military modernization will lead inevitably to outright conflict. Canberra and Washington singing the same strategic tune can only be welcomed, in language and in policy.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser with the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies and a senior associate at Pacific Forum CSIS.

Jack Georgieff is a visiting Thawley Scholar from the Lowy Institute with the office of the Japan Chair at CSIS.