Freedom from coercion a goal in Australia’s 2013 Defense White Paper

Australia has released its 2013 Defense White Paper, and it’s a subtle and contradictory thing. There has been a lot of discussion about what kind of message the White Paper contains, especially compared to the 2009 White Paper that contained more explicit descriptions of threats to Australia in the Asian-Pacific region.

This time around, all of that alarmist language linked to China has been scrubbed. But a couple things stand out.

In the first paragraph of the section three, entitled Australia’s Strategic Policy Approach, the very first line lays out something I’ve seen little discussion in the media analysis.

“Australia’s national security interests are based on protecting Australia’s sovereignty – which includes freedom from coercion by other states – people and assets, building sustainable security in our region, and shaping a favourable international environment.” (Italics mine.)

That line, to me, would be aimed at China more than any other country. Even a causal observer of what’s going on the South China Sea sees bullying from China. And coercion is by no means limited to China’s dealings with developing countries like the Philippines, Vietnam. A more powerful China takes on more powerful, developed countries like Japan, Britain (if this story is true) and arguably the US with China’s industrial scale cyber theft.


There is every reason to believe China would pursue a similar path with Australia, if it hasn’t already in the detention of China-born Australian citizens, for example.

Second, the much-discussed Future Submarine Program to support the creation of 12 new subs has elements of a sort of ‘moonshot’ effort, from my reading, at least. The paper says it represents “the largest and most complex project ever undertaken in Australia’s history.”

Under a section called “Greater linkages between Industry and the Education Sector” the White Paper notes falling enrollments in science, technology, engineering and math courses undermine defense industry capabilities.

To address the skills shortfall the government in the 2012-13 budget has already devoted $54 million over four years to increase study in those areas. Australia’s government is also sponsoring programs to build skills critical for the success of Future Submarine Program.

Note the implicit dismissal of free-trade in this matter. Similar efforts in the US – from outside the government – are underway now, twinning a need for a secure defense industry with the need of rebuilding industry as a whole.

Australia is – obviously – not gearing up for occasional skirmishes on the seas by adding here and there to its fleet. This isn’t a tactical, but strategic paper. What’s missing, as everyone notes, is money.

But Australian defense planners, using very diplomatic language, are laying the groundwork for a longer-term maritime competition in the region. And with good cause: while Australia’s military tolerates some dependence on global supply chain, should the seas surrounding Australia become contested, the country will be well-served if it can shoulder more of its own naval ship production.

The most diplomatic angle to the document is the reframing of Australia’s region of concern.

Australia calls the Indo-Pacific region, rather than the Asia-Pacific region (used in the title of the 2009 White Paper) as its core area of strategic concern. “Over time, Australia’s security environment will be significantly influenced by how the Indo-Pacific and its architecture evolves,” the paper states. Yet, Australia’s re-focus on the band stretching from Japan to India, sends a subtle message to Beijing that Australia doesn’t place itself in the middle of a Pacific-focused China-US cross current. At the same time, the paper explicitly reaffirms the Australian security alliance/reliance with/on the US. A big contradiction, handled very well in the writing of the paper – which itself is a product of the times.

…More on the cyber defense elements in another post.

(photo: Chinese sailors seeing off an Australian Navy ship. Courtesy


ASEAN progress on maritime disputes – full steam ahead

It doesn’t look like it’s going China’s way.  

The UN has set up the arbitration court the Philippine government requested in January resolve the stand-off over the islands. During the recent ASEAN meeting Secretary-General Le Luong Minh was asked what would happen if China rejects negotiations with ASEAN on island disputes. 

“So we will strive to invite China to engage in this process and we hope to get a peaceful solution to the issue of the South China Sea,” he added.

China, meanwhile, accuses the Philippines of attempting to legalize its “occupation” of the Scarlborough Shoal. 

China’s attitude is that the “durable solution” the Philippines seeks is the same as a ruling on sovereignty.

by initiating the arbitration on the basis of its illegal occupation of China’s islands and reefs, the Philippines has distorted the basic facts underlying the disputes between China and the Philippines. In so doing, the Philippines attempts to deny China’s territorial sovereignty and clothes its illegal occupation of China’s islands and reefs with a cloak of “legality”. The Philippines’ attempt to seek a so-called “durable solution” such as this and the means it has employed to that end are absolutely unacceptable to China.

So last year, it was point to China. This year, ASEAN is aiming to find common ground on the issue ahead of planned discussions with Beijing later this year.

You would think that for all Beijing’s talk about soft-power someone there could step back from the issue and see how this looks to the non-Chinese claimants and by extension the world. But then maybe not. Because this may not be about China dealing with the outside world but China dealing with internal forces.

The Philippines to be undeterred at ASEAN summit


The Philippines, currently grappling with China in a dispute over territory in the South China Sea, will push for a code of conduct on maritime disputes at the next Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Brunei from April 22-25. Good luck, Philippines. The last ASEAN meeting in Cambodia in July 2012 ended without the association producing a comunique for the first time in its 45-year history. The reason? Deep splits among member nations over China.

Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said that ASEAN senior officials and ministers, “were able to come up with and agreed upon the elements of the Code of Conduct that would be shown and discussed with the Chinese.”

“But, as you all know, the Chinese side has said that they will only discuss this with ASEAN when the time is ripe. And we are hoping that the time is ripe is now for such discussion because this actually would be very good and this would be good for the region, and this will put peace and stability and freedom of navigation in the area that we are talking about,” he added.

Four countries, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam have active disputes with China over territorial issues. The Philippines has since taken their dispute over the Scarborough Shoal (pictured above) in the West Philippine Sea to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which the Chinese dismissed. China claims the whole South China Sea as part of its territory.

As the Diplomat noted before the debacle of the last meeting…

There’s no doubt that ASEAN is split on the issue of China and territorial disputes. What is less clear is whether ASEAN’s disunity is simply playing into China’s hands, allowing it to deal with each country individually, or whether Beijing is actively driving a wedge between ASEAN members that oppose China and those that are more sympathetic to the Chinese position.

“Beijing has consistently pursued a strategy to prevent the South China Sea issue [becoming] one between China and ASEAN,” suggests Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University. “It has argued that the any conflict is bilateral. To this end, Beijing has succeeded by using a few Southeast Asian countries to prevent the emergence of a united ASEAN agenda or strategy.”

I wouldn’t get my hopes up for this meeting. But it will be interesting to see if the language changes among members. Possibly after the Japan-Taiwan deal on the Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, Beijing will grow more alert to the risk of further deal-making among its regional competitors. We’ll see. But you have give the Philippines credit for not rolling over to China.

The Philippines to China: see you in court over the South China Sea

From the AP: The Philippines summons the Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing to notify her that after failing to peacefully resolve China’s claims on all of the South China Sea, it will seek to have China’s expansionist moves declared “illegal and invalid” by an international tribunal.

China has had a stand-off with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal.

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said his country is seeking a “durable solution” to the dispute and had “exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement.” This move comes independent of the Philippines security agreement with the US.

The key line: “We are all for improving our economic relations with China but it should not be at the expense of surrendering our national sovereignty,” said del Rosario.