On May 2, Australia released its first defense white paper in
almost a decade. "Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century:
Force 2030" proposes a wide-ranging strategic agenda that is the
product of geography, the lessons of Australia's history, and the
island nation's analysis of shifting power dynamics in the "wider
What is striking is that Australia appears to be hedging not so
much against the rise of China but against the decline of American
predominance in the region. The U.S. should welcome Australia's
desire to play a more prominent role in the Asia-Pacific. An
Australian Defense Force (ADF) that can generate substantial air
and maritime presence in the Asia-Pacific, while also contributing
to international stability operations, will ensure that Australia
continues to be one of America's most capable allies and a valued
contributor to regional peace and stability.
At the same time, however, the U.S. should take the studied
calculations of one of its most loyal and trustworthy allies as an
opportunity to reassure friends and competitors alike that the U.S.
is in the Asia-Pacific for the long haul. America can send this
message with its words, attention to the diplomatic life of the
region, and assistance, investment, and trade. But the most
important signal the U.S. can send about its long-term intentions
will be derived from how it spends its own defense dollars. The
foundation of America's commitment can be maintained only with a
robust military presence.
The U.S. Seventh Fleet and America's current network of allies,
bases, and access in Asia are at the heart of this effort. But
sustaining this presence requires long-term investment in a Navy
that can project power throughout the region's vast oceans, a
modernized Air Force that can ensure air dominance against all
potential adversaries, and theater ballistic missile defense
systems to provide protection for forward-deployed military assets.
Investment decisions today that ensure American predominance far
into the future say far more about its commitment to Asia than all
other soft power tools combined.
Wither American Predominance?
While its white paper is very much focused on China, the country
most responsible for driving Australia's defense planning is the
U.S. Force 2030 bluntly asks: "Will the United States
continue to play over the very long term the strategic role that it
has undertaken since the end of World War II?" Indeed, the open
question regarding the future of America's role in Asia is the
central variable driving almost all of the documents assumptions
For Australia, according to the report, "strategic stability in
the region is best underpinned by the continued presence of the
United States." The decline of American predominance would not just
impact Australia's security posture but also the American-led order
that has maintained a stable, prosperous, and increasingly liberal
Asia-Pacific since the end of the Second World War. The paper
predicts confidently that U.S. primacy will continue for at least
the next 20 years. But it also warns that "as other powers rise,
and the primacy of the United States is increasingly tested, power
relations will inevitably change."
Chief among Australia's near-term concerns is that America may
find its attention increasingly occupied by challenges in other
regions of the world. Since 9/11, Asia has witnessed how America's
focus can be easily pulled and constrained by emerging events. It
is therefore reasonable for the paper to assume that the U.S. will
be more active in seeking assistance from regional allies during
crises and for the day-to-day maintenance of a stable security
China as a "Leading Stakeholder"
Force 2030's concern about the rise of China underpins
much of the document's force structure projections. The strategy
represents a changing perception regarding the military power of
the People's Liberation Army (PLA) by Australian defense officials.
Not only does it predict a "significant opportunity" for China to
become a "leading stakeholder" of international scale; it also
projects the PLA will be the strongest military in Asia "by a
Similar to American defense officials, Australia remains
concerned with the level of transparency surrounding the PLA's
modernization efforts. Even while funding double-digit increases in
their defense budget for the past two decades, Beijing continues to
insist its military is purely a "defensive" force. Force
2030 questions this by asserting that the Chinese military
build up "appears potentially to be beyond the scope of what would
be required for a conflict over Taiwan." This finding mirrors
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen's
statement that he believes China's efforts were "very much focused"
on the U.S.
One area to which the white paper devoted considerable attention
is anti-submarine warfare (ASW). As a critical component of China's
asymmetric strategy to deny the U.S. access to the western Pacific
Ocean, nuclear and diesel attack submarines, along with nuclear
ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), are at the forefront of
Beijing's modernization efforts. Beijing's submarine procurement
strategy complements its development of a more robust maritime
force that includes advanced destroyers, frigates, and its
long-term drive for an aircraft carrier fleet.
Primarily as a result of these trends, Force 2030
determines: "The major new direction that has emerged through
consideration of current and future requirements is a significant
focus on enhancing our maritime capabilities." As part of its
effort to place a greater emphasis on the ASW mission, Australia
plans to purchase 12 next-generation submarines (doubling the size
of its current fleet), eight new Future Frigates, 24 naval combat
helicopters, and eight new maritime patrol aircraft, along with
three new anti-air warfare destroyers (AAW) to improve the fleet's
air defense capabilities. The end goal, as Force 2030
postulates, will be "a more potent and heavier maritime force."
Australia continues to disagree with the U.S. over missile
defense policy. The Australian government is "opposed to the
development of a unilateral national missile defense system by any
nation because such a system would be at odds with the maintenance
of global nuclear deterrence." However, an exercise conducted in
2008 by Heritage Foundation analyst Baker Spring suggests the
opposite: that missile defenses actually reduce the
propensity of states to use offensive weapons, thereby creating
greater regional stability.
While Australia may disagree with the U.S. on the concept of a
national missile defense system, Force 2030 does briefly
suggest the significance of theater missile defense systems for
protection of forward-deployed ADF assets in an
A Promising Path
As Australia acknowledges, the U.S. military has helped to
assure its security for the past half-century. Unlike Europe, where
America's security blanket has created the faulty assumption in the
minds of many European policymakers that the world has entered a
post-sovereign era of peace and cooperation, Australia's geography
puts it at the center of Asia-Pacific geopolitics. This appears to
have engendered a sense of strategic clarity in Australia.
Even as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates proposes
reforming and rebalancing the American military for a future of
"hybrid" military engagements and irregular warfare missions while
accepting greater risk in the conventional deterrence mission,
Australia has boldly concluded that "it would be premature to judge
that war among states, including the major powers, has been
eliminated as a feature of the international system."
Not only has Australia chosen to reaffirm the importance of air
and sea power and the role these capabilities play in conventional
deterrence, but Force 2030 also confirms that so long as
nuclear weapons exist, Australia will remain reliant upon the U.S.
nuclear arsenal to deter aggression and ensure its security.
Australia's strong commitment to, and reliance on, America's
nuclear arsenal should serve as a subtle warning of the
consequences if the U.S. nuclear arsenal is allowed to further
atrophy. The findings of the recently released report of the
Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United
States are not reassuring. Questioning the future credibility of
America's nuclear deterrent, the report raises concerns that both
the physical nuclear infrastructure and the intellectual
infrastructure are in serious trouble.
Washington should welcome and encourage the strategic findings
and force structure proposals embedded in Australia's new defense
white paper. An ADF that can play a more significant role in
providing forward deployed maritime presence in the Pacific and
Indian oceans would help manage the vast distances the U.S. Pacific
Command (USPACOM) is tasked with covering.
Ultimately, the real significance of Force 2030 for the
United States rests with the assumptions Australia has made
concerning its current and future security. Australia finds itself
at an important juncture, where uncertainty regarding the future of
American predominance in the region has led it to conclude that
while it may continue to hope for the best and remain committed to
the U.S, the country must also begin to plan for the worst--the
potential decline of U.S. influence. While China will continue to
invest in its military, the decisions surrounding a stable balance
of power and the continuation of a free and prosperous Asia remain
with Washington. The clarity Australia has provided with Force
2030 should serve as both a warning and a guidepost for
America's future commitments to the region.
Eric Sayers is a National Security
Research Assistant in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for
Foreign Policy Studies, and Walter Lohman is the Director of the Asian
Studies Center, at The Heritage Foundation.