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White paper,red lines

An emergent Asian security architecture that India must examine

Written by Rahul Mishra |
May 8, 2009 1:35:25 am

After a decade-long hiatus,Australia released its much awaited defence white paper on May 2. The paper entitled “Defending Australia in the Asia-Pacific century: Force 2030” is the government’s defence blueprint for Australia in the coming decades. The ambitious plan sets a target of 3 per cent real growth in the defence budget till 2017-18 and 2.2 per cent from then till 2030. More than $100 billion is expected to be pumped in over the next two decades for expanding and upgrading Australian military prowess: 12 new submarines,24 naval combat aircraft,3 air-power destroyers equipped with SM6 long-range anti-aircraft missiles and 8 new frigates are on its wish list.

This privileging of naval modernisation becomes clearer if we contextualise it with the white paper’s concern about China. It says: “the speed of China’s military build-up has the potential to cause regional concerns if it is not carefully explained.” The 2000 white paper had,contrastingly,said: “China,as the country with the fastest growing security influence in the region,is an increasingly important strategic interlocutor for Australia. The Government places a high priority on working with China to deepen and develop our dialogue on strategic issues.”

This shift comes as a surprise to many as Australia,under Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd,has been a key partner of China. Even during his visit to Washington in March,Rudd stated,“I think China represents a huge opportunity for us all for the 21st century.”

Why the change in emphasis? For one,the noticeable Chinese shift from Deng Xiaopeng’s dictum,“Hide your strength and bide your time”,visible in the PLAs 60th anniversary celebrations and in its own recent defence white paper has left all Asia-Pacific wary. China’s recent “chequebook diplomacy” in Fiji caused Canberra to fear it was propping up Commodore Bainimarama’s military regime. Beijing’s possible involvement in the south-west Pacific could destabilise Canberra’s immediate neighbourhood,which has many failing and dysfunctional states like Fiji,East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Australia,thus,has “set the trend”.

What happens next? First,if Australia goes for military modernisation on its own,keeping an eye on Chinese capabilities,this will lead to many countries opting for rapid national defence modernisation: a precarious situation. By setting the agenda,Australia has committed itself to “self-reliance” rather than banking on American help alone. The US is overstretched; for the past 18 years,its regional presence has dwindled. Second,citing China as one of the reasons for modernisation would certainly make Japan and South Korea smile. The idea of the trilateral security mechanism might be revived — and perhaps more? The paper notes,“A strategic stability in the region is best underpinned by the continued presence of the United States through its network of alliances and security partnerships,including with Japan,the Republic of Korea,India and Australia.” Third,the official Chinese response isn’t in. It is not in China’s interest to lose a major trading partner. Also,Australia has agreed to supply yellowcake to China despite domestic dissent about China’s alleged involvement in nuclear proliferation. If China fails to clear the haze of “confusion”,its energy interest might bear the brunt of it.

India has ample stakes in Asia’s maritime security and in its power politics. It has long been fretful about the Chinese “string of pearls” stratagem: its naval agreements with Seychelles,Mauritius and Myanmar have been a cause for concern for India. As have been its agreement with Pakistan,on the Gwadar port,and with Sri Lanka,on the Hambantota port — Hambantota port is not even of consequential importance to China,in terms of securing its energy transportation routes. As India is struggling to find the way out of Chinese encirclement,it could very well try to reach out to countries like Australia in order to deal with new challenges. Though the Indian navy is the world’s fifth largest and is well equipped,a lot still needs to be done in order to secure India’s interest from the east coast of Africa to the Malacca straits.

Australia today is attempting,in general,to hedge its bets in an age of uncertainty in Asia and,in particular,to defend itself against China’s future strategic trajectory. The white paper underscores the fact that China’s “peaceful rise” theory is flawed,and an increasingly assertive China will lead to instability in Asia-Pacific. India’s interests are no different from Australia’s,insofar as the rise of China’s military capability and the future of Asia are concerned. India stands a chance to lead from the front in formalising the emergent security architecture in Asia-Pacific. India’s bonhomie with the US and Japan could further help it address its concerns from a common platform. It is important not only to deal with the foreseeable security challenges but also to make sure that the 21st century turns out to be a peaceful Asian century.

How and when India finds itself standing together with Australia is the question only time will answer.

The writer is at JNU’s Centre for South-east Asian & South-west Pacific Studies

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