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CDA Institute guest contributor John Blaxland, senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, looks at the lessons Australia’s Defence White Paper for Canada.

Australia and Canada are sometimes considered as ‘Strategic Cousins,’ so as Canada embarks on a Defence Review, it is worth considering what might be gained by examining Australia’s recent Defence White Paper of 2016 (DWP16).

Of course, the biggest enduring difference between Canada and Australia is their geostrategic location. For Canada, defence for decades was considered a necessary evil, largely as defence against help from its giant southern neighbour. On the edge of Asia, however, Australia has long seen itself as more vulnerable. In the post-Cold War years, as Canada faced west across the Pacific to Asia, there appeared less need to spend as much on defence as Australia which faced an Asia much closer to its north.

Today, though, it isn’t just Asia that focuses the mind over strategy and defence. The world that DWP16 describes seems very much like the world Canada now faces as well: it is one that looks increasingly Hobbesian with a confluence of factors presenting increasing signs of an ominous future. As the Australians observe, there is a spectrum of compelling reasons to bolster defence expenditure as the ultimate national insurance policy.

First the issue of terrorism, which appeared to burst onto the world stage on 9/11 in 2001 and then appeared slowly to ebb away, has returned with a vengeance. Toxic terror cells have emerged not only in the Middle East and North Africa but in the heart of Europe and Southeast Asia as well as in the cities of Australia and Canada. This is unlikely to become an existential threat – particularly if these great societies remains mindful of the need to ‘keep calm and carry on’ and if the security forces and agencies remain vigilant and maintain high levels of cooperation.

Second, with society becoming ever-more web-enabled and web-dependent, the cyber security threat has mushroomed into a potential existential threat. Several state and non-state actors, operating with high levels of deniability and impunity, leave society with a great challenge to which it must respond on an industrial scale. Current levels of complacency in government and industry point to disturbing levels of vulnerability.

Third, emerging transnational threats including organised crime, people smuggling, and drug trafficking are generating greater security challenges. Adequately responding to these issues requires more and more-capable air, sea, land, space and cyber capabilities.

Fourth, climate change is generating more and more-destructive natural and man-induced disasters. The security challenges arising as a result are potentially enormous and require imaginative rethinking about what needs to be done in response.

Fifth, there are the ongoing and nuclear-tipped tensions on the Korean peninsula. North Korea presents a grave threat not only to South Korea, but to the international order. Preventing that situation from triggering a wider conflagration remains of vital interest and Australia and Canada retain UN-linked obligations from the war fought there more than sixty years ago.

Sixth, is an increasingly aggressive Russia under Vladimir Putin, which has demonstrated it no longer considers itself a status quo power by seizing the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, threatening Eastern Europe, and aggressively and decisively intervening militarily in Syria. Putin’s Russia is hurting financially, following sanctions and the drop in oil prices, and demographically with a shrinking population. Russia increasingly is demonstrating its unwillingness to accept the international status quo. This nuclear superpower has re-emerged as one of the greatest threats on the planet.

Seventh, China’s rise has generated remarkable economic growth and prosperity but this has been matched with a striking rise in geo-strategic tensions and uncertainty as the East Asian power balance alters. As a result, there are simmering tensions in Asia, notably over competing island claims by Japan and China (particularly over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands). Balancing the desire to urge Chinese restrain and avoid unduly emboldening Japan requires a fine balance.

Eighth, there are growing disputes in the South China Sea, where regional claimants have competing and overlapping zones. There, China’s so-called nine-dash line remains largely undefined. Yet the ambiguity surrounding it is being used conveniently as a foil for its dramatic and rapid expansion of manufactured islands, guarded by a flotilla of well-armed but white-painted ‘maritime law enforcement’ ships, rather than the more provocative grey-painted naval warships.

While both Pacific-rim nations, Canada, like Australia, has no direct interest in these maritime disputes, but they both have a clear interest in seeking their peaceful resolution. Canada and Australia also have long supported the global ‘rules-based order’ that is widely recognised as having enabled the spectacular economic growth in Asia and the Pacific in recent decades. Ensuring competing claims are settled peacefully and lawfully is in Canada’s interests.

Support for the rules-based order pre-supposes that the virtual guarantor of that order, the United States, is prepared to continue backing it indefinitely. Indeed, DWP16 is premised on the United States remaining ‘the pre-eminent global power and Australia’s most important strategic partner.’ This applies equally to Canada.

Some see that if Donald Trump becomes President and is true to his word on alliances and his isolationist declarations, we may witness a significant decline in US willingness to take the lead in maintaining the current order. This, in turn, could lead to considerably greater Chinese and Russian assertiveness.

To be sure, like Australia, Canada is heavily invested in and reliant on US ties for intelligence, technology, and leading edge military proficiency. Similarly, the United States is enormously invested in Canada. Both Canada and Australia have an enduring interest in working closely with the United States to mitigate the risks arising from these unsettling dynamics.

With the future unknowable, Australia’s calculated outlay is always a gamble, particularly with so many long-lead-time and high-technology capabilities being planned for. These include:

  • six dozen F-35 fighter aircraft and a spectrum of supporting aircraft and ground-based infrastructure to make the F-35 a highly-capable node in a sophisticated network,
  • a dozen each of highly advanced naval warships and submarines on top of the new amphibious ships entering service, and
  • a suite of new armoured vehicles, missiles and enhanced special forces capabilities to add greater lethality and flexibility.

The prognostications and calculations about what is needed to defend Australia and its interests have a time frame of multiple decades in mind and Australia has matched the DWP with a detailed investment program and industry plan.

With so much remaining opaque and unknowable, Australia’s adjustment from 1.9 percent to 2 percent of GDP is reasonable: it is costed, has bipartisan political support and looks as robust a plan as has been seen in decades. The contrast with Canada’s current levels of resourcing on defence matters is instructive.

There is much there in Australia’s recent Defence White Paper for Canada to consider.

Dr. John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and author of Strategic Cousins. Follow him on twitter @JohnBlaxland1.

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