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‘Overhaul nation’s defence strategy’ to handle China’s rise, experts warn

By Brendan Nicholson

Australia needs a new defence strategy to deter, and if necessary, defend itself against an increasingly powerful, aggressive China, two of the nation’s most experienced strategists have warned.

Former senior Defence officials Paul Dibb and Richard ­Brabin-Smith say the nation faces an increased prospect of a threat from a major power for the first time since World War II.

Professors Dibb and Brabin-Smith, from the Australian National University, say their main concern is the rapid growth of China’s economic and political influence in the region and its ambitious program of military modernisation and expansion.

“China is developing military capabilities that could come to threaten us directly,” they say.

Their warning comes after Malcolm Turnbull pushed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in a meeting yesterday in Manila on creating a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s military build-up has sparked international tensions.

Tensions with China have also flared over talks between Australia, India, the US and Japan to restore the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which was devised last decade to try to contain China.

In a paper to be published in Canberra tonight by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the former Defence officials say Australia’s strategic outlook is deteriorating.

“China’s aggressive policies and its use of coercion are grounds for concern that it seeks political domination of countries in our region, including Southeast Asia,” the authors say.

“There’s a real risk that Southeast Asia is becoming a Chinese sphere of influence.”

They add that, in the South China Sea, Beijing’s construction of military facilities — including airstrips for fighter aircraft and longer-range strategic bombers — has effectively brought China’s military presence more than 1200km closer to Australia’s northern approaches.

“This … in itself should be a matter of considerable concern for our defence planning,” they say. The authors say the Australian Defence Force’s readiness needs to be sharpened through higher training levels to enable rapid “surge” capabilities, increased stocks of missiles, more maintenance spares, a robust fuel supply system and modernised operational bases, especially in the north of Australia.

To increase warning time, it will be vital for Australia to continue to have high levels of intelligence collection and analysis across the region.

Professors Dibb and Brabin-Smith are former deputy secretaries in the Defence Department. Professor Dibb was the main author of the 1987 defence white paper. Their new paper, “Australia’s Management of Strategic Risk in the new era”, will be launched by former chief of the Defence Force Angus Houston.

Australia’s defence policy, as set out in successive white papers, has been based on an assumption that no nation in the region has the capability to mount an invasion.

Circumstances have changed, the authors say, and that is soon likely to no longer be the case.

The authors stress that it’s important not to designate China as inevitably hostile to Australia, and to recognise that there would be constraints on the expansion of its military influence. “Beyond the short to medium term, there would be intrinsic difficulties in operating in waters ­potentially dominated by Indian anti-access capabilities, and there’s potential, too, for Indonesia to develop significant sea-­denial capabilities,” they say.

But they say Beijing’s aggressive policies towards the South China Sea and elsewhere are grounds for concern that it seeks political domination over countries in its region, including countries in Southeast Asia and including Australia.

“It’s China, therefore, that could come to pose serious challenges for Australian defence policy,” they say.

The authors say Beijing is steadily eroding Australia’s strategic space and a crisis could develop rapidly, with relatively little warning time to prepare the defence force to deal with it.

The longstanding view that the nation would have a decade or more of deteriorating international relations to prepare for a conflict looks increasingly shaky.

Individual Southeast Asian countries are drifting into China’s orbit and ASEAN has proved incapable of protecting its territorial interests in the South China Sea, the authors say.

China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, by building artificial islands on reefs and setting up military facilities on them, has brought its power-projection capabilities 1200km closer to ­Australia’s northern approaches.

They say Australia needs to ­develop an “anti-access and area-denial” capability that will enable it to dominate its northern and western approaches — including, if necessary, the straits of Southeast Asia — to exploit China’s military weaknesses when operating at a distance from home.

Such systems involve the co-ordinated use of weapons such as submarines, aircraft, mines and missile systems to make it too costly for an enemy to enter or operate in a contested area. It’s how China hopes to keep powerful US aircraft carrier groups far from its own shores.

Once Chinese naval forces are far from their home bases, they’ll be vulnerable to attack by submarines, the authors say. They warn that were China to acquire a military base in the Southeast Asian archipelago, the strategic consequences for Australia would be serious. Australia also needs to rebuild capabilities that have been run down in the past 15 years because of a preoccupation with operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the authors say.

The publication is available here.

Image: Department of Defence.

Originally published by: The Australian on 15 Nov 2017