For most of the Cold War, America’s allies did surprisingly little to defend themselves, preferring to rely on the U.S. That dependent mentality continues, especially among the populous and prosperous countries of Europe. The election of President Barack Obama notwithstanding, the Europeans have proved no more willing than before to offer additional combat support in Afghanistan.
However, Australia is breaking the mold, preparing to do much more to protect itself and its region. Washington should encourage its other friends to follow suit.
“Australia is breaking the mold, preparing to do much more to protect itself and its region.”
Canberra issued its previous defense white paper a decade ago. Observed Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon: “the biggest changes to our outlook over the period have been the rise of China, the emergence of India and the beginning of the end of the so-called unipolar moment; the almost two-decade-long period in which the pre-eminence of our principal ally, the United States, was without question.”
Australia now discerns a future in which “there will be a number of other powers floating about, China and India, for example, the re-emergence of Russia,” he added. Particularly important will be the People’s Republic of China, which said Fitzgibbon, “will be the strongest Asian military power, by a considerable margin.” Although the U.S. isn’t going away anytime soon, its relative domination will shrink and its willingness to make war for its allies will diminish. Different circumstances require different policies. Explained Fitzgibbon: “We need to be able to defend our country without necessarily relying on the assistance of other nation states.”
That means a military build-up. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd observed: “It’s as plain as day that there is a significant military and naval build-up across the Asia-Pacific region.” He noted that “Either you can simply choose to ignore that fact, or to incorporate that into a realistic component of Australia’s strategic assumptions about what this region will look like over the next two decades.” In May the Rudd government issued a 140-page white paper, “Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030.”
The report announced: “The government has decided that Australia’s defense policy should continue to be founded on the principle of self-reliance in the direct defense of Australia and in relation to our unique strategic interests, but with a capacity to do more when required, consistent with those strategic interests that we might share with others, and within the limits of our resources.” To influence security in the Asia-Pacific, the Rudd government has proposed upping real, inflation-adjusted military spending by three percent annually through 2018 and then 2.2 percent through 2030.
That’s a $72 billion increase in military outlays, a meaningful investment for a nation of about 20 million. Canberra plans to double the number of submarines, replacing existing models with more sophisticated vessels capable of firing cruise missiles. Also on Australia’s procurement list are “hunter-killer” submarines, Aegis-class destroyers, frigates, sealift ships, and helicopter-carrying amphibious vessels.
Canberra would enhance its aerial capabilities by adding roughly 100 F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighters, 46 Tiger Helicopters, new transport planes, and advanced surveillance aircraft. Finally, Australia plans to expand its armor and artillery forces and increase the total number of military personnel. Explained Prime Minister Rudd: “Force 2030 will mean the best fighter jets, the most versatile armored vehicles and the most sophisticated submarines available to defend Australia’s national security.” Canberra wants to be capable of dealing with a worst case scenario, including by projecting power beyond its own waters if necessary.
It’s a significant effort and is being criticized by the conservative opposition. Obviously, even with this new defense program Australia alone cannot contain a more aggressive PRC, if Beijing’s rise eventually proves to be less than peaceful. Nevertheless, China’s future domination is not guaranteed: China remains a poor country with substantial social and ethnic divisions. Moreover, Canberra’s planned expansion demonstrates an effective strategy for other Asian nations: create a potent military which would exact a high price for any aggression by any nation.
In fact, the PRC’s reaction to Australia’s plans demonstrates that Chinese officials are concerned. For instance, Rear Adm. Yang Yi called Australia’s plans “crazy,” “dangerous,” and “stupid,” and said Canberra risked “stimulating an arms race in the region.” Other PRC officials anonymously complained of Australia’s “Cold War mentality.” Imagine how Beijing would react to substantially more defense spending by South Korea, Japan, and other states.
Canberra is well ahead of the allied pack, but a similar realism seems to be slowly creeping into the policies of both South Korea and Japan. Prime Minister Rudd and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met in March. The two leaders denied that their joint security statement was directed against Japan, but President Lee opined that “we have the issue of China building their military spending.”
The Republic of Korea spends nearly $30 billion a year on defense. The ROK long has faced a serious security threat from North Korea, but the South has more than twice the population and between 30 and 40 times the GDP of the North. With Pyongyang busy testing nuclear weapons and shooting off missiles, Seoul finally appears ready to do more.
The Lee government recently issued the latest update to the National Defense Reform 2020 plan. More money will be spent with the goal of “stemming and eliminating to the maximum degree” threats from the North, including attacking Pyongyang’s “bases as quickly as possible to prevent launches no matter where they are.” Seoul hopes to increase its anti-missile capabilities, along with adding or improving satellites, artillery, early warning aircraft and drones, and intelligence-gathering assets. This is a good start, though much more could and should be done.
Equally important is Japan. The U.S. imposed Article Nine on the defeated nation after the end of World War II, but soon came to regret the forced disarmament. So did Tokyo, which created a modest “Self-Defense Force,” though for decades this cleverly named military was not deployed outside of the Japanese islands.
Now, however, with both China growing and North Korea threatening, Japan appears to be slowly if irregularly adopting a more realistic perspective. Tokyo sank a North Korean spy ship in 2001 and is considering attempting to shoot down any North Korean missiles that threaten Japanese territory. Japan also has provided unarmed assistance to the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia and U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Two years ago Japan raised the Japanese Defense Agency to cabinet status.
Tokyo still spends far less than it could, but its capabilities are likely to grow as the international threat environment becomes more unsettled. In May Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasoni visited Australia and called China’s military build-up an “issue of some concern.” Japanese officials have begun debating the unthinkable: creating the capability to preemptively take out North Korean missiles and even developing nuclear weapons. “Calls for the debate are escalating,” explained Takehiko Yamamoto, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University. The growing number of Japanese advocates of a larger military split between those who would amend Article Nine or simply interpret the pacifist provision away. “We won’t sit and wait for death,” said Gen Nakatani, a former civilian defense chief now heading the Liberal Democratic Party panel on security policy, in May.
Other East and South Asian nations too, are arming. The International Institute of Strategic Studies notes “substantial evidence of continuing efforts by several Southeast Asian states to modernize their armed forces.” For instance, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam all are constructing submarines. A plethora of better-armed smaller states may be unnerving to some, but will further constrain the dominant regional powers. Such a build-up also puts a premium on America’s democratic friends doing more, since they can ill afford to rely on Washington to protect them from everyone else.
Indeed, the most important incentive for Australia to strengthen its forces is recognition that America is likely to do less. Canberra’s White Paper lauds the continuing U.S.-Australian alliance, but delicately warns of changes to come: “the United States might find itself preoccupied and stretched in some parts of the world such that its ability to shift attention and project power into other regions, when it needs to, is constrained.” In fact, Americans concerned about paying for Medicare, Social Security, and accumulated debts aren’t likely to want to keep spending as much as the rest of the world combined to protect wealthy friends, like Australia. And as Beijing develops its own potent military with the ability deter U.S. involvement, Washington will be far less likely to risk war to micro-manage local and regional disputes in East Asia.
The U.S. should make the same point to Japan and South Korea, as well as other friendly states, such as the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand. It is time for them to take over their own defense responsibilities, instead of sitting idly by assuming that Washington will come to the rescue in any crisis.
The U.S. cannot forever be the world’s 911 number. While most of America’s allies hope the good times of U.S. subsidies go on forever, Australia is more realistic. Recognizing that Washington is not likely to forever patrol the globe, the Rudd government is preparing Australia to be militarily self-sufficient. The rest of America’s military dependents should do likewise.