The battle for the Pacific



Chinese ship
Chinese naval helicopters hover above one of China's new Jiangwei-class frigates. Picture: AFP. Source: AFP

"HOW do you deal toughly with your banker?" US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mused while dining with then prime minister Kevin Rudd in Washington in March 2009. She was talking about China and the dexterous diplomacy required to respond to Beijing's steep and relentless growth in military spending while courting closer trade and investment ties.
Three years later, Australia and the US are not being so dexterous or diplomatic. While Canberra and Washington maintain the rhetoric that they are not seeking to contain China, both countries are moving hand-in-glove to prepare for a new era of strategic rivalry with Beijing.
This week it was revealed they are discussing the possibility of US nuclear-powered submarines and other naval ships using the Perth naval base HMAS Stirling. Also in discussion is the concept of giant spy drones being flown from the remote Cocos Islands, surveilling large chunks of the Indian Ocean.
News of these potential moves comes only days before the first rotation of 250 US marines begins in Darwin, as part of the eventual deployment of 2500 marines for training in Darwin as announced by Barack Obama during his visit to Australia in November.
But one of the country's leading military strategists, Alan Dupont, says the moves have to be viewed in the context of a rising China.

"A decision has been taken by both countries that more needed to be done in terms of dispersing US forces in the Asia-Pacific and weighting them towards Southeast Asia," says Dupont, who today will release a Lowy Institute paper on Australia's future defence posture. "It is a prudent protective measure which takes US forces out of the range of some of these new missile systems (that) China is developing."
Dupont believes the US is transitioning itself from a Cold War posture in the Pacific, where the bulk of US forces in the region were stationed in Japan and South Korea, to a military presence a safer distance to the south that is focused on protecting vital sea lanes. These include US moves to train marines in Darwin and its desire to make greater use of Australian naval facilities. These are consistent with the US President's pledge during his Australian visit that the US would increase its focus on the Pacific.
The driver is China's expanding array of advanced missiles, ships, submarines and aircraft that collectively represent a growing threat to US marines at sea and to the forward-deployed units in Japan, South Korea and even Guam.
Beijing last month announced a double-digit rise in defence spending, with an 11.2 per cent increase to top $US100 billion ($93.4bn) this year, following a 12.7 per cent increase last year.
The real military budget is believed to be substantially higher because Beijing does not reveal many aspects of its defence spending.
China maintains it has no hegemonic ambitions in the region and that its defence spending is "reasonable and appropriate" because it is in line with the growing strength of its economy.
Analysts agree that even with its recent strong growth in military spending, it would take decades before China would have the military power to challenge the US in the Pacific. But they also warn that China is quickly acquiring enough military power, especially through its procurement of long-range, land-based anti-ship missiles, to inflict serious isolated damage on US forces near its coast.
"In battles of its choosing, especially involving Taiwan, it is now highly likely China could deter the US from its preferred course of action by threatening to inflict unacceptable damage on US aircraft carrier groups, the highly visible totems of US power in the Pacific," Dupont says.
He says there are concerns that China could eventually project force to the Malacca Straits, which carries 40 per cent of global trade and 50 per cent of energy trade.
"The Malacca Straits and South China Sea are vital conduits for Australia's commerce with Asia, Europe and the Middle East."
Analysts say the US desire to reposition some of its forces closer to Australia comes at an opportune time for Canberra, which is struggling to find the money to fund its own ambitious military expansion as laid out in the 2009 defence white paper.
That plan called for the largest peacetime expansion of the navy in Australia's history, including a doubling of the submarine fleet to 12 boats as well as more muscular frigates and patrol boats.
But already the government's resolve to fund this plan has wilted with Defence being targeted for cost cuts in parallel with other departments as the government seeks to return the budget to surplus.
For those in Canberra who view China as a potential strategic threat, the notion of US forces stationed in or near to Australia offers a cheap long-term strategy to bolster national security.
The Gillard government has worked closely with Washington on the US's Global Force Posture Review and Canberra has welcomed, if not invited, these closer links with the US military.
But some within government and the bureaucracy will be wary that this risks sending the wrong message to China, a message that may one day affect Australia's booming economic ties with Bejing.
China protested last November when Obama used his visit to Australia to announce the permanent rotation of US marines in Darwin.
Last month, a Chinese think tank, the Knowfar Institute of Strategic and Defence Studies, called for China to exert direct economic pressure on Australia, including diverting mining investments to other countries, to discourage Canberra from seeking closer military ties with the US.
The question facing Canberra is how much further it should go in accommodating US desires for a closer military presence.
If Australia continues to invite permanent US military presence in Australia, what dangers does that pose for the economic relationship with Beijing on which Australia is so reliant?
The question of how Australia should respond to China's rising military capability is about to be reassessed in Canberra.
Within Australia's defence establishment a small army of bureaucrats is starting to write so-called issues papers on the nation's defence posture.
These are the first baby steps in the long process of strategic analysis, which will culminate in the 2014 defence white paper, the first substantial reassessment of Australia's security posture since the much-maligned 2009 white paper.
It is a process that will force the key security agencies in Australia -- including Defence and Foreign Affairs as well as spy agencies such as the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments -- to confront questions about China's military ambitions and how Australia should respond.
The last time these agencies tried to answer the same questions, in the lead-up to the 2009 white paper, the process descended into a farce behind closed doors.
Insiders warn that the same rough divisions that derailed the previous white paper process, a clash between so-called China hawks and China doves, are still prevalent in Canberra, although the disclosures about US forces this week suggest that the hawks still hold the upper hand. Unless reconciled, these divisions pose a threat to Australia's ability to adopt a clear-eyed and unified strategic response to the rise of China.
During the lead-up to the previous white paper, both camps fought a bitter battle for ascendancy. Classified strategic assessments prepared by ONA and DIO interpreted China's military build-up as a largely defensive response to the perceived threat of US naval power in the Pacific.
But a team of more hawkish Defence Department strategists, led by the then deputy secretary Mike Pezzullo, disputed the views of the spy chiefs, arguing instead that Australia adopt a more aggressive strategy on China because of its potential to exercise its growing military might and challenge the primacy of US military power in East Asia.
The then head of the ONA Peter Varghese was so distressed by the tenor of the debate he wrote to the prime minister expressing concern that it could distort Australia's national security priorities.
But unfortunately for Varghese, that prime minister, Rudd, sided with the hawks. He personally intervened in the white paper process, driving a controversial decision to double the size of the future submarine fleet.
Rudd, who described himself privately as "a brutal realist on China", oversaw a white paper that was clearly aimed at China. even if the government has always publicly denied this.
"The question to ask is: what is different this time around?" Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says. "We have had another three years of double-digit increases in China's military budget and also cuts in the US military budget.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of the same in terms of (Australia's) approach to force structure and a military footprint (that) complements that of the US."
The question is whether, as the US is wooing Australia to use its military facilities, the so-called China doves will be able to secure a foothold in the debate.
The doves, many of whom reside in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will be encouraged by Rudd's political demise and his replacement by Bob Carr, whose early comments suggest he has a more benign interpretation of Bejing's ambitions.
Carr said last week that Australia had "undoubtedly' struck the right balance between China and the US and that it did not have to choose between the two.
He echoed the line of the DFAT doves rather than Defence Department hawks in saying China's military modernisation was merely a natural part of its national evolution.
"The best guide on this I think is the writings of Henry Kissinger," Carr said. "He says it should astonish no one in that in China's re-emergence as a greater power . . . the country will acquire a military modernisation to sit with its economic strength."
Australia's former ambassador to China Geoff Raby agrees with Carr but says Canberra needs to try to engage China more on strategic doctrine and better understand China's long-term intentions.
"We need to distinguish between containment, which is the real agenda of some, and hedging, which is a realist strategy and one, if properly explained, China can feel comfortable with and not threatened by, even if it doesn't like it," Raby says.
"We need to avoid giving Chinese nationalists, of which there are many, gratuitous ammunition (and) we ourselves should be clear about our intentions and predictable in our behaviour towards China."
So far, the government gives the appearance of being neither clear nor predictable in its response to China's military rise. There is a growing disconnect between Canberra's words and its actions.
It seems Australia is still working out how tough it should be with its banker.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The battle for the Pacific


Chinese ship
Chinese naval helicopters hover above one of China's new Jiangwei-class frigates. Picture: AFP. Source: AFP

"HOW do you deal toughly with your banker?" US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mused while dining with then prime minister Kevin Rudd in Washington in March 2009. She was talking about China and the dexterous diplomacy required to respond to Beijing's steep and relentless growth in military spending while courting closer trade and investment ties.
Three years later, Australia and the US are not being so dexterous or diplomatic. While Canberra and Washington maintain the rhetoric that they are not seeking to contain China, both countries are moving hand-in-glove to prepare for a new era of strategic rivalry with Beijing.
This week it was revealed they are discussing the possibility of US nuclear-powered submarines and other naval ships using the Perth naval base HMAS Stirling. Also in discussion is the concept of giant spy drones being flown from the remote Cocos Islands, surveilling large chunks of the Indian Ocean.
News of these potential moves comes only days before the first rotation of 250 US marines begins in Darwin, as part of the eventual deployment of 2500 marines for training in Darwin as announced by Barack Obama during his visit to Australia in November.
But one of the country's leading military strategists, Alan Dupont, says the moves have to be viewed in the context of a rising China.

"A decision has been taken by both countries that more needed to be done in terms of dispersing US forces in the Asia-Pacific and weighting them towards Southeast Asia," says Dupont, who today will release a Lowy Institute paper on Australia's future defence posture. "It is a prudent protective measure which takes US forces out of the range of some of these new missile systems (that) China is developing."
Dupont believes the US is transitioning itself from a Cold War posture in the Pacific, where the bulk of US forces in the region were stationed in Japan and South Korea, to a military presence a safer distance to the south that is focused on protecting vital sea lanes. These include US moves to train marines in Darwin and its desire to make greater use of Australian naval facilities. These are consistent with the US President's pledge during his Australian visit that the US would increase its focus on the Pacific.
The driver is China's expanding array of advanced missiles, ships, submarines and aircraft that collectively represent a growing threat to US marines at sea and to the forward-deployed units in Japan, South Korea and even Guam.
Beijing last month announced a double-digit rise in defence spending, with an 11.2 per cent increase to top $US100 billion ($93.4bn) this year, following a 12.7 per cent increase last year.
The real military budget is believed to be substantially higher because Beijing does not reveal many aspects of its defence spending.
China maintains it has no hegemonic ambitions in the region and that its defence spending is "reasonable and appropriate" because it is in line with the growing strength of its economy.
Analysts agree that even with its recent strong growth in military spending, it would take decades before China would have the military power to challenge the US in the Pacific. But they also warn that China is quickly acquiring enough military power, especially through its procurement of long-range, land-based anti-ship missiles, to inflict serious isolated damage on US forces near its coast.
"In battles of its choosing, especially involving Taiwan, it is now highly likely China could deter the US from its preferred course of action by threatening to inflict unacceptable damage on US aircraft carrier groups, the highly visible totems of US power in the Pacific," Dupont says.
He says there are concerns that China could eventually project force to the Malacca Straits, which carries 40 per cent of global trade and 50 per cent of energy trade.
"The Malacca Straits and South China Sea are vital conduits for Australia's commerce with Asia, Europe and the Middle East."
Analysts say the US desire to reposition some of its forces closer to Australia comes at an opportune time for Canberra, which is struggling to find the money to fund its own ambitious military expansion as laid out in the 2009 defence white paper.
That plan called for the largest peacetime expansion of the navy in Australia's history, including a doubling of the submarine fleet to 12 boats as well as more muscular frigates and patrol boats.
But already the government's resolve to fund this plan has wilted with Defence being targeted for cost cuts in parallel with other departments as the government seeks to return the budget to surplus.
For those in Canberra who view China as a potential strategic threat, the notion of US forces stationed in or near to Australia offers a cheap long-term strategy to bolster national security.
The Gillard government has worked closely with Washington on the US's Global Force Posture Review and Canberra has welcomed, if not invited, these closer links with the US military.
But some within government and the bureaucracy will be wary that this risks sending the wrong message to China, a message that may one day affect Australia's booming economic ties with Bejing.
China protested last November when Obama used his visit to Australia to announce the permanent rotation of US marines in Darwin.
Last month, a Chinese think tank, the Knowfar Institute of Strategic and Defence Studies, called for China to exert direct economic pressure on Australia, including diverting mining investments to other countries, to discourage Canberra from seeking closer military ties with the US.
The question facing Canberra is how much further it should go in accommodating US desires for a closer military presence.
If Australia continues to invite permanent US military presence in Australia, what dangers does that pose for the economic relationship with Beijing on which Australia is so reliant?
The question of how Australia should respond to China's rising military capability is about to be reassessed in Canberra.
Within Australia's defence establishment a small army of bureaucrats is starting to write so-called issues papers on the nation's defence posture.
These are the first baby steps in the long process of strategic analysis, which will culminate in the 2014 defence white paper, the first substantial reassessment of Australia's security posture since the much-maligned 2009 white paper.
It is a process that will force the key security agencies in Australia -- including Defence and Foreign Affairs as well as spy agencies such as the Defence Intelligence Organisation and the Office of National Assessments -- to confront questions about China's military ambitions and how Australia should respond.
The last time these agencies tried to answer the same questions, in the lead-up to the 2009 white paper, the process descended into a farce behind closed doors.
Insiders warn that the same rough divisions that derailed the previous white paper process, a clash between so-called China hawks and China doves, are still prevalent in Canberra, although the disclosures about US forces this week suggest that the hawks still hold the upper hand. Unless reconciled, these divisions pose a threat to Australia's ability to adopt a clear-eyed and unified strategic response to the rise of China.
During the lead-up to the previous white paper, both camps fought a bitter battle for ascendancy. Classified strategic assessments prepared by ONA and DIO interpreted China's military build-up as a largely defensive response to the perceived threat of US naval power in the Pacific.
But a team of more hawkish Defence Department strategists, led by the then deputy secretary Mike Pezzullo, disputed the views of the spy chiefs, arguing instead that Australia adopt a more aggressive strategy on China because of its potential to exercise its growing military might and challenge the primacy of US military power in East Asia.
The then head of the ONA Peter Varghese was so distressed by the tenor of the debate he wrote to the prime minister expressing concern that it could distort Australia's national security priorities.
But unfortunately for Varghese, that prime minister, Rudd, sided with the hawks. He personally intervened in the white paper process, driving a controversial decision to double the size of the future submarine fleet.
Rudd, who described himself privately as "a brutal realist on China", oversaw a white paper that was clearly aimed at China. even if the government has always publicly denied this.
"The question to ask is: what is different this time around?" Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says. "We have had another three years of double-digit increases in China's military budget and also cuts in the US military budget.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of the same in terms of (Australia's) approach to force structure and a military footprint (that) complements that of the US."
The question is whether, as the US is wooing Australia to use its military facilities, the so-called China doves will be able to secure a foothold in the debate.
The doves, many of whom reside in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, will be encouraged by Rudd's political demise and his replacement by Bob Carr, whose early comments suggest he has a more benign interpretation of Bejing's ambitions.
Carr said last week that Australia had "undoubtedly' struck the right balance between China and the US and that it did not have to choose between the two.
He echoed the line of the DFAT doves rather than Defence Department hawks in saying China's military modernisation was merely a natural part of its national evolution.
"The best guide on this I think is the writings of Henry Kissinger," Carr said. "He says it should astonish no one in that in China's re-emergence as a greater power . . . the country will acquire a military modernisation to sit with its economic strength."
Australia's former ambassador to China Geoff Raby agrees with Carr but says Canberra needs to try to engage China more on strategic doctrine and better understand China's long-term intentions.
"We need to distinguish between containment, which is the real agenda of some, and hedging, which is a realist strategy and one, if properly explained, China can feel comfortable with and not threatened by, even if it doesn't like it," Raby says.
"We need to avoid giving Chinese nationalists, of which there are many, gratuitous ammunition (and) we ourselves should be clear about our intentions and predictable in our behaviour towards China."
So far, the government gives the appearance of being neither clear nor predictable in its response to China's military rise. There is a growing disconnect between Canberra's words and its actions.
It seems Australia is still working out how tough it should be with its banker.

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