The AFR's John Kerin yesterday had the inside mail on the upcoming Defence White Paper, and his headline judgment is this:
Notwithstanding having to mention the current anxiety about resolving maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, this is a document that will view China as more friend than foe. But it is a paper that will also emphasise safety in numbers and the need to expand relationships with regional powers such as India and Indonesia as insurance against China's rising power.
According to Kerin, the White Paper will offer a twist on the old John Howard formula that Australia does not have to choose between the US and China:
Essentially, Howard said Australia could balance its economic relationship with China and its security guarantor the US, and did not have to make a choice. In fact Abbott will go further: suggesting Australia should strengthen security ties with China too...
As Hugh White has said, that formula works so long as Washington and Beijing are getting along. But what if they aren't? It goes without saying that international cooperation, particularly with great powers who may not share your interests and values, is an important way to ameliorate the struggles and tensions of the anarchical international system. But international cooperation can't make those struggles and tensions go away. In the present case, no amount of cooperation can overcome the fact that China is a growing power which would like to see its own regional influence increase at the expense of the US, our major ally. US and Chinese interests are incompatible, which means they are likely to clash. Everything hangs on how they manage such disagreements.
So I really do wonder if anyone in the Government is actually convinced by this formula, particularly since we have just come through two years of Chinese foreign-policy assertiveness marked by the ADIZ announcement, the Vietnam oil rig incident, island-building in the South China Sea and other incidents, all of which has been counter-balanced by the Obama Administration's pivot. In fact, I strongly suspect neither side of politics really believes that the geopolitical implications of China's rise can simply be set aside if we just get close enough to Beijing. The ABC's Chris Uhlmann, who observes Canberra's politicians as closely as anybody, told me last September that the strategic implications of China's rise was a cause for private worry on both sides of politics.
Granted, as the first quote indicates, the White Paper will also recognise the need for a 'hedge' against China's rising power, but it is telling that this is reported to come in the form of expanded relationships with regional powers rather than by spending more on defence. This Government promised to return defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2023. Is it looking for ways to back out of that commitment?