EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Timely review of Australia's defence posture
, July 9, 2011
The announcement by Defence Minister Stephen Smith of an inquiry into whether the Australia’s defence forces are geographically positioned to meet current and future strategic policy challenges, raises important issues for the future of the country.
The fact is that each of the three services — army, navy and air force — are mainly located south of the Tropic of Capricorn, and the headquarters of all of them (as well as the Defence Department) are located in Canberra.
This distribution reflects Australia’s history, in which the continent was principally settled in the south. As a consequence, all centres of population and power were located there. Despite the growth of north Queensland, the Northern Territory and the north of Western Australia over recent decades, Australia remains a nation in which the top half is radically under-populated and, except in Queensland, under-developed.
In light of the fact that direct military challenges will come from our north, this leaves the north of the continent acutely vulnerable.
Some will argue that with rapid deployment forces, proximity to emergencies is not an issue; but there are many situations in which a sustained military response requires the proximity of major defence assets, including naval bases, airfields, reinforcements of manpower and extensive supplies of military equipment.
The geographic location of our defence forces needs to be considered in the wider context of both foreseeable contingencies and national assets. The rapid development of oil and gas fields off north-western Australia, as well as major mineral developments in the Pilbara and Kimberley regions, has created national assets which require protection.
The issues Australia faces here are not simply military. Foreign ownership of key Australian resource projects poses a particular challenge to Australia’s sovereignty which needs to be addressed.
Additionally, the flow of boat-people from Indonesia highlights the porous nature of Australia’s maritime borders, particularly in areas adjacent to Indonesia. If there were to be political instability in other nearby countries, including East Timor, the Indonesian province of West Papua and Papua New Guinea, Australia could be faced with an unexpected influx of refugees which could quickly reach crisis proportions.
Over the past 40 years, governments have tried to address Australia’s strategic vulnerabilities in different ways, from the “forward defence” policy which characterised the 1950s to 1970s, to the continental defence paradigm which characterised the Hawke and Keating years, to the strategic alliance doctrine of the Howard era.
In the 21st century, the challenges to Australia’s survival as a prosperous, free and sovereign nation potentially come from a variety of sources. These include the danger of political turmoil among our near-neighbours; the emergence of communist China as a great power, ultimately aiming to replace the United States as the dominant force in our region; and tensions in the Indian sub-continent between India and Pakistan.
In addition to these, Australia is likely to be affected by flow-on from the global financial crisis, including the house of cards which goes by the name of the European Union, and the chronic deficits of the United States, the world’s largest economy.
One consequence of these is to push Australia more strongly into the economic orbit of China, the one country where growth has been unaffected by the economic shockwaves which have shaken the global financial system for the past four years.
Lesser challenges which Australia faces include the need to play a peace-keeping role in the event of a breakdown in government in the neighbourhood. Australia has long played a key role here in the past, including recent military involvement in the Solomon Islands, East Timor and Tonga, which continues to the present day.
Additionally, Australia’s defence forces provide the initial critical response to natural disasters in the region, and require rapid deployment to be effective. After a magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on Boxing Day 2004, some 230,000 lives were lost in the subsequent tsunami, and Indonesia’s emergency services were unable to cope.
Australian defence forces played an important role in providing emergency food, water, clothing and shelter to the affected people of Aceh, as well as medical services to treat the thousands of injured people. Yet our capacity to respond is limited by the absence of local resources.
Large underwater earthquakes were felt off the coast of Sumatra in 2005, 2007 and 2010, although, fortunately, without heavy loss of life. Other natural disasters have occurred from time to time in South-East Asia in the past, and Australia’s capacity to respond to such emergencies is an important part of our regional role.
The current review of Australia’s military profile is therefore both urgent and necessary.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.