Australia’s strategic circumstances

At a time of Defence budget reductions it is worth considering Australia’s strategic circumstances for a moment. Officially these are being examined as part of the forthcoming 2013 Defence White Paper and also Ken Henry’s forthcoming ‘Australia in the Asian century’ report.

31st Oct 2012


Editorial


Australia’s strategic circumstances


At a time of Defence budget reductions it is worth considering Australia’s strategic circumstances for a moment. Officially these are being examined as part of the forthcoming 2013 Defence White Paper and also Ken Henry’s forthcoming ‘Australia in the Asian century’ report.

We can confidently say that the prospects of a major direct attack on the Australian homeland in the short to medium term remain very low. It remains the case that bridging the air-sea gap around the coastline would require a massive transport and logistics effort that very few powers have the ability to conduct. However, as 9/11 demonstrated, it is possible for some other types of assaults to occur with little – if any – advanced warning. If another country were behind such an event then an appropriate military response will be required.

Also, as everyone is aware, the dynamics of Asia are changing rapidly and unpredictably. A great deal has been written about the rise of China and India but far less about another dangerous development – the rise of extreme nationalism in Japan. There are a myriad of other possible developments to consider, including the stability – or lack of it – of Pakistan; future developments on the Korean peninsula and the rapid and impressive evolution of Indonesia into an economically dynamic democracy.

The real dark horse in all of this could be Japan. With an economy in the doldrums and a national mood negatively influenced by disasters such as the massive 2011 earthquake and tsunami – along with the associated Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown – right wing forces are on the rise. The most prominent of these is Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Japan Restoration Association (Nihon Ishin no Kai).

It is a little difficult to define what this political party represents because the policies that have come to light so far are a mixture of all sorts of bits & pieces: reducing the size of the Diet (Parliament) to half its present compliment, directly electing the Prime Minister and ending the life-long tenure of employment enjoyed by teachers. However, there are also some darker elements, such as scrapping Japan’s post-war constitution limiting military spending and also taking a tougher line regarding ownership of disputed off shore territories.

The Japan Restoration Association plans to field 400 candidates in the next general election – which could be called at any moment. There have already been some defections from other parties, large and small. It is highly likely that the Restoration Association will also absorb a number of fringe splinter parties during the course of what seems to be its inexorable rise. The incumbent Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and his Democratic Party of Japan face an electoral wipeout with polling indicating a popularity level of around 20%.

As improbable as it might first seem, there is now a reasonable chance that the Association could come from nowhere and soon be one of the major parties in the Diet, able to exert enormous influence on the policy directions of the next Government. This could see a major lurch to the political Right, with a number of frightening consequences.

Japan has never collectively come to terms with its brutal Second World War record and it is debatable if even a small proportion of the electorate have any understanding whatsoever of what occurred during the period between 1932 and 1945 when militarism was rampant. The consequences of this collective ignorance is that no warning bells are going off when in fact they should be ringing very loudly.

The most obvious flashpoint is with China over ownership of the Senkaku / Daiyo Islands, where just during the last few months there have been a series of clashes that have become increasingly ugly. So far no shots have been fired, but it has been a close run thing. If a newly elected Right-wing Japanese Government decided to take an even tougher line regarding the islands that will be a recipe for disaster – especially as the US has already sided with Tokyo against Beijing.

However, this still remains one of several worse case scenario and it is far more probable that everyone will continue to muddle along and that Asia will remain relatively peaceful and continue a path of collective economic growth. Australia will benefit from this, primarily as an exporter of raw materials and as a popular tourist destination.

How Australian policy makers will behave in this new environment is a large unknown. While accepting that the growth of Asia is inevitable and positive, many counterproductive decisions continue to be made. One of the worlds largest IT companies Huawei has been banned from participating in the NBN because of its Chinese ownership – a decision taken almost certainly after arm-twisting from the United States. The Department of Defence – specifically some senior Army figures – have delivered an enormous slap to the face of our major trading partner and ally South Korea with the completely egregious and irrational decision to cancel the purchase of self-propelled howitzers from that country.

In the future much closer alignment between the rhetoric of greater engagement with Asia and the actual reality of what is taking place will be required.
 

APDR at a glance