China's sharp military rise underscores the need for Australia to bolster its own defence spending and in particular improve its spying capabilities
7th Mar 2014
China's sharp military rise underscores the need for Australia to bolster its own defence spending and in particular improve its spying capabilities, an adviser to the government's next defence blueprint says.
Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the 12.2 per cent military spending increase announced by Beijing this week meant Australia could not afford to be complacent about its languishing defence budget.
''It does present a challenge for Australia around making sure that we've got our defence policy settings right and that we've got the right amount of defence expenditure and we're not being complacent. This is the wrong moment to relax one's grip on these sorts of key policy issues,'' said Mr Jennings, who is heading an expert panel that will review the government's upcoming defence white paper.
''There is also a very high premium on good quality intelligence-gathering capabilities, because to deal with this region we need to understand it. That means we've got to be investing quite substantially in terms of what our intelligence agencies can do for us so we get the real picture.''
The government has promised not to cut defence spending in the May budget but has not committed to a date when it will start increasing spending towards its target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product - a goal experts regard as hard to achieve.
Despite the recent battering the image of spying has taken since the Edward Snowden revelations, most defence experts insist it reduces the risk of conflict by giving countries certainty about one another's capabilities and intentions.
China has often been criticised, including by Australia, for the lack of transparency in its military growth. Japan and Taiwan repeated this accusation after Beijing announced its latest spending boost. Mr Jennings said Beijing kept much of its new money, including the development of new technology, out of its official figures. ''I think you can probably say that if the official figures are around 12 per cent [growth] that the real figure is probably more like 20 [per cent],'' he said.
While the new money took China's official spending to $146.7 billion, it is widely assumed that Beijing will spend more than $200 billion on its military this year.
This is still well below the $700 billion a year the US spends, although Washington is currently cutting its military budget.
Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James said the region would become less stable as China expanded its military and neighbours such as Japan and the Philippines reacted by increasing spending. As a hedge, Canberra needed to upgrade navy and air force capabilities - whose contribution would be most important in any regional conflict.
But taking money from the army could leave it ill-equipped to deal with smaller deployments, as happened with East Timor in 1999 after years of defence cuts. ''It's quite possible that in 20 years' time we might have to commit the army grossly unprepared again, because we keep forgetting that recurring