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Fortress Australia

Nick Bryant | 09:44 UK time, Saturday, 2 May 2009

"Fortress Australia" is very much in vogue, whether if relates to boat people, swine flu or the nation's long-term defence plans.

So too is the "China syndrome", the wariness in this part of the world about the rise of Beijing.

australianplane.jpgThe two have come together in the 140 pages of the long-awaited Australian defence white paper, which has promised a massive boost in defence spending and which notes that "the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained."

Two big strategic thoughts appear to underpin the review. The first is that China could become a belligerent power, as it looks to assert its influence in the region. "A major power of China's stature can be expected to develop a globally significant military capability befitting its size," the paper warns.

Certainly, Australia is not predicting a confrontation with China, but it is planning for that worst-case eventuality.

The second major strategic thought is implied rather than explicitly stated: that Australia might not be able to rely on America to underwrite its security, as it has done pretty much since 1941.

So stout self-defence and self-reliance are the watchwords - hence the massive investment in doubling Australia's submarine fleet, and its fighter capability. The navy and air force, which are the linch-pins of the nation's defence, are the main winners. The army, which tends to get used in more offensive situations, is the loser in terms of the allocation of resources.

Welcoming this move, the Sydney Morning Herald has editorialised: "Australia must expect to take a more independent position from time to time. A defence doctrine that emphasises self-reliance is an important expression of that independence."

There are a few delicious ironies here. Australia's Sinophile Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is usually criticised by the opposition for being too close to China. The Mandarin-speaking PM is sometimes called the "roving ambassador" for Beijing in public, and "the Manchurian candidate" in private.

But Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the opposition, has criticised the review for being based on "the highly contentious proposition that Australia is on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China." He notes: "China has shown no inclination since the 1970s to export its ideology."

There is another irony. As Australia rethinks its defence needs in response to the rise of China, its ability to foot the bill for this build-up has been compromised by the slowdown of China.

The end of the resources boom, and the massive tax revenues which flowed from it, has meant that gone are the days when Australian military could splurge of expensive luxuries - the Howard government's orders for US Abrams tanks come to mind. It now has to be far more choosy about how it spends its defence money.

The government has not yet indicated how it will pay for the increased defence spending. A return to the halcyon days of the resources boom would certainly help. So paradoxically, China's continued rise will help Australia defend against the China's continued rise.

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