Australian defence policy in Pacific focuses on maritime security | Pacific Beat

Australian defence policy in Pacific focuses on maritime security

Australian defence policy in Pacific focuses on maritime security

Updated 3 May 2013, 16:48 AEST

Australia has unveiled its defence strategy for the next few decades with the release of the latest Defence White Paper.

In it Australian Defence will arm itself with a bigger fleet of high-tech fighter jets, and there's a kick-a-long for Australia's trouble submarine project.

In the first major defence review in four years there's a more conciliatory approach to China and a general repositioning of defence architecture towards Australia's north and west.

The White Paper re-defines Australia's role after the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

What does it mean for Australia's role in the Pacific?

Canberra Correspondent, Karen Barlow has been examining the White Paper and explained the main elements and the Pacific angles to Bruce Hill.

Presenter: Bruce Hill

Speaker: Karen Barlow

BARLOW: Well, there's broad brush strokes here and no real defence funding commitments and it's an outline here, an outline of a wider economic and military shift to the Indo-Pacific. The focus here is the arch from India, through South East Asia and North East Asia, But in regards to China, this is quite a prominent feature of the White Paper far from the strident language of the 2009 White Paper, where China was strongly eluded to being a potential major power adversary. China is here an important partner. This White Paper talks up Australia and China's strong and positive defence relationship.

As for big ticket items in the White Paper, the government is bringing forward defence funding to buy a dozen Growlers. These are Super Hornet aircraft, equipped with radar blocking electronic warfare. The troubled and behind schedule joint strike fighter projects will proceed on schedule and 12 new submarines will be built in South Australia. The White Paper knocks out two of four designs, the White Paper says evolved new Collins Class could be one of the options or a new design.

HILL: Now this White Paper talks about a pivot back to the Asia Pacific region. This is after troops are being withdrawn from these long missions in Afghanistan, East Timor, and, of course, the Solomon Islands. So what does this mean? Does this mean they can get more assets now that they can reposition for Australia's own defence?

BARLOW: It seems so, so there's a repositioning here of the focus of defence, again broad brush strokes, but the shift will be now to the north and west with concern about maritime security, border protection and protecting the northwest resource industry, so LNG projects and the like, worth many billions-of-dollars.

They can now do more regional stability missions like RAMSI, in the Solomon Islands, which is regarded as a success and more humanitarian assistance and disaster recovery.

HILL: Now, what does it say about relations between Australia and the South Pacific when it comes to defence?

BARLOW: Well, this very much is a diplomatic document and there is an acknowledgment the Pacific is a strategically important area. The White Paper talks of a deepening cooperation in the Pacific and a fundamental interest in the security and stability of the Pacific Island states. There is something new and that's the Pacific Maritime Security Program, and that is assisting Pacific Island states managing their Exclusive Economic Zone, so we're talking here about maritime security, fisheries protection and trans-national criminal threats. But what it really is, is a replacement of the Pacific patrol boats, which have been around for 25 years and I understand aren't doing very well and need to be replaced. I understand they're rusting. There's 22 in the current program, but what we're talking about here is a gifting of new vessels, but no budget for it and no numbers of boats, no details as such, perhaps we'll hear a little bit more about that in the Australian budget which will be unveiled in about eleven days time.

HILL: That seems pretty sketchy. I mean announce a replacement for patrol boats program. As you say, the patrol boats have been in trouble, most of them have been in dry dock or up on blocks on the coast, because of the maintenance costs and spare parts costs. It's not been hailed as a wild success. So Australia's saying we're going to give you more boats, but how many we're not going to tell you just yet?

BARLOW: Just not in this White Paper, but I understand there'll be more detail coming. I understand from a general briefing on this section of the White Paper that the new vessels when they do arrive, will be very easy to maintain.

HILL: OK. Any mention of Fiji at all?

BARLOW: Ah, a very small mention, just one line. The government, the Australian government plans to restore defence relations with Fiji once a credible election is held.

HILL: Oh, that sounds more like a diplomatic than a defence statement, doesn't it?

BARLOW: Yeah.

HILL: And also I understand that they mentioned Vanuatu?

BARLOW: Ah, they did. Just talking about helping the Vanuatu Security Services, so getting them, giving them a bit more support.

HILL: OK. So essentially, painting with a broad brush here. Australia's concerns are with the north and the west and there's an increase to what used to be the Old Patrol Boats Program, which is a maritime thing, but broadly speaking, Australia doesn't seem to be concerned there are too many direct security that's coming from the Pacific region as such.

BARLOW: Not as such, but this new program, apart from the centrepiece being the new boats, will be about enhancing cooperation across the South Pacific, so they'll be a lot more meetings and defence ties to be announced in the coming season.

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