Big brother goes missile cruising

Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, intends to equip its navy with long-range cruise missiles. Associate Defence Minister Heather Roy wants to sell off armoured vehicles. The Tasman is a deep gulf.

The National party fire-eaters who used to meet on the Sunday morning at annual conferences and demand fighters and more frigates have faded. There is no talk from Defence Minister Wayne Mapp of increasing defence spending as a share of GDP (half Australia’s). We are a small Pacific island, distant from tyranny, with no pretensions to power.

Australia is a large, thinly-populated continent, close up to Asia and arced on its north-eastern flank by volatile Melanesian societies. Australians generally have long seen themselves as needing both strong alliances and a strong military force.

Australia sees itself as a middle power. It has a seat on the G20 group of 20 significant economies and is in the G17 group which President Barack Obama is convening on climate change.

So Australia’s defence white paper, issued on Saturday, is ambitious and expensive, lifting spending from 1.9 to 2 per cent of GDP to 2.7 to 3 per cent.

Cruise missiles with a 2500-kilometre range on submarines, destroyers and frigates will give “options to conduct long-range precision-strike operations against hardened, defended and difficult-to-access targets”.

Overall, Rudd wants to spend $A100 billion over 10 years on high-tech weaponry, which requires a 3 per cent above-inflation increase a year until 2018 and 2 per cent after that. Even then around $A20 billion of savings will be needed — a highly ambitious target most commentators think is out of reach.

The navy gets the most: six more submarines (to 12 in all) and eight larger ships to replace the Anzac frigates, equipped with helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and anti-submarine sonars plus rafts of other smaller vessels. The air force gets 100 F-35 fighters (New Zealand has none) plus eight new long-range surveillance aircraft plus seven “high-altitude long-range unmanned platforms”. The army will be regrouped into 10 battalion-sized units (we do not quite have two).

The backdrop is China’s rise and the United States’ stall. The white paper is predicated on the (small, it says) possibility of a major conventional war in the Asia-Pacific — our pond.

Rudd said on Saturday: “There are likely to be tensions between the major powers where the interests of the United States, China, Japan, India and Russia intersect. While the chance of direct confrontation between any of these major powers is small, there is always the possibility of miscalculation. China will … be Asia’s strongest military power by a wide margin.”

This is in part the result of a shift in relative economic strengths. China has begun to be more assertive in international forums and there is talk of a China-United States “G2”. Japan has begun to expand its forces in reaction to China.

United States analyst Robert Kagan argues that history shows each rising power has at some point translated friction over status into force. Germany in the decades before 1914 is a prime example.

China may be different. But it may not. Popular nationalism has accompanied its economic rise. Until 200 years ago it was the dominant imperial power in the region to our north. We are in its sphere of influence.

That is one dimension Mapp’s white paper will need to cover. It is a topic on which the previous government was deafeningly silent. North Asia is not a picnic park.

The white paper will need to cover resource tensions. China is desperately short of water and is diverting rivers which would otherwise flow south and north. A growing economy is a thirsty beast. India, too, has looming water problems. So water is a potential source of conflict. Food and climate change are others.

Closer to home, the Melanesian islands, as Fiji is daily explaining to us, are not natural liberal democracies.

And there are unconventional threats, the product of quasi-religious — in some cases actual religious — psychoses. Cruise missiles are not much help then; possessing them may actually invite terror.

Mapp has promised a wide-ranging review and public consultation.

That requires, first, a deep strategic analysis, drawing on the likes of Hugh White, Australia’s top defence expert, who briefed National in 2006. How much of that analysis will be made public, however, is in doubt, senior sources say.

Consultation requires more than a poll and some focus groups. Roundtables of experts and maybe a citizens jury would help generate consensus and underpin the findings and recommendations.

And then? We will still scrimp and sing God Defend New Zealand. Every now and then, as history showed last century, that doesn’t work. But who knows?

* Apropos last week’s column: The Greens say they argued in 2004 for iwi to be able to establish customary title, but not fee simple title, in the Maori Land Court and for access rights for all to be negotiated with iwi.