top of page

Unpacking Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper

A rigorous, forward and more self-assured policy document, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper tackles the challenges that may come with Australia’s heightened role in the “Asian Century”, as well as the need to upgrade Australia’s defence capabilities to reflect a new and evolving threat environment. Through addressing strategy, and the capabilities and resources of both the Department of Defence (DoD) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), the paper provides a methodological and considered roadmap to navigate Australia’s myriad security challenges, particularly the rise of China and threats presented by non-state actors.

Broadly divided into three sections, the document addresses strategic decisions and alliances, upgrades in military hardware, and restructuring the DoD itself. It couches its national security analysis through three primary “Strategic Defence Interests”: a secure Australia; a resilient South East Asian and South Pacific region; and a stable “rules-based global order” in the broader Asia-Pacific arena.

Strategic decisions and alliances

The “rules-based global order” euphemism in Defence White Paper alludes clearly to Australia’s support for American primacy in the Asian region, particularly in the face of a rising China. This is coupled with (albeit restrained) cautioning against China’s involvement in the South China Sea. The White Paper states “while it is natural for newly powerful countries to seek greater influence, they also have a responsibility to act in a way that constructively contributes to global stability, security and prosperity” – remarks that provoked “dissatisfaction” and criticism from China’s Foreign Ministry.

The White Paper also positions Australia to further its role as a regional leader by stabilising and promoting its interests in the South East Asian sphere. By engaging in close bilateral relationships with key partners in the South Pacific and South East Asia (such as Indonesia) Australia can conduct capacity building operations to reduce the pervasive threat of radical groups and terrorist organisations which may proliferate in the region. While this focus on the South China Sea and South East Asia is indeed striking, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia Tim Huxley is right to assert that this “hardly represents a radical shift in the thinking of Canberra’s defence establishment”.

Upgrading military capability

Operationally, the White Paper presents a commitment to modernising Australia’s military hardware and technology, particular in the Royal Australian Navy – a decision welcomed by several members of Australia’s defence community. Submarines are one of the Asia-Pacific's fastest growing areas of military modernisation and the White Paper puts a high priority on submarine acquisition – effectively joining Asia’s miniature arms race. This is in addition to building several new frigates and destroyers (equipped with anti-submarine warfare capabilities). In total, “anti-submarine warfare” accounts for 25% of the capacity building budget for the next 10 years. All of the hardware acquired will also be highly interoperable, ensuring compatibility and synchronicity with the United States’ systems and operations.

Restructuring the DoD

In addition, the DoD will undergo significant organisational restructuring. After an internal investigation found the DoD to be overly bureaucratic and operating as a “federation of separate parts”, the DoD will reorganise to reflect the shifting nature of today’s security challenges. With an emphasis on agility, flexibility and rapid response, the revitalised organisation will be better equipped to respond to the ever-changing threat environment – especially threats stemming from violent extremism. The DoD will also move towards a budget equal to 2% of Australia’s GDP, reflecting the White Paper’s “serious effort” to prioritise defence funding beyond Australia’s election cycle.

Australia as a middle power

However, at the heart of the White Paper is an implicit commitment to maintaining and extending Australia’s developing identity as a “middle power”. Possessing both a crucial strategic alliance with the United States, and valuable trading relationship with China, it is impractical for Australia to buy-in to the oft-quoted binary of China vs. U.S.. Instead, being a successful “middle power” requires a defence agenda with teeth in order to resist being supplicant to either of these great powers. The Defence White Paper effectively addresses this dilemma. With the increase in self-defence capability, as well as an acquisition of interoperable hardware, Australia is well placed to straddle a potentially heated rivalry between China and the U.S.. However, the interoperability with the U.S. military, and the stationing of marines in northern Australia, makes it clear that the government is at this stage still promoting the status quo of U.S. hegemony.

Not without its critics

The Defence White Paper has also attracted strigent criticism, particularly the idea that defence is only one arm of Australia’s foreign policy. Defence should not operate at the expense of others and, while the paper presents a strong commitment to increase military funding, reciprocal commitments should be made to increase funding to the Department of Foreign Policy and Trade – a department suffering from long-term underfunding and shouldering even larger responsibilities following its merger with AusAid. Australia, as one of the only developed countries in the world primarily surrounded by developing nations, has a responsibility to engage in diplomatic and aid projects, predicated on greater DFAT funding.

Additionally, some critics posit that the White Paper does not address the inevitability of China becoming the dominant power in the Asian region. They argue that the strategy section of the paper commits Australia significantly to the U.S. alliance and fails to cater to the possibility of China’s supremacy.

Despite this, the Australian Defence White Paper 2016 is a lengthy, ambitious document that seeks to reposition and update Australia’s military capacity to reflect ever-changing regional dynamics and security threats. Through the revisiting strategic positioning, modernisation of military capacity, and restructuring the DoD and ADF, the paper prepares Australia well for an uncertain future.

Joel Paterson is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email for more information.

Image credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet (Flickr: Creative Commons)

bottom of page