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Analysing Australia's defence cuts
Interview with Dr Tim Huxley, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in Singapore.

It's no surprise that the Australian Government's budget decision to cut more than $5 billion in military spending should come under fire from the Defence establishment.

Especially not when, the same time, many nations in the Asia Pacific are using their increasing wealth to buy more military hardware.

But not all defence analysts think the cuts come at such a bad time.

Dr Tim Huxley is with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore.
JIM MIDDLETON: Tim Huxley, welcome to the program.


JIM MIDDLETON: Is the Australian Government doing the right thing cutting so much out of the Defence budget at a time when many nations of the Asia Pacific are increasing their spending on defence?

DR TIM HUXLEY: Yes, it is true that other countries in the region are increasing their defence spending and in some cases trying to improve their military capabilities quite significantly. But I don't think there's any evidence at the moment that this trend in the region poses any direct threats to Australian security.

JIM MIDDLETON: So what would you say to this statement from Australian defence analyst Hugh White: "We pretend to be a middle power and we say we are a middle power, but we have the defence capability of a small power," quote, unquote. How does that sit with your analysis?

DR TIM HUXLEY: Well I think that's contestable. Australia has significant military capabilities. It has, in particular, a strong Air Force and a Navy with considerable capabilities and it has defence plans at the moment that haven't been really significantly undermined by the recent cuts and delays in Defence spending. So Australia is still a medium power both in terms of its population and the size of its economy and also its present and future military capability.

JIM MIDDLETON: Just how seriously is the Indian Ocean developing as an area of significant strategic competition with India rising as well as China, and both needing the sea ways to guarantee their energy supplies, if nothing else?

DR TIM HUXLEY: The Indian Ocean is certainly strategically important not just for China but other East-Asian powers, for Japan and the Republic of Korea as well. I do think, though, that India's strategic power is going to be rather slower to develop than China's. And there are signs of competition in their relationship, and China and India are each watching the other very carefully and with a degree of concern.

However, I think that in the short to medium term, the real security issue in the Indian Ocean is the piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia where both India and China and a range of Asia Pacific powers have been collaborating in anti-piracy operations, and where many Asians countries have deployed their navies in a collaborative rather than competitive role.

JIM MIDDLETON: Talking more generally about competition within the region, Australia is now basing American Marines in northern Australia. Is there real concern in South East Asia about this raising the potential for superpower competition within the region, or were the reservations at the time of the announcement simply a result of lack of consultation on Australia's part?

DR TIM HUXLEY: I don't detect any great concern in this region of South East Asia. I think there may have been some initial concern on Indonesia's part as to what was going on, but I think that subsequently Indonesia has been reassured by both the United States and Australia. I think, though, there are larger concerns in South East Asia about what is happening in the region in strategic terms and the way that this may develop in the future.

JIM MIDDLETON: How much are the chances of conflict increased by the fact that there are so many unresolved territorial dispute across the region, not just the South China Sea but all the way from Japan in the north, across South East Asia all the way to India and Pakistan, and all at the very same time that the economic power has shifted so decisively from west to east and all these nations have so much more money at their disposal to spend on weaponry?

DR TIM HUXLEY: Well none of these disputes are new, Jim. They've been there for many decades in most cases. But I think an increasingly important factor is competition for resources, including energy resources and fisheries. And we see this as an important factor beneath the surface, as it were, in the South China Sea. So I think these disputes are worrying and I think what we've seen in the South China Sea over the last few weeks with the standoff between Chinese and Philippine vessels on the feature of Scarborough Reef is particularly worrying.

But the way to resolve these problems is going to be through dialogue and participation by regional countries in forums such as the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) Defence Minister's meeting plus and the Shangri La dialogue.

JIM MIDDLETON: Well then, given the obvious benefits of continuing prosperity rather than conflict, why is there so little urgency given by the nations of the region to efforts to produce the security architecture necessary to resolve this plethora of unresolved conflicts?

DR TIM HUXLEY: Well I think that the plethora of regional conflicts or potential conflicts is so wide and so diverse and in many cases so deep rooted in historical factors and rival nationalisms that this is necessarily going to be a long term process. There is no quick solution to this. And the existence of a regional security architecture in itself may help to mitigate and manage some of these disputes, but it isn't necessarily a shortcut to a resolution of them.

JIM MIDDLETON: Tim Huxley, thanks very much for your time.

DR TIM HUXLEY: Happy to talk to you, Jim. Thanks very much.
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