The Southeast Asian emphasis in DWP2013
21 Jun 2013|

Singapore skylineDefence White Paper 2013 breaks new ground in a number of areas—but at the big picture level, the most striking aspect of the paper is its revaluation of Southeast Asia. In place of the vague threat of yesteryear, we’re presented with a region of strategic importance to Australia and a set of prospective partners in joint endeavours. At a number of points across the paper, Southeast Asia looms as the new player on Australia’s strategic landscape. It is depicted as ‘central’ to our concerns about the broader Indo-Pacific. And its new status is reflected in the priority accorded to it in Chapter 6 on international engagements, where the authors proceed directly to Southeast Asian linkages after covering the US relationship and the specifics of the ANZUS alliance. Relationships with North Asia come later, and those with Indian Ocean countries later still.

Striking, and novel, in the paper is the identification of Indonesia as a ‘significant regional power’ in the Indo-Pacific (paras 2.8, 2.31, and 3.20). In the opening paragraph of the document it’s listed among the countries that have ‘transformed within a generation’. In the next chapter it’s portrayed as ‘an increasingly influential democratic regional power and emerging global influence’. As our assessment of Indonesia has changed, so too has our view of our own partnership with Jakarta. Our relationship with Indonesia is variously described as ‘our most important defence relationship in the region’ (para 6.28) or some variant thereof. Para 3.17 says that ‘the stability and security of Indonesia, our largest near neighbour, is of singular importance.’ The security futures of Australia and Indonesia are described as ‘intertwined’. Gone, in a change from past practice, is the tendency to group Indonesia alongside other immediate neighbours, such as Papua New Guinea, East Timor and the micro-states of the South Pacific.

Compare this year’s language with that used in the last two DWPs. The DWP2000 described Southeast Asia as ‘an area of great promise’ but generally implied that much of that promise was yet to be fulfilled. Indonesia was grouped with East Timor, Papua New Guinea, and the island states of the Southwest Pacific, as a county facing large economic and structural challenges (paras 3.22-3.36). It didn’t identify any Southeast Asian state as a major regional power (para 3.12), and in the chapter on Australia’s strategic environment Southeast Asia is covered in a subsection entitled ‘The nearer region and immediate neighbourhood’. The paper did accept that we’d want to promote stability and cooperation in Southeast Asia (para 4.9), and the security of our immediate neighbourhood, which included Indonesia, was ranked even higher than that because of geographical proximity. The international relationships chapter opened with a section on the US alliance, then moved to our relationships with the major powers in the wider Asia Pacific region—Japan, China, Russia, India and South Korea—before turning to Southeast Asia and the ‘nearest neighbours’. It had some positive things to say about relationship-building in Southeast Asia, but overall the language was restrained and the objectives were long-term ones.

DWP2009 identified a secure and stable Southeast Asia as in Australia’s strategic interests, because it would then be ‘neither a source of broad security threat nor…a conduit for the projection of military power against us by others’ (para 4.28). Indonesia still found itself defined as an ‘immediate neighbour’, and therefore grouped with Papua New Guinea, East Timor, New Zealand and the South Pacific island states. But as Chapter 5 pointed out:

… while we have a wide range of diplomatic, economic, cultural and other links with those countries, from a strategic point of view what matters most is that they are not a source of threat to Australia….Australia has an enduring strategic interest in preventing or mitigating any attempt by nearby states to develop the capacity to undertake sustained military operations within our approaches’. (paras 5.7-5.8)

The broader Southeast Asian region was depicted as a bulwark astride our northern approaches. Like its 2000 predecessor, the DWP2009 saw no major regional powers living in Southeast Asia.

It isn’t often that a sub-region gets re-valued by an Australian White Paper. And in this year’s DWP, readers might be misled by both the Minister’s foreword and the first dozen paragraphs of Chapter 2 into thinking that it’s India and the Indian Ocean that are being revalued. But look more closely; the bulk of the paragraphs under the sub-heading ‘A stable Indo-Pacific’ in Chapter 3 are actually about Southeast Asia and ASEAN—only the final paragraph says anything about the Indian Ocean. The Indo-Pacific construct is primarily a device for pointing to the centrality of Southeast Asia in contemporary Australian strategic thinking.

With DWP2013 a substantial shift has occurred in Australian declaratory policy—a shift from which it will be difficult in future DWPs to roll back to older settings. Those previous formulations, which derived from Indonesian behaviour under President Soekarno and the fractious nature of Southeast Asian strategic relationships fifty years ago, were characterised by two core approaches: a queasiness about Indonesia as a potentially disruptive actor and a willingness to look over the heads of Southeast Asians to other partners further afield. Australia has finally turned a corner in its thinking about Southeast Asia in general and Indonesia in particular. A new age looms in Australian strategic policy.

Rod Lyon is a non-residential fellow at ASPI and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of