Our historic Peace Testimony has traditionally been focused on opposition to war as a means of conflict resolution but in recent years it has been fairly muted as the nature of warfare has changed, and Australian Defence Force (ADF) troops have either been engaged in peacekeeping operations or fighting US wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. Though we might be opposed to these two wars, without a broader coalition opposing them or any strong dissenting voice in Parliament, Friends have remained fairly quiet in voicing our doubts, and have concentrated on other aspects of Peace and Justice work which seem more fruitful. However some of us have had the chance to hear Malalai Joya in August-September or Kathy Kelly in October-November, both on national speaking tours about what is happening in Afghanistan, so perhaps this is a time to take a look at the wider world of defence and ponder on how we might witness to an alternative rather than get caught up in a new arms race with China as the new bogeyman.
Due to Australia’s bi-partisan agreement between the two major political parties, military issues rarely get an airing in the public domain although there are always ongoing bureaucratic disputes within the military community. Unfortunately, as a result of this consensus, there is virtually no public debate on the war in Afghanistan, so that although polls indicate that most Australians oppose the war, the ADF will continue to be part of the ISAF. Whatever our political leaders say in public about fighting terrorism, everyone in Canberra knows that the real reason Australian troops are in Afghanistan is simply because we have to support the United States. This is particularly so at a time when 60 years after the signing of the ANZUS Treaty, Stephen Smith, the current Defence Minister, is on record as saying, ‘The alliance was triggered on a bipartisan basis after 9/11 and now is operating better at the working level than at any time since World War II.’ (The Australian, 10/9/ 2011).
The other major issues at the moment consist of trying to resolve the contradiction of wanting to spend more on the military at the same time as implementing budget cuts, and debate over whether or not China poses a long-term threat to Australia. In addition, there is a major defence review under way, arguments over how we acquire expensive new items of military hardware, and discussions with the US military on increasing future cooperation is response to the strategic situation.
There are a number of military hardware purchases in the pipeline but as in the past, there is considerable debate over whether or not we should construct a new class of submarines in Australia or just buy them from overseas. The Collins class submarine program has been a disaster for a number of reasons but already the Navy are arguing over how many new submarines we should be planning for and there is even a school of thought pushing for nuclear submarines. The Navy are also spending $8 billion on three new Air Warfare Destroyers when critics say we don’t actually need them and anyway we could buy them for $1 billion apiece direct from the USA. In addition, the Air Force is purchasing a new generation of joint strike fighters, the F-35, again from the United States, while the long term cost will obviously escalate as with all military purchases.
All these purchases lock into the debate about the overall strategic future of the Asia-Pacific region. Most players there are also involved in a military build-up, in particular India and China, and areas of tension remain, like the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula and the two Chinas. The current defence review is assessing whether this rising military power poses a threat to Australia and is closely linked to the US global review that is also focused on the rising military power of China. Recent talks with the US military seem to indicate an increased US military presence in the region that involves greater use of Australian facilities by US warships and aircraft as well as storage of military equipment. Most of this would be in the north of Australia and tailors with the call to increase the military presence in the north and north west of Australia where big resource projects are under way.
A few scattered peace groups do continue to raise questions about some of these issues and clearly there is a need to raise these concerns in both the public and political domain, but so far we have made little progress in raising the profile of the debate on defence issues in Australia. A Quaker response would perhaps be to focus on why health, education and social welfare get targeted for cuts rather than the military at a time of austerity and to once more put the emphasis on the constructive alternative, how we might develop common security models in the Asia-Pacific region rather than getting caught up in a new arms race.