On the eve of his first visit to China as Australia's Defense Minister on Tuesday, Stephen Smith was forced to deal with the embarrassing revelation that his country's 30-year security blueprint included a secret plan for war with China.
For Smith, the timing of the apparent leak could not have been worse, coming just before he attends this week's inaugural Australia-China Defense Ministers' Dialogue in Beijing. And it fitted into an ongoing narrative that the Gillard government is emphatically seeking to refute: that Australia fears the West is on track for a collision with China.
Smith is making the first visit by an Australian defense chief since 2007, and is hoping to assuage Beijing's concerns that Canberra sees it as a potential military threat. These concerns could only have been heightened by the recent decision by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to allow up to 2,500 US Marines to be stationed in Australia.
Smith is due to meet his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie, and will also visit the Chinese Navy's South Fleet headquarters in Zhanjiang.
But just as he was about to fly off, news broke that Australia's 2009 Defense White Paper had a classified chapter outlining plans to fight alongside the US Navy to blockade China's sea routes.
Details about the plan, in a new book by journalist David Uren, revealed Canberra had envisaged a new fleet of submarines to operate in the South China Sea against Australia's biggest trading partner.
“Part of the defense thinking is that in the event of a conflict with the United States, China would attempt to destroy Pine Gap, the US-Australia signals facility near Alice Springs, which is crucial for guiding US military operations in Asia,” the missing chapter reportedly says.
“The paper envisages a very different world in which Australian naval operations alongside the US in, say, the South China Sea, could lead to direct Chinese attack on Australia... The capability of China to reach out 5,000 km and touch Australia was a new element of the strategic environment.”
Adding to the awkwardness of Smith's position is the fact that he had, in his speech at the past weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, praised “the positive impact” of the US in the Asia- Pacific. This came just hours after the Pentagon announced it was shifting more ships to the region.
Smith denied that the White Paper secretly envisaged war with China. “Of course with... any White Paper... there was a public version that was published, there were also some classified sections,” he told ABC TV. “But the essential point is that the White Paper 2009 was not aimed at any one country. It wasn't aimed at China.”
He said China-US relations can be “win-win”, and Canberra would seek enhanced military cooperation with Beijing. “We can have a positive, constructive and comprehensive relationship with China, and... continue an alliance with the US which has served Australia well for over 60 years.”
Observers in both Australia and China believed the White Paper's touting of bold plans for new submarines, warships and ballistic missiles was to offset concerns over China's military build-up.
Chinese military strategist Yang Yi said in 2009 that the paper was a “dangerous” document that could incite a regional arms race, and was a new example of the “China threat thesis”.
Rod Lyon, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the confusion over Australia's attitude to China stemmed from a tendency to focus on its “hedging plan”. While Canberra's main strategy was to welcome Beijing's rise and ensure it contributed to regional stability, he said, it also has a “hedging plan” in case of regional tensions.
“Smith will be trying to deliver the message that Australia's strategy does not turn on any plan to contain China,” he told The Straits Times. “We want China to grow into a confident Asia-Pacific power that contributes to regional order.”