Australia’s spending on defence cooperation in the Pacific region is being cut at the same time concerns grow over China’s rising influence over neighbouring countries such as Solomon Islands.
This week’s budget confirmed overall funding for the “Defence Cooperation Programme”, which provides assistance such as language training to mainly Pacific nations, will fall from $236 million (US$177 million) forecast this year, to $227 million (US$170 million) next year.
Support for countries such as Papua New Guinea and Timor Leste is being slashed while Solomon Islands, which recently experienced days of political unrest, will receive just $24,000 (US$18,000) more next year.
“Given recent developments in Solomon Islands, it is most concerning the Morrison government has cut millions on defence cooperation programs in the region,” says Shadow Defence Minister Brendan O’Connor.
The reduction in spending on regional cooperation is one stark example of defence budget priorities raising eyebrows in the military community, which has also been surprised by the lack of any announcements on new capabilities, except for cyber.
According to the budget, overall defence spending is set to be maintained at a fraction over two per cent of GDP for the next four years and is forecast to dip slightly below the government’s benchmark this financial year.
“There is no more important time to strengthen our national security and Defence, and this budget does exactly that,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declared during his post-budget speech to the National Press Club.
“Australia, whether we like it or not, faces a less stable region in the years ahead. And we face a more uncertain world,” he warned.
When a country goes to the polls for a vote heavily influenced or impacted by war, it is often dubbed a “khaki election”.
However, defence industry insiders say the budget fails to recognise the need to acquire new military capabilities much faster as the security environment in Australia’s region continues to deteriorate.
“While the budget does increase funding in the defence landscape [more money to the Australian Signals Directorate for example] it doesn’t address the fundamental problem, which is that defence does not procure things fast enough to meet emerging trends,” one defence industry figure notes.
Another former defence official describes the budget as “feeling a bit thin” given the worsening strategic outlook across the globe.
“It was a very light for defence and they have done nothing to address the issue of getting capability quicker,” the long-serving departmental figure told the ABC.
“Frigates are obviously the poster child for this but with an increasing Chinese presence in the Pacific it means we need more ships at sea sooner.”
A new $9.9 billion (US$7.4 billion) package for cyber security, first revealed by the ABC on Tuesday, has been largely welcomed, although industry insiders note the REDSPICE initiative contains just $500 million (US$375 million) of new money over the forward estimates.
Under the curiously named programme, the country’s electronic spy agency, the Australian Signals Directorate, will double in size and ramp up its ability to launch its own offensive cyber operations.