Australia would need to significantly boost defence spending and expand its armed forces to ensure its security against the likelihood of a rising China challenging the United States, a leading strategic thinker warned yesterday.
Speaking to an audience of senior Government officials, defence contractors and lawyers at a forum sponsored by the law firm Deacons, Australian National University strategic studies professor Hugh White said the Rudd Government's forthcoming Defence white paper needed to address fundamental strategic challenges.
Professor White said the deep question was how China's economic rise would change the strategic balance in the Asia-Pacific region and it was hard to escape the conclusion that the United States would lose primacy, or that primacy would be contested.
''This has immense implications for Australia,'' Professor White said.
''The eclipse of Western maritime primacy in Asia [will be] a very big event in our national history.
''If United States primacy fades, we will face higher risks of conflict with a major Asian power either in the company of the United States or alone.''
Professor White believes the future strategic environment will require much larger air and naval forces to achieve Australia's maritime denial strategy.
Specifically the proposed acquisition of 100 Joint Strike Fighters would not necessarily preserve Australia's ''traditional margin of technological superiority'' over regional airforces.
''Confidence that the Joint Strike Fighters will provide a decisive technological edge is not going to happen,'' he said.
Professor White warned Australian air superiority may prove fragile unless significantly more fifth-generation fighters were acquired.
He argued the navy could need larger, more capable and expensive surface warships and as many as 12 next-generation submarines would be required to replace the six Collins-class submarines.
The problem was larger numbers of expensive weapons platforms would require much higher levels of defence expenditure than Australian Governments had previously authorised.
''There is a deep risk of misalignment between middle power ambitions and expenditure,'' Professor White said.
Professor White suggested the global financial crisis would not necessarily have a great effect on long-term defence expenditure, but defence cuts in the United States could pose problems for Australia's acquisition of American defence technology.
Moreover, the financial crisis did ''look like another milestone in the loss of US primacy''.
Speaking at a land warfare conference in Brisbane yesterday, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon acknowledged that Australia's future strategic environment would sound a constant call for more defence spending.
''This is why I have ordered a savings drive which will hopefully free up $10billion over the next decade for reinvestment in higher priorities'', Mr Fitzgibbon said.
''Of course, the global financial crisis has made this efficiency drive all the more important.''