Australia's plan to join the United States in building a missile-defense shield was greeted in the Asia Pacific area with apprehension. While it has the potential to give protection to some countries in the region, it has also raised the possibility of an arms race.
Announced earlier this month, Australia's exact role in the program remains unclear, but at the least it will involve cooperation on scientific research. The development was followed last week by word from Tokyo that Japan is moving beyond the study phase with its own missile shield.
Emerging Asian missile defenses could afford the region a degree of protection against ballistic missiles from rogue states - in particular, North Korea - and take the pressure off Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to go nuclear as a deterrent. But, say experts, the joint projects have the potential to alienate regional heavyweight China, which could be tempted to expand its own nuclear arsenal.
"China is not really surprised by Australia's decision to join the US missile-defense program, although it has never been happy with the shield concept. But it is waiting to see whether Taiwan is going to be covered by the shield," says Jian Zhang, lecturer in politics at the Australian Defense Force Academy. "If it is, then China will not be as calm as it is now, as it will be seen as a direct challenge to Beijing's national interest."
Should China feel its interests threatened by the shield, say regional analysts, it could respond by beefing up its missile arsenal. Given the mixed success rate for missile-interception systems, shields are seen as vulnerable to nations with a significant missile stockpile.
However, Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer attempted to downplay the shield's relevance to China. "This is designed to deal with missiles from rogue states, small numbers of missiles, not large numbers of missiles," he told the Melbourne Age, a daily newspaper.
Australia faces a less obvious threat than Japan, which is targeted by an estimated 200 North Korean missiles. Japan's system, expected to be deployed in 2007, will rely on the American system.
While Australia may be an out-of-the-way target for North Korea now, some argue that Canberra is prudently planning ahead. "In the longer term, maybe 20 years, it is possible that Australia might be targeted by a rogue state, like North Korea; then we must be able to defend ourselves at that time," says Ross Babbage, head of the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University. "You can only do that if you acquire the system now."
The cooperation, which was announced by the government on Dec. 4, is expected to involve scientific research, mostly in the area of radar sensors. The US has shown a keen interest in Australia's over-the-horizon system, known as the Jindalee Operational Radar network. The joint US-Australian satellite communications interception facility at Pine Gap in Central Australia will play a key role in any new missile-defense plan.
BUT Australia's closest northern neighbor, Indonesia, which has no ballistic missiles, is skeptical of anything positive coming out of the deepening military cooperation. The foreign ministry spokesman in Jakarta told journalists that missile shields "offer more uncertainties and potential complications rather than solutions."
Although Indonesia does not feel a direct threat, the move by Australian Prime Minister John Howard once again confirms Jakarta's views that the conservative government in Australia has little interest in Asia.
"I believe that as a good neighbor you should let us know when something big is about to happen so as not to create misunderstanding. Recently we have been cooperating on terrorism, so why not on this as well?" asks Chandra Salim, the head of the political section of the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra.
Jakarta has asked Australia for a detailed explanation of what its involvement means and the implications for Southeast Asia. However, any explanation might be delayed until the memorandum of understanding on the US missile-defense plan is signed in 2004.
Until then, the exact cost and degree of Australian involvement remains unclear. "There is no clear indication if it is any different from what it has done in the past - some research and development and some testing - or is it something much more," says Aldo Borgu, program director of operations and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.
Borgu questions whether Australia has anything at all to gain anything from joining the program.
"The government says the move will strengthen the [US-Australian] alliance, but the alliance needs no strengthening. The government talk of spin-offs for Australian industries, but you don't need to be a part of the defense shield to get defense contracts," Borgu says.