AUSTRALIA needs to massively bolster its military capacity to deal with the rise of China and the possible decline of American influence in the region, according to a Defence white paper to be released today.
The paper also redraws the policies of the Howard era, making it clear that Australia would not necessarily follow its main ally into expeditionary conflicts such as the Iraq war unless there was a threat to our "wider strategic interests".
"We must never put ourselves in a position where the price of our own security is a requirement to put Australian troops at risk in distant theatres of war where we have no direct interests at stake," it says.
The white paper - the first in nine years - says that after the defence of Australia, the nation's next priority is to ensure "stability and security in the South Pacific and East Timor".
It details the purchase of a massive list of military hardware expected to cost more than $100 billion. The weapons include a new generation of very long range submarines to provide "strategic strike" with cruise missiles and 100 state-of-the-art Joint Strike Fighters.
The paper points to China as a possible threat in a future world where the power of Australia's key ally, the United States, gradually declines.
In his preface to the document, Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the world had changed significantly since 2000, with the increased threat of terrorism and cyber warfare. But the biggest change had been the rise of China, the emergence of India and the beginning of the end of the dominance of the US, Mr Fitzgibbon said.
The report goes on to predict that "shows of force by rising powers are likely to become more common as their military capabilities expand".
The paper has already alarmed China with a Chinese diplomatic source telling The Age on Thursday it now looks like Prime Minister Kevin Rudd "wants to act on behalf of America against China".
In an apparent reference to Afghanistan and Iraq, the paper says: "The Government has decided that it is not a principal task for the ADF to be generally prepared to deploy to the Middle East, or regions such as Central and South Asia or Africa."
On the extent to which Australia can rely on the US for protection, the paper asks: "Will the United States continue to play over the very long term the strategic role that it has undertaken since the end of World War II?"
While acknowledging that no other power will have the capacity to challenge US global primacy over the coming two decades, it says the US might find itself "preoccupied and stretched in some parts of the world such that its ability to shift attention and project power into other regions, when it needs to, is constrained".
The plans outlined in the white paper will change the Australian Defence Force from a broadly defensive organisation with a bit of everything to a much more focused force able to launch damaging attacks vast distances from home.
The plan is for a potent defence force to deal with strategic uncertainties and military modernisation in the region.
The submarines, to be built in Adelaide, will be equipped with 20 or more cruise missiles, probably US Tomahawks, capable of hitting a target smaller than a car 2500 km away and delivering special forces to their destinations.
Similar cruise missiles will be fitted to the Navy's potent air warfare destroyers and new frigates.
And the Navy's anti-submarine capability will improve significantly with a new class of frigates designed to hunt down and destroy submarines. The oceans closer to home will be protected by a new class of warships, Offshore Combatant Vessels. They will be used for border security, to protect offshore resources, to carry out hydrographic and environmental research and potentially, to clear anti-shipping mines.
The ADF is likely to get seven large unmanned patrol planes - probably the US-built Global Hawk - capable of staying airborne for days at a time and covering huge areas in search of terrorists, enemy forces and smugglers of people and drugs.
Australia's agencies will also be given the resources they need to engage in cyber warfare - defending Australia's computer systems against sabotage and attacking an enemy's computer systems to cause economic chaos. Intelligence gathering resources also get a big boost.
By 2030 Australia's annual defence spending is likely to have jumped from its present $22 billion to nearly $40 billion.
To help pay for it's new equipment, the ADF has been told to find internal savings of $20 billion.
That would be enough to cover the $16 billion cost of the strike fighters and some of the submarines at $3 billion each but some in the Government are concerned that Defence will not get anywhere near this target.
Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull warned the Government could become fixated on China in its strategic thinking to the exclusion of other nations and other issues.
"Let me state this plainly: it makes no sense for Australia in 2009 to base its long-term strategic policy on the highly contentious proposition that Australia is on an inevitable collision course with a militarily aggressive China."
China was but one major power among several major powers in the region, Mr Turnbull said.