By Leo Shanahan
US-Led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have deflected Washington's attention, allowing China to expand its influence and triggering an arms race in Southeast Asia, says opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop.
Speaking at a conference hosted by the United States Studies Centre in Sydney yesterday, Ms Bishop attacked Labor's defence white paper for stating China was the greatest strategic threat to Australia.
"I take issue with the assumption in the white paper that China is the most likely conventional military threat to Australia; I don't think that is an assumption that bears out. And even if it were, you wouldn't put it in your white paper," she said.
Ms Bishop said China had capitalised on the US's commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq by expanding its power in the region.
"China military projections have caused, some would say, almost an arms race in Southeast Asia," Ms Bishop told the conference, which was looking at the decade of the war on terrorism since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
"Between 2005 and 2009, the arms deliveries into Southeast Asia have more than doubled from the previous five years," she said. "Malaysia has seen something like an increase of 700 per cent, Indonesia 80 per cent and Singapore 150 per cent.
"This is . . . because these countries think 'if the US is not going to be as engaged in Southeast Asia, then a bit of self-help will have to go a long way'. The question . . . is whether China can convince the region it is a force for good, as the US had been seen to be."
The US ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, told the conference the Arab Spring was proving destructive to al-Qa'ida recruiting because the US was supporting those in the Middle East who were seeking democratic freedoms.
"The central message from al-Qa'ida to the disaffected, unemployed, angry and frustrated is the reason that you're like this, the reason there's no democratic government, no education and all of the other challenges, is that the US government is propping up these regimes . . . that was the recruiting message for al-Qa'ida and these terrorist networks," he said.
"I think what the Arab Spring is demonstrating is that's not true. There are people calling for self-determination . . . the message is that they'll have encouragement from the US and its allies who say 'As long you do this in a peaceful manner, as long as you act without violence, we support your efforts'."