The government has tried to convey a complicated message about China in its defence white paper but in the process got it "a bit muddled", an academic says.
The white paper, released in Sydney on Saturday, detailed China as Asia's strongest military power and warned the pace and scope of its growth had the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern.
At the launch of the white paper, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Australia had to prepare for a "range of contingencies", adding there was no doubt there had been a significant military build-up across the Asia-Pacific region.
Hugh White, visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, said there was no doubt China was in the ascendancy as an economic and military power.
But he said the government had also given the impression China might become a direct threat to Australia.
"They're trying to convey a rather complicated message and I think they've got it a bit muddled," Prof White said on Monday.
The growth of China had changed the way Asia operated and was "eroding" the power of the United States, he said.
"But that doesn't necessarily mean that China's going to be a direct threat itself."
Professor White said he wasn't surprised by some of the reaction out of Beijing which suggested the Chinese were concerned about some of the language in the white paper .
The white paper suggested it was natural for China's military reach to grow with its economy, but also that its neighbours would be worried if China's military capacity reached beyond Taiwan, Prof White said.
"Now I don't see how these things could be true simultaneously and the trouble for the government is that you'd expect Chinese admirals to take the gloomiest view."
Prof White said he agreed with the need for air and naval investment in terms of the risks of major conflicts in the region in the future but said the role of the army had been underestimated.
"The army won't do much for us in a kind of more contested Asia in a few decades but it does a very important job for us right now in stabilising places like East Timor and the Solomon Islands."