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Election campaign reveals two nuanced approaches to Australia’s Pacific defence strategy

As we enter the final week of the election race, both sides of politics have revealed a need to broaden Australia’s Pacific defence policy and engagement focus on the Pacific, with the balancing act between strategic competition and national interest remaining focal points.

The Pacific has long been an area of central focus for Australia's economic, political and strategic policy makers – this immense area of responsibility, combining small coral atolls and vast archipelagos with a diverse range of cultures, languages and histories challenging a cohesive approach to supporting the development and security of the region. 

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Australia's engagement with the region has gone through a range of cyclical iterations, ranging from a relative hands-off approach to periods of direct intervention and engagement however, the rising power of China and its own economic, political and strategic interests, combined with the geo-strategic importance of the Pacificm is serving to challenge Australia's approach to one of its critical areas of responsibility. 

Australia's recent history of engagement with the region has been marred by three distinct scenarios: 

  • The military intervention in the Solomon Islands as part of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI); 
  • The souring of diplomatic relations between Australia and Fiji; and 
  • The offshore processing of asylum seekers at Manus Island. 

The nation's commitment to the region, however, is based on more than just these three engagements, rather Australia has, as outlined in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, sought to re-engage with the Pacific and ensure that it remains one of the nation's highest foreign and defence policy priorities.  

Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined his vision for Australia's foreign policy engagement with our region and the government's continuing commitment to enhancing Australia's defence capability in light of the rapidly changing strategic environment

"Our foreign policy defines what we believe about the world and our place in it ... I fear foreign policy these days is too often being assessed through a narrow transactional lens. Taking an overly transactional approach to foreign policy and how we define our national interests sells us short," the PM said during an address to the Asia Society Australia, establishing his central thesis for Australia's engagement with the Indo-Pacific.

The PM's statements were reinforced by Defence Minister Christopher Pyne, who said, "Part of our Defence Strategy is to step up both the posture and the tempo of our engagement in the region using Australian capability and influence to shape it. We want to be a good neighbour and we want to safeguard the peace and prosperity of that neighbourhood. Last year when I became Minister for Defence, I outlined where we must focus our efforts to better promote security and stability in the Indo-Pacific."

Balancing defence and economic development: Responding to China

Australia’s growing economic and strategic pivot to the Pacific provides new opportunities for Australian businesses of all shapes and sizes as the nation continues to invest in both regional infrastructure and defence capability to ensure the enduring peace, prosperity and stability of "our patch".

The growing strategic, economic and political competition between China, the US, Japan and Australia has served as a central point of concern for the Prime Minister and the broader Australian government's position and policy response to the shifting balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. 

In response, the government's 'Pacific step-up' doctrine serves as the basis of the Coalition government's response to the rise of China in the nation's geo-strategic backyard – the 'Pacific step-up' program incorporates a range of key capability building, infrastructure development and aid programs, namely: 

  • Enhanced regional economic collaboration and integration through investment in key infrastructure and economic drivers, like communications networks; and
  • Regional strategic partnerships and alliances to promote transparent dialogue and amicable strategic relations.

Minister Pyne announced the signing of the MoU between Australia and Papua New Guinea to develop the Lombrum Naval Base and the planned development of Blackrock Camp to serve as a regional capability development centre for police and peacekeeping training in Nadi, Fiji. 

Australia will also provide training and infrastructure upgrades to support the domestic security and defence capabilities of regional partners like Fiji, PNG and Vanuatu, with the Prime Minister outlining an expansion of the island nation’s police force and the appointment of a new Australian defence adviser in Vanuatu.

In responding to growing domestic and regional concerns about China's continuing reclamation of land in the South China Sea, the growing military assertiveness throughout the region and colonisation through debt, the Prime Minister was clear in saying that the government was committed to strengthening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with China to avoid potential hostilities. 

Furthering these comments, Prime Minister Morrison was quick to state that while the Australia-China relationship was critical to ensuring regional peace and security, the relationship between the rising superpower and the US was the most pivotal bilateral relationship to ensuring continuing peace and prosperity in the region, and that of Australia. 

"Inevitably, in the period ahead, we will be navigating a higher degree of US-China strategic competition. A strong America – centrally engaged in the affairs of our region – is critical to Australia’s national interests. At the same time, it is important that US-China relations do not become defined by confrontation," the PM said at the time. 

Opposition's commitment to strengthen Defence

With the potential for a change in government, both the Coalition and Labor have sought to establish a bipartisan approach to Australia's changing geo-strategic environment – while retiring-Defence Minister Christopher Pyne continued to reinforce the Coalition's established position, opposition defence spokesman Richard Marles has outlined Labor's approach, telling Paul Maley from The Australian, "It’s absolutely essential that we transform our relationship with the Pacific, and we do so with the right motivation."

Building on this, Mr Marles reinforced the need to hit the 'reset' button on engaging with Beijing while building on Labor's commitment to maintaining Australia's defence expenditure at 2 per cent of GDP as key components of Australia's commitment to the Pacific.

The opposition's commitment has seen federal Labor commit to the construction of three major naval ships in WA – echoing the commitment made by the Coalition – with Labor adding a commitment for each Australian-owned defence industry company that:

  • Employs more than a thousand people globally in defence industries;
  • Is high-tech in nature and is producing intellectual property of significant value in Australia; and
  • Earns the majority of its revenue from defence industry exports,

will be designated as an Australian defence industry prime.

Finally, Shorten and Marles announced the first review of Australia's force posture since 2012. Labor has recognised that "the world looks different from when Australia’s last force posture review was undertaken by the former Labor government in 2011-12. We now face the most challenging set of strategic circumstances since the Second World War".

Labor said the review would consider whether the ADF personnel, infrastructure and assets are correctly geographically positioned to meet our future strategic challenges.

Since the last Force Posture Review, there have been two Defence White Papers and a bi-partisan commitment to spending 2 per cent of GDP on Defence, including the acquisition of 72 joint striker fighters, 12 submarines, 12 offshore patrol vessels, nine frigates, 21 pacific patrol boats and 211 combat reconnaissance vehicles.

Marles and Labor have also committed to conducting a review of the $50 billion SEA 1000 Attack Class submarine program. Marles has in the past raised concerns about the future viability of the submarine as a strategic deterrence platform, which appears to be the core premise of any proposed review into the Future Submarine Program. 

While any proposed pause to the project as identified by Marles during his interview with The Australian would serve to delay the acquisition program, his previous commentary reinforces Labor's commitment to delivering the Attack Class, while highlighting the opposition's promise to minimise any capability gaps, should it become apparent one is unavoidable.

"In thinking through the issue of preventing a capability gap arising, attention must not only be given to the submarine itself, but also to the critical need to train the large number of extra submariners we will need for them," he said.

This focus also supports Marles' commentary around the Future Submarine Program, which has remained consistently focused on ensuring that the platform delivered would provide the ADF with the strategic deterrence capabilities promised, Australian industry with certainty, and Australian tax payers with a value-for-money platform capable of performing the roles government requires. 

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Election campaign reveals two nuanced approaches to Australia’s Pacific defence strategy
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