Since 2009, successive Australian governments have sought to slowly shift the nation’s focus away from the Middle East towards what has become known as the Indo-Pacific. As the driver of both economic and strategic competition the 21st century, Australia’s own region is increasingly central to the nation’s long-term national interests, but what constitutes the nation’s primary area of responsibility?
Australia emerged from the Second World War as a middle power, essential to maintaining the post-war economic, political and strategic power paradigm established and led by the US – this relationship, established as a result of the direct threat to Australia, replaced Australia's strategic relationship of dependence on the British Empire and continues to serve as the basis of the nation's strategic policy direction and planning.
However, as a nation Australia has often walked the line, balancing traditional middle power and minor power characteristics, which have served to exacerbate the partisan nature of the nation's strategic and defence policy making.
In particular, Australia has historically been dependent upon the benevolence of the broader international community, at both an economic and strategic level – this is most evident in two specific arenas, firstly the nation's continued economic dependence on China and strategic dependence on the US.
The emergence of economic, political and military superpowers like China and India continue to develop as the economic, political and strategic powers at the core of Indo-Pacific Asia. Additionally, Australia has also witnessed the development of the region’s periphery powers including Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, each with competing priorities and objectives, combined with the rise of complex asymmetric challenges to national security serving to challenge the established geo-political, economic and strategic security and prosperity of the region.
Recognising these factors, combined with the traditional understanding of the Indo-Pacific – which is defined as the biogeographic region encompassing the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean and the seas connecting the two in the general area surrounding Indonesia and Australia – what is Australia's primary area of responsibility?
Australia in the Asian century
While much of the post-Cold War focus had been on the Middle East, countering violent extremism and asymmetric threats like violent extremists and the growing prominence of organised criminal groups – the 2009 Defence White Paper identified "Australia’s enduring interest in the stability of what it called the wider Asia-Pacific region".
"The Indo-Pacific is a logical extension of this concept, and adjusts Australia’s priority strategic focus to the arc extending from India though south-east Asia to north-east Asia, including the sea lines of communication on which the region depends," it said.
Building on this recognition, Australia's 2013 Defence White Paper sought to expand the growing importance of the Indo-Pacific following a growing economic and strategic pivot by the US towards the region with a renewed focus on ensuring the peaceful rise of major Asian nations.
These developments have resulted in increasing suspicions towards China – particularly following Chinese assertiveness throughout the region, such as in the Taiwan Strait and the international waters of the South China Sea (SCS) – and has brought the rising power into contest with both the United Nations and the broader regional community.
While recognising the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, India is a major milestone, the 2013 Defence White Paper also recognised the growing importance of other regional powers including Japan, South Korea and Indonesia within the regional strategic power paradigm and Australia's continued engagement and role within the rapidly shifting sands of the Indo-Pacific.
"The emerging Indo-Pacific system is predominantly a maritime environment with south-east Asia at its geographic centre. The region’s big strategic challenges will last for decades and their mismanagement could have significant consequences ... For Australia, this more complex environment will make it more challenging for us to achieve or influence outcomes. Asian countries will balance a broader range of interests and partners, and Australia’s voice will need to be clearer and stronger to be heard," the 2013 Defence White Paper explained.
The rules-based order 2.0 and Australia's place in it
The 2016 Defence White Paper moved quickly to recognise the rapidly evolving nature of the economic, political and strategic status quo of the Indo-Pacific – the DWP correctly identifies: "Australia’s strategic outlook to 2035 also includes a number of challenges which we need to prepare for. While there is no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future, our strategic planning is not limited to defending our borders."
This clearly identifies a shift in the nation's attitude towards the Indo-Pacific.
"Our planning recognises the regional and global nature of Australia’s strategic interests and the different sets of challenges created by the behaviours of countries and non-state actors such as terrorists," it said.
This recognition was used as the basis for informing the acquisition and modernisation plans for the broader Australian Defence Force with a specific focus on modernising and recapitalising the Royal Australian Navy – incorporating Australia's defence capabilities within allied task groups based on the US remaining the pre-eminent global military power.
However, the rise of China and resurgence of Russia in particular, combined with the aforementioned emergence of other regional powers, is limiting the capability of the US to operate unencumbered or unchallenged, requiring Australia to rapidly develop and embrace a new strategic doctrine focusing on the nation's immediate strategic environment – from the south Pacific to the SCS through to the Diego Garcia islands in the Indian Ocean.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the SCS and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geo-political, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.