Australia’s earliest strategic relationship with the British Empire established a foundation of dependence that would characterise all of the nation’s future defence and national security relationships both in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world. As British power slowly declined following the First World War and the US emerged as the pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power during the Second World War, Australia became dependent on 'Pax Americana' or the American Peace.
The growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, all contribute to the changing balance of economic, political and strategic power in the Indo-Pacific.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia’s northern borders, has largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern. Meanwhile, Australia’s strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
Prior to establishing a new paradigm and priorities, it is critical to understand the nation’s history of strategic policy making and the key priorities that have defined Australia's position in the Indo-Pacific since federation – traditionally, Australia’s strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:
- Guaranteeing the enduring benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner – via continued support of their strategic ambitions;
- The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the 'tyranny of distance';
- A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
- Increasingly, the geopolitical, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours.
The latest round of the annual AUSMIN meetings between the US secretaries of state and defense and the Australian ministers for foreign affairs and defence engage in a series of high-level dialogue to discuss the issues facing the two nations, with focus firmly placed on the Indo-Pacific and the rising economic, political and geo-strategic competition in the region.
"Minister [for Foreign Affairs Marise] Payne and Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo agreed that our alliance today is more vital than ever, with our work together in the Indo-Pacific region the clear, shared focus," the joint media statement declared.
"The ministers and secretaries emphasised the need for an increasingly networked structure of alliances and partnerships to maintain an Indo-Pacific that is secure, open, inclusive and rules-based; and where nations conduct themselves in ways that enhance regional stability, reinforce international law, and respect the sovereignty of all countries. Both countries stand ready to work with all nations to strengthen a regional order based on these principles."
Renewed focus maintaining regional rule of law
Australia has long maintained its commitments to the global and regional 'rules based order' underpinned by the US since the end of the Cold War – this commitment was a prominent focus of the joint meeting, as both the US and Australian representatives expanded the focus on the Indo-Pacific region to include a growing focus on developing regional alliances, while furthering the need to expand global alliances:
"Australia and the United States underscored their shared commitment to the security, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. Minister Payne and Secretary Pompeo welcomed ASEAN’s recent ‘Outlook on the Indo-Pacific’, which shares many of the underlying principles identified in our respective visions for the region, and discussed ways to support ASEAN in implementing its outlook. Both nations reaffirmed their strong support for ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN-led regional architecture, underlining the value of the East Asia Summit as the region’s premier leaders-led forum for addressing political and security challenges," the joint media statement said.
"The principals shared a commitment to deepen co-operation with a range of partners, including with Japan and India, and welcomed the recent Trilateral Strategic Dialogue and Trilateral Defence Ministerial meetings as ways to advance trilateral policy co-ordination. The ministers and secretaries also welcomed the increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific by the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the EU, and expressed their readiness to further boost co-operation on development, infrastructure investment and defence co-operation."
Strengthening Australian-US defence co-operation
The alliance between the US and Australia has been one of the key linchpins responsible for the enduring period of post-Second World War era of peace, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific and serves as one of the key touch points supporting the joint development of interoperable capabilities. Both Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and new Defense Secretary Mark Esper highlighted the continued importance of the special defence relationship between the two nations.
"Minister Reynolds and Secretary Esper emphasised the importance of Australia-US defence co-operation in the Indo-Pacific region – including through enhanced defence engagement and capacity building with partners in south-east Asia and the Pacific," the joint media statement said.
"Minister Reynolds and Secretary Esper underscored the importance of fostering closer industry partnership to safeguard supply chains through programs such as the Joint Strike Fighter. They noted Australia’s inclusion in the US National Technology Industrial Base will strengthen their respective industrial bases and collaboration into the future.
"They also welcomed a major milestone in the Force Posture Initiatives, as the rotational deployment of US Marines in Darwin has reached 2,500 personnel in 2019. The principals emphasised the value of Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) in strengthening the alliance, and in deepening engagement with regional partners."
The development of joint defence capabilities and next-generation technologies on the back the relatively successful collaboration on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, among others, served as critical examples of the relationship between the two nations, with both Minister Reynolds and Secretary Esper committing to furthering the defence industrial collaboration between the two partners moving forward.
"Minister Reynolds and Secretary Esper affirmed their commitments to strengthening defence collaboration in science and technology, from research and development to missile defence, as well as co-ordinating security cooperation with partners in the region through joint training and exercise opportunities," the joint media statement said.
The ADF serves an important role within Australia’s policy making apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and while the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia’s commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.
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 South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.