Australia has long been identified as a 'de facto member of NATO' and has emerged as one of the Cold War-era strategic partnership's key global allies essential to supporting the preservation of the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order.
The nation's relationship echoes 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.
Australia's relationship with both the UK and US served to position the nation well within the broader global alliance framework that supported NATO during the Cold War and has continued to serve as one of Australia's linchpin strategic relationships within the post-Cold War balance of power. This relationship has been further enhanced as a result of joint operations against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Australia's support of US-led operations in Iraq and against ISIS in the Middle East, which has seen Australian personnel operating with NATO member nations.
Recognising this long-standing relationship, combined with the growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – and 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.
While 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 – new Australian Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, has moved to strengthen the unique relationship Australia shares with NATO.
Friendship enhanced by shared experiences in the Middle East
Australia's partnership with NATO has come to the fore in recent years with the increased interoperability and joint operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in particular serving as the key focus point of strengthening the relationship between Australia and NATO in the form of a new Cooperative Agreement.
Both Minister Reynolds and Stoltenberg highlighted the importance of operations in the Middle East and the role they have played in supporting the strengthening of the relationship – with growing joint concerns about the increasing security threats emerging in the Persian Gulf driven by a deteriorating situation between Iran and the US.
"We are extremely, of course, concerned about the situation in the Strait of Hormuz, and all allies are also concerned about the destabilising activities of Iran in the region, its support to different terrorists groups, its missile program, and all allies also agree that Iran should never be able to develop any nuclear weapons. Freedom of navigation is extremely important for NATO, for NATO allies," Stoltenberg said.
"Some NATO allies are already present in the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf – the United States, United Kingdom, and some others. There's no NATO presence as such, but of course, we are following the situation very closely because freedom of navigation is of course important for NATO.
"This is actually my first visit to Australia as the Secretary General of NATO, and Australia is a highly valued partner for the alliance, and we are extremely grateful for the support you provide to different NATO missions and operations in Afghanistan, the training in Iraq, but also the help you provide to our activities supporting Ukraine."
Minister Reynolds expanded on this focus and the growing importance the Cooperative Agreement aims to play in calming tensions in the Middle East, while promoting freedom of navigation in the strategically vital waterways, saying, "As the Secretary-General has said, in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Iraq. But also discussing our – a common interest in our own region in the Indo-Pacific. There's a lot of opportunity for us to work together – with NATO – your 29 member countries.
"I can reiterate that the Australian government remains very concerned about the increased tensions in the Strait of Hormuz, and we are considering the American request, and also now the request from the United Kingdom, but we have not yet made any decision."
Strengthening supply chain and R&D
As technology has evolved and become increasingly complex and dependent upon strategic resources like rare earth elements (REE), an area dominated by potential peer competitor China, the joint participation in maritime security, freedom of navigation and combined with the increasing prominence of asymmetric capabilities and 'grey zone' tactics figured as a core focus of the renewed Cooperative Agreement between Australia and NATO.
"Cyber is another a big challenge, it's a truly global challenge. And to exchange information, to exchange best practices, to learn from each other and also to have Australia participating in our big cyber exercises will benefit NATO, and hopefully also benefit Australia. And then also how we can look into how we can work together on developing new capabilities, again, important for Australia. So this is a framework, and then I think we have proven, and we will prove also in the years ahead that we are able to fill that with concrete activities," Stoltenberg added.
Minister Reynolds was quick to highlight the importance of the Cooperative Agreement and the strategic relationship, stating, "I'd also add, for us, this relationship with NATO is very important. Because as we all know, we are living in increasingly uncertain geo-strategic environments in both the Indo and the Pacific, and also to our south in the Southern Ocean. So for us, working with partners and longstanding allies who share our values is very, very important. And NATO practically, under this framework, is a single point of entry for us to 29 other valued allies. So this relationship is very important for us, as we deal with emerging challenges.
"Again, as the Secretary-General said, we also talked about space and cyber, and some other increasing challenges of how we can, in our own national interest, work with NATO to protect Australia.
"We discussed the issue of critical minerals and access to rare earths, and some of the other increasing issues that we've got together. So what it means is, we've said we're working very closely together, but we now have new challenges that we're both facing and that we think we need to work more closely together on."
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 broader global allies like NATO 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.