Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash – driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm.
From the South China Sea (SCS) to the increasing hostilities between India, Pakistan and China in the Kashmir region of the Himalayas, the Indo-Pacific's changing paradigm, combined with the growing economic, political and strategic competition between the US and China, continued sabre rattling and challenges to regional and global energy supplies travelling via the Persian Gulf and an increasingly resurgent Russia all serve to challenge the global and regional order.
For Australia, a nation that has long sought to balance the paradigms of strategic independence and strategic dependence – dependent on strategic relationships with global great powers, beginning with the British Empire and now the US – the rapidly evolving order has prompted increasing discussion about the nation and its role and responsibilities as a strategic anchor in the Indo-Pacific.
Recognising this, Labor MP Peter Khalil has echoed the growing commentary about Australia and its position in the region, calling for Australia to play a larger role in mediating and mitigating tensions between the US and China – inadvertently calling for Australia to play a greater economic, political and strategic role in the broader Indo-Pacific.
"Australia no longer suffers the tyranny of distance. In fact, it's the inverse now. We are right in the middle of the centre of what is going to be important for a peaceful and prosperous latter half of the 21st century," Khalil said to The Sydney Morning Herald.
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.
This state of 'strategic dependence' has placed Australia at a disadvantage and entrenched a belief that the nation is both incapable of greater independent tactical and strategic action and must consistently support the designs and ambitions of great powers, with little concern for the broader impact on Australia and its national interests as a form of insurance.
In contrast, 'strategic independence' does not preclude great power relationships or strategic partnerships – what it does do is define Australia's unique national interests and areas of responsibility – while also providing the avenue and impetus for Australia to take direct control of its strategic, political and economic future at a period of unprecedented upheaval.
Australia's role as an 'honest broker'
Establishing Australia as an 'honest broker' requires renewed focus on establishing economic and strategic independence – that is, ensuring that Australia is not solely dependent on any one nation for its economic prosperity and stability and is not solely dependent on any one great power for its long-term strategic security.
This does not preclude Australia's participation in global alliances or an isolation from the global economy, rather it requires the development of a uniquely Australian strategy, in a similar manner to the National Security Strategy concept identified by former General and NSW senator Jim Molan – which recognises that that from the 'hard power' realm military and economic power and influence go 'hand in glove' and are intrinsically linked to the enduring success of such designs.
Economic diversity – that is targeting the remaining 2.5 billion people of the Indo-Pacific region who are eager to develop and enjoy a Western standard of living – supports the economic development of a diverse, 'globally competitive' economy serves to enhance the strategic weight of a nation.
As a nation, Australia is unlike any other. The continent enjoys a virtually unrivalled wealth of resources, including iron ore, coal, rare earth elements, uranium, natural gas, copper and is home to one of the most robust, yet underdeveloped industrial bases in the 'developed world' – the nation also enjoys a world-leading agriculture sector, one hindered by reliable access to water and, as expressed by speakers at an ABCC panel, a highly competitive, driven and dedicated labour force that has fallen victim to enduring stigma around competitiveness.
Further amplifying this potential is Australia's geographic position at the cross roads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans – sharing long-standing economic partnerships with the rapidly growing economies of the region – which have voracious demands for energy, resources, agricultural and consumer goods and an overwhelming desire to enjoy a 'Western' standard of living.
From the military perspective, robust debate is critical to identifying the roles and capabilities Australia needs to develop in order to complement the capabilities of the US – while also focusing on establishing and maintaining Australia's capacity to act independently in defence of its own unique economic, political and strategic interests and ambitions in the Indo-Pacific.
Doing so requires a holistic review of the size, doctrine and force structure of the Australian Defence Force and a frank discussion about the strategic realities of the Indo-Pacific and the changing economic, political and strategic environment not just of today, but equally in 20 years time.
It won't be an easy sell for both Australia's political leadership and the public at large, however the costs of not investing in and adequately developing the nation's capacity to act as an independent actor – with its own economic, political and strategic designs in the Indo-Pacific, the region intrinsically linked to our own enduring prosperity, security and stability – will spell disaster for modern Australia and the standards of living many have become accustomed to.
History has been defined by the ambitions and conflagrations of 'great powers'. Great powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower tier middle and minor powers, including a complementary balance of 'hard' and 'soft' power dynamics such as military and economic strength and diplomatic and cultural influence.
While the definition between superpowers and great powers has become increasingly blurred since the end of the Cold War – the now clear delineation between great powers like the UK, France and Germany, and to a lesser extent a resurgent Russia and Japan, and established global superpowers like the US and emerging superpower China, makes the definition increasingly flexible.
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.