The perfect storm of factors is seeing the US military capability in the Indo-Pacific “atrophy” in the face of rising tactical and strategic challenges driven by China, which has prompted a sharp decline in US military primacy and calls from within the United States Studies Centre for Australia to begin a renewed period of reorientation towards the region.
Australia has long sought to balance the paradigms of strategic independence and strategic dependence – seemingly limited by a comparatively small population and industrial base, the pendulum has always swung more heavily towards a paradigm of dependence, however the changing nature of domestic and global affairs requires renewed consideration.
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 its 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.
Recognising the increasing confluence of challenges facing enduring US tactical and strategic primacy, the University of Sydney-based United States Studies Centre (USSC) has released a telling study, titled 'Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific', which makes a series of powerful recommendations for Australian and allied forces in the region.
Declining US capacity spells need for greater Australian capability
One of the core challenges facing the US in the Indo-Pacific and, more broadly, key allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea, is the growing atrophy of America's armed forces in the region, and the report cites a number of contributing factors directly impacting the capacity of the US to wage war, particularly as China, a peer competitor, presents an increasingly capable, equipped and well funded array of platforms, doctrine and capabilities.
"America has an atrophying force that is not sufficiently ready, equipped or postured for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific — a challenge it is working hard to address. Twenty years of near-continuous combat and budget instability has eroded the readiness of key elements in the US Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. Military accidents have risen, ageing equipment is being used beyond its lifespan and training has been cut," the study identifies.
"Military platforms built in the 1980s are becoming harder and more costly to maintain; while many systems designed for great power conflict were curtailed in the 2000s to make way for the force requirements of Middle Eastern wars — leading to stretched capacity and overuse."
The USSC spells out the one thing few of Australia's strategic policy thinkers and political leaders seem willing to come to terms with, beyond the radical fluctuations between doom and gloom scenarios: some of which range from a complete retreat by the US, leaving Australia and other regional allies alone, or a semi-retreat and focus on limiting risk to key American assets in the region.
In doing so, the USSC recognises that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable to, if not exceeding, that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies.
Whether consciously recognising the potential of this challenge or not, the US President's direct, often confrontational approach towards allies belies domestic concerns about America's ability to maintain the post-Second World War global order. Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) highlighted the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
Australia's need for strategic independence and strong alliances
Responding to these challenges requires an approach that recognises each of these factors are all part of national security policy. This includes a dedicated focus on developing a robust economic and industrial capacity – devoid of dependence on any single source of economic prosperity – while focusing on developing a robust and independently capable tactical and strategic military capability, supported by Australia's enduring diplomatic good will and relationships in the region.
These responses do not hinder Australia's economic growth or strategic stability – rather, if developed, communicated and implemented correctly they support the economic growth, diversity and development of the nation, building on a record period of economic growth and prosperity, providing flow on benefits for Australia's strategic capacity to act as an independent strategic benefactor.
The USSC highlights a suite of suggestions for Australian strategic policy and its political leaders to consider to position Australia as an increasingly capable and invaluable ally committed to supporting and defending the global and, more specifically, the Indo-Pacific's rules-based order: "A strategy of collective defence is fast becoming necessary as a way of offsetting shortfalls in America’s regional military power and holding the line against rising Chinese strength. To advance this approach, Australia should:
- Pursue capability aggregation and collective deterrence with capable regional allies and partners, including the United States and Japan.
- Reform US-Australia alliance co-ordination mechanisms to focus on strengthening regional deterrence objectives.
- Rebalance Australian defence resources from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific.
- Establish new, and expand existing, high-end military exercises with allies and partners to develop and demonstrate new operational concepts for Indo-Pacific contingencies.
- Acquire robust land-based strike and denial capabilities.
- Improve regional posture, infrastructure and networked logistics, including in northern Australia.
- Increase stockpiles and create sovereign capabilities in the storage and production of precision munitions, fuel and other materiel necessary for sustained high-end conflict.
- Establish an Indo-Pacific Security Workshop to drive US-allied joint operational concept development.
- Advance joint experimental research and development projects aimed at improving the cost-capability curve."
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.
The nation is uniquely located, straddling both the Indian and Pacific Ocean at the very edge of south-east Asia, enhancing the nation's status as the key regional ally for the US – with Australia increasingly dependent upon the economic stability and growth of major established and emerging economic, political and strategic Indo-Pacific powers, namely China, Japan, India, Korea and smaller nations.
Recognising this, 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.
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.