defence connect logo



Australia steps up regional power diplomacy with major naval deployments

Australia steps up regional power diplomacy with major naval deployments

The transformation of the Indo-Pacific provides the opportunity to develop a range of productive relationships with emerging great powers, enhancing Australias own economic, political and strategic capability. This recognition has sparked a flurry of Australian engagement with major regional partners, including Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

The transformation of the Indo-Pacific provides the opportunity to develop a range of productive relationships with emerging great powers, enhancing Australias own economic, political and strategic capability. This recognition has sparked a flurry of Australian engagement with major regional partners, including Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. 

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, economic and diplomatic 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 nations strategic and defence policymaking.


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  the nations 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 powers at the core of Indo-Pacific Asia, flanked by traditional established powers like Japan and South Korea.

Additionally, Australia has also witnessed the development of the region’s periphery powers, including Indonesia, Malaysia, 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 geopolitical, economic and strategic security and prosperity of the region.

Importantly, as Australias traditional strategic benefactors continue to face decline and comparatively capable peer competitors, the nations economic, political and strategic capability are intrinsically linked to the enduring security, stability and prosperity in an increasingly unpredictable region.

This approach fails to recognise the precarious position Australia now finds itself in. However, it does identify key areas for the nation’s political and strategic leaders to focus on if Australia is to establish a truly independent strategic capacity. This approach focuses largely on:

  • Australias continuing economic prosperity and stability and the role the economy plays in supporting defence capability;
  • the economic, political and strategic intentions of Australias Indo-Pacific neighbours; and
  • the rapidly evolving technology-heavy nature of contemporary warfare.

Recognising this, the Australian government, spearheaded by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and flanked by Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, has sought to expand the nation’s relationships with key emerging and established regional great powers, like Japan and Indonesia, and periphery nations like Malaysia to support Australia’s long-term engagement with the region. 

Building stronger friendships and flying the flag

Australia has long looked to larger powers as the guarantors of its economic, political and strategic security. However, as the global dynamics evolve, the nations enduring stability and prosperity will be increasingly dependent upon the strength, resilience and integration of its key relationships. This has been increasingly recognised by the Australian government and is forming the next stage of Australias evolving “middle power” diplomacy. 

Indonesia has long been a key consideration for Australian policymakers. The immense population, economic and strategic potential of the archipelagic nation, which straddles both the strategic and economically vital choke points of Malacca and Sunda and the South China Sea, presents equal challenges and opportunity for Australia to support and lead the development and expansion of critical, high-level dialogues.   

Recognising the importance of this relationship, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds highlighted major breakthroughs for the relationship following a series of joint naval exercises between the Indonesian and Royal Australian Navies, saying: “Australia and Indonesia are not only regional neighbours, but also crucial security partners in the Timor Sea and Indian Ocean. Every opportunity we get to work together deepens that partnership, which makes both of our nations more effective at conducting maritime patrols.”

Japan has long served as a critical strategic linchpin in the Pacific and both a stalwart economic and strategic partner for Australia in the Indo-Pacific, something recognised recently by the University of Sydney-based US Strategic Studies Centre (USSC) in a paper titled Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacificwhich makes a series of powerful recommendations for Australia furthering the level of interoperability between Australian and Japanese forces. 

The USSC identifies the growing need for capability aggregation and collective deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, with both Australia and Japan playing critical roles in balancing any decline in the US and its capacity to unilaterally project power, influence and presence throughout the region. 

“Prudent capability aggregation between the armed forces of Australia, Japan and the United States will be critical to addressing the shortfalls that America is likely to face in its military power over the coming years. The strategic purpose of such efforts should be to strengthen the collective capacity to deter prospective Chinese fait accompli aggression in strategically significant regional flashpoints, particularly along the First Island Chain and in the South China Sea,” the USSC paper identifies.

“Australia and Japan have credible roles to play in an Indo-Pacific collective balancing strategy. For capability aggregation to work, the United States must fully ‘read in’ allies like Australia and Japan, starting with more integrated intelligence sharing and evolving towards regional operational military planning. Establishing pathways towards joint operational directives are necessary building blocks for an effective denial strategy, as knowing how multinational forces will be employed in peacetime and war is critical to the reliability of the collective deterrent.”

Recognising this, the Royal Australian Navy will deploy a major naval task group lead by HMAS Hobart and joined by the Anzac Class frigates HMAS Parramatta and Stuart as well as a Navy submarine to participate in bilateral and multinational activities over the next four months.

Further supporting this, HMAS Stuart will later join the Armidale Class patrol boat HMAS Ararat, the replenishment ship HMAS Sirius, and the hydrographic survey ship HMAS Leeuwin during their deployment to south-east Asia.

The Anzac Frigate HMAS Arunta will then join Sirius in exercises with a range of regional partners, including Malaysia and Indonesia. Navy Mine Hunters HMAS Gascoyne and HMAS Diamantina will participate in international exercises for the final element of the task group.

“From high-end warfare exercises, port visits as well as cultural engagements, this major deployment demonstrates again Australia’s longstanding commitment to our partners and regional security,” Minister Reynolds said.

These are all potent reminders of how the Australian government is enhancing its presence, visibility and interoperability with major and emerging regional powers, but is it enough in the increasingly complex and challenging Indo-Pacific environment?

Your thoughts

As a nation, Australia is at a precipice, and both the Australian public and the nation’s political and strategic leaders need to decide what they want the nation to be: Do they want the nation to become an economic, political and strategic backwater caught between two competing great empires and a growing cluster of periphery great powers? Or does Australia “have a crack” and actively establish itself as a regional great power with all the benefits that entails? Because the window of opportunity is closing. 

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.

For Australia, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of expanding the nation's key economic, political and strategic relationships with nations like Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!