Power projection has historically been the domain of superpowers and their smaller yet equally important great power counterparts. However, the rapidly shifting global security paradigm driven by the economic, political and strategic rise of nations like China and India, combined with the emergence and in some cases re-emergence of nations including Russia, Japan, Germany and Brazil, is serving to reshape the power projection dynamic.
In a traditional sense, the US Department of Defense defines power projection as the capacity of a state “to apply all or some of its elements of national power – political, economic, informational or military – to rapidly and effectively deploy and sustain forces in and from multiple dispersed locations to respond to crises, to contribute to deterrence, and to enhance regional stability”.
Australia’s position in the international community as a 'middle power' committed to the maintenance of the post-Second World War geopolitical, economic and strategic order places the nation in a precarious position as the strategic power projection capabilities of its primary security partner, the US, is challenged by the competing interests and near-peer capabilities of China.
As part of Australia’s position in the global and regional order, both hard and soft power are equally important means of securing Australia’s national interests.
In the Indo-Pacific, the Australian government has sought to balance traditional concepts of hard and soft power with the introduction of the 'Pacific Step-up' program, focusing on supporting the economic, political and cultural development of Australia’s Pacific island family.
Expanding the economic relationship and opportunities
The nation’s commitment to the Pacific region, however, is based on more than just its recent stabilisation and intervention operations, rather, Australia has, as outlined in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, sought to re-engage with the Pacific and ensure that it remains one of the nation’s highest foreign and defence policy priorities.
"The government that I have the privilege to lead is returning the Pacific to where it should be – front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook, our foreign policy, our personal connections, including at the highest levels of government," Prime Minister Morrison said in November 2018.
Prime Minister Morrison recently announced an expansion of Australia's economic and cultural ties with the south Pacific islands, saying, "Recognising the strong cultural and economic significance that kava has for Pacific communities, including those living in Australia, the Australian government is stepping up its commitment to the Pacific by launching a kava pilot program.
"During my visit to Vanuatu in January, I agreed to examine if and how Australia might ease some of the limitations on importation of kava into Australia. I also discussed this issue in Fiji earlier this year. Today I was pleased to inform Prime Minister [Frank] Bainimarama that as part of a pilot program, Australia will double the amount of kava that can be imported for personal use from two kilograms to four kilograms by the end of 2019.
"Australia will also commence a pilot program for the commercial importation of kava by the end of 2020. Australian officials have also advised Vanuatu and other Pacific partners of this discussion today. This is a win for both Australia and our Pacific family."
Responding to China's growing Pacific presence
As China's position within the global order has evolved and its ambitions towards the Indo-Pacific, in particular, have become increasingly apparent, the Chinese government, driven by an extremely ambitious leader, President Xi Jinping, has identified a number of factors of both 'internal' and 'external' concern for the rising superpower's status.
These 'concerns' extend to traditional areas of Chinese focus, namely central Asia, Tibet and the Taiwan situation, and more concerning for nations like Australia, the south Pacific and south-east Asia – further compounding these issues is America's resurgence, characterised by what China describes as: "intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability".
In response, the Australian government and Prime Minister Morrison have kicked off the renewed 'Pacific Step-up' program to counter the growing economic, political and diplomatic influence of China as a result of the growing expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – the Lowy Institute identified the growing power and influence China's BRI program has in supporting the Pacific.
"Infrastructure remains a crucial requirement for ensuring resilience in the Pacific. Considering the opportunities for collective engagement with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) merit careful analysis and discussion, particularly given that nine forum member countries have already signed bilateral memoranda of understanding to co-operate with China on the BRI," it said.
The Prime Minister has used the Pacific Islands Forum to reiterate Australia’s commitment to the Pacific and its enduring presence as a Pacific nation, saying, "As we come together here at the Pacific Islands Forum, it’s very different, you know, to many of the other forums there are around the world because it is truly a family gathering. And whether we say family as kāiga, or we say it is as whānau, or we say it as vuvale, or however we talk about it, that’s what it is. And when families come together, they talk about the stuff that matters, that’s most important to them.
"And over the next few days, that’s exactly what we’ll be doing. We’ll be talking about the future of our environment. We’ll be talking about the future of our economies. We’re going to talk about what is talked about in every single family in the world, how our kids are going to get jobs, and what jobs they’re going to have in the future, and how we’re going to make sure that that happens. And that’s a particularly big challenge here in the Pacific with such a large youth population and a growing youth population. We want to make sure they have the skills for the jobs that they’re going to need."
The Prime Minister’s statements build on a number of addresses made in the past 12 months, beginning with his "The Beliefs that Guide Us" address to the Asia Society Australia and his address to the APEC CEO summit, during which the Prime Minister identified two interconnected key areas for Australian focus, namely:
- Enhanced regional economic collaboration and integration through investment in key infrastructure and economic drivers, like communications networks; and
- Regional strategic partnerships and alliances to promote transparent dialogue and amicable strategic relations.
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
Australia’s pivot to the Pacific provides new opportunities for Australian businesses of all shapes and sizes as the nation continues to invest in both regional infrastructure and defence capability to ensure the enduring peace, prosperity and stability of "our patch".
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition? Further to this, without adding a degree of cynicism to the debate, what is China's end goal for this focus on Australia's backyard?