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Understanding Australia’s evolving and competing strategic priorities

Stephan Frühling’s second piece in a series of analyses delves into Australia’s role in an evolving geostrategic paradigm and the need for Australia’s next Defence White Paper and supporting Force Structure Review to identify and account for shifting strategic priorities in a period of regional disruption.

Stephan Frühling’s second piece in a series of analyses delves into Australia’s role in an evolving geostrategic paradigm and the need for Australia’s next Defence White Paper and supporting Force Structure Review to identify and account for shifting strategic priorities in a period of regional disruption.

Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flashpoints of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.

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Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities.  

The nation’s history of strategic policy has evolved a great deal since the end of the Second World War – when the nation was once directly engaged in regional strategic and security affairs, actively deterring aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam as part of the “Forward Defence” policy.

However, growing domestic political changes following Vietnam saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine

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The Defence of Australia doctrine advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches.

This shift towards focusing on the direct defence of the Australian mainland dramatically altered the nation’s approach to intervention in subsequent regional security matters, significantly impacting the capacity of Australia to carry out concurrent stabilising operations throughout the region. 

These included Australia’s intervention in East Timor and later, to a lesser extent, in the Solomon Islands and Fiji during the early to mid-2000s while the Australian Defence Force juggled concurrent, ongoing operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, exposing the limitations of the Vietnam-era doctrine and resulting force structure.

Each of these missions were further followed by subsequent ad hoc humanitarian and disaster relief deployments throughout the region, each further stretching the ADF’s capacity to juggle multiple concurrent operations. 

Further complicating the nation’s strategic capabilities is the evolution of modern warfare, with high-tempo, maneuver-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield yielding to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.

Adding further disruption to Australia’s post-Cold War strategic assessments, doctrine and force structure is the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, combined with a resurgent Russia, recalcitrant Iran and a myriad of traditional and asymmetric challenges.

This is largely the result of the increasing proliferation of key power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces – combined with growing political and financial influence of rising powers throughout the region is serving to shake up Australia’s way of thinking.

In response, ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre academic Stephan Frühling has built upon his earlier piece with an additional piece, “Reassessing Australia’s defence policy (part 2): What are our strategic priorities?” in which Frühling seeks to identify and articulate the changing nature of Australia’s strategic priorities in an era of global and regional disruption. 

Responding to an era of disruption

Frühling identifies the largely Cold War-era approach of Australia’s approach to developing strategic policy, force posture, employment and force structure as one of the sticking points for the nation as it seeks to navigate an increasingly disrupted Indo-Pacific. 

“A more fruitful approach takes inspiration from the distinction between the ‘cold war’, ‘limited war’ and ‘global war’ concepts found in the ‘strategic basis’ papers of the 1950s and 1960s – the last time Australian defence was primarily concerned with great-power conflict in the Indo-Pacific. 

“Strategy, and hence requirements for force structure, posture and employment, vary significantly across those concepts. So a key requirement for strategic policy is to establish priorities among what we would today call ‘competition’, ‘limited war’ and ‘major war’ – all three of which could arise from conflict with China,” Frühling identified. 

These three vastly different possibilities each present different challenges for Australia’s political and strategic leaders, with varying degrees of disruption for the national, regional and global economies, thus directly impacting Australia’s national security. 

An era of ‘competition’

The concept of “competition” can best be described as a period similar to that of the Cold War, which saw contained economic, political and strategic competition between rival superpowers and their array of allied proxies without or with limited direct kinetic conflagration. 

In the contemporary environment, such ‘competition includes a myriad of traditional and asymmetric variables, including grey zone actions, political warfare and cyber operations, each with their own impacts. 

Frühling said Australia’s response in such a period of “competition” is to: “influence third countries by demonstrating our ability and willingness to support their security concerns and establish our broader political position as their preferred security partner. That includes practical support, relationship-building and signalling – including through the deployment of force – to third countries and adversaries that Australia is willing to bear the cost of countering hostile influence.

Accordingly, Frühling identified Australia’s strategic objective as attaining “competitive influence, operational objectives and the types of forces required to operate forward would thus primarily reflect the partner country’s concerns (be they fisheries protection, counterterrorism or capacity-building for higher-intensity operations).

“The competitive aspect would largely be reflected in the need to be able to offer more, on more attractive economic and/or political terms, than China. It implies a geographical focus on the inner arc, where our need and ability to compete for influence are greatest.”

Limited war and the current status quo

Both Australia and the United States have for much of the 21st century been engaged in what can best be described as “limited war” with nation-state and asymmetric security threats, largely in the Middle East as the coalition sought to limit the capacity and efficacy of rogue state actors to impact regional and global economic, political and strategic security. 

However, the concept of limited war has dominated Australias strategic planning, force structure development and employment since the shift away from “Forward Defence” towards “Defence of Australia” in the aftermath of Vietnam with one key challenge in mind: Indonesia. 

This focus has enabled Australia to fulfil valuable roles as niche specialists within key joint task forces led by the United States, limiting the nations efficacy to operate independently, as was exhibited during the INTERFET operations in East Timor.

Frühling articulated this, stating, “From the 1970s, the possibility of limited war with Indonesia was Australia’s main concern, and it remains a valid consideration for self-reliance.

“Since the 2000s, the ADF’s ability to make meaningful contributions to joint task forces in US operations in limited war, in the Indo-Pacific or beyond, has increased – a posture further strengthened by the acquisition plans of the 2016 white paper.”

Building on this, the concept of limited war in an era of great power competition – against a belligerent China – requires a dramatically different approach by Australia in terms of response, attitude and strategic planning. 

“In a conflict with China, ‘limited’ objectives could be related to control of specific geographical features, such as in the South China Sea, or merely aim to teach a lesson, but would stop short of attempts at disarming the other side by targeting its ability to conduct major combat operations in the Western Pacific,” Frühling stated. 

Building on this, Frühling believes that limited war would require immediate deterrence, including the deployment of US and allied forces to make a credible threat of the use of force, effectively forcing Beijing to reassess the costs associated with pursuing its territorial, economic, political and strategic agenda through the first and second island chains with force. 

However, Frühling stated that in order to achieve this, Australia will be required to take a dramatically different approach to its strategic posture, with what amounts to a return to and enhancement of Forward Defence doctrine of the early Cold War-era. 

“For deterrence (and reassurance of third countries), Australia would need to operate forward, possibly for long periods, in a way that purposely would make it difficult to stand aside should conflict break out, especially with land forces, forward-based air forces and surface naval forces, and in political-military arrangements (such as joint standing task forces) that demonstrate political commitment.”

Major war and going ‘all in’ 

While not unavoidable and not predetermined, major conflict between two competing great powers – in this case, the United States and China – would undoubtedly present a major challenge to the Australian continent and its immediate regional interests ranging from the Persian Gulf through to the maritime lines of communication in the South China Sea and Western Pacific. 

Major conflict between the US and China would see, as Frühling stated, “the US and China would seek to destroy each other’s ability to oppose their own operations in the Indo-Pacific theatre, with the aim of being able to impose a post-war settlement on regional order. Major war would most likely arise as a result of escalation during limited war or from a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.”

For Frühling, he sees Australia’s role as one of an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for forward deployed US air and maritime forces, similar to the role it played during the Second World War operations against Imperial Japan.

In this eventuality, Frühling believes, “The main tasks of the ADF in major war would be to defend the continent of Australia as a base area for US long-range air and naval operations, including shipping to Europe and North America on which civilian life and the war effort would depend, and independent operations to shape the post-war settlement in our immediate neighbourhood, where the settlement matters more to us than to the US.

“Forward operations to our north would thus focus on submarines and anti-access/area-denial bubbles and independent raids to achieve specific objectives, rather than physical presence to demonstrate political commitment.

“Australian operational objectives and risk aversion would need to reflect the potentially existential nature of the conflict, accepting that the war’s termination and outcome overall would rest on the threat or use of US and Chinese nuclear forces.”

What this does require is a force composition radically different to the current and projected ADF as outlined in the 2016 Defence White Paper, raising important questions and challenges for Australias political and strategic decision makers.

Your thoughts

Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute summarised the predicament perfectly when he told Defence Connect: “We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.

“In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders.”

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, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, 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”.

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. 

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 increasing the budget, manpower and capabilities available to the ADF 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.

Understanding Australia’s evolving and competing strategic priorities
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