Growing concerns about the capacity of the US to act as a strategic balancer in the region have prompted emerging and established allies to scramble for continued certainty, paving the way for Australia to work collaboratively with regional partners and independently to establish a strategic umbrella to secure the nation’s strategic priorities.
Global history has been defined by the competing economic, political and strategic ambitions and the ensuing conflagrations of “great powers” as these interests bring them into direct, kinetic confrontation with one another.
These nations 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 on the global geo-strategic order.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.
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.
Tactical and strategic realities, largely the nation's dependence on a 'great power' benefactor, have ensured that Australia and its regional neighbours have enjoyed the stability afforded to them by the strategic umbrella of the UK, prior to the Second World War and the US in the aftermath.
Despite this, the nation has at times exercised a degree of tactical and strategic independence within the confines of this umbrella, which empowered Australia to directly engage 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.
This 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, known as the 'sea-air gap', effectively limiting the nation's capacity to act as an offshore balancer.
Many would rightfully argue that following the relative decline and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of American hegemony throughout the world, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, this was a prudent step as Australia positioned itself as a key benefactor of the American peace, with minor constabulary responsibilities.
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.
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.
Each of these missions were further followed by subsequent humanitarian and disaster relief deployments throughout the region, each stretching the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to juggle multiple concurrent operations.
However, the rise of China as a peer or near-peer competitor, driven by an unprecedented economic miracle and corresponding military build up and overt pursuit of its territorial ambitions, coupled with the relative decline of the US as a reliable tactical and strategic benefactor, has caught many Indo-Pacific nations off guard.
Key to this is ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre academic Stephan Frühling's analysis of Australia's changing strategic priorities and how the nation needs to adapt in response to the three main priorities of the 21st century:
"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.
Balancing priorities but preparing for the worst
Each of these individual priorities are defined by the period of competition Australia finds itself at the epicentre of – each of which could be addressed through the development of Australia's own strategic umbrella working collaboratively with key regional partners including Vietnam, Indonesia, India and as part of the Pacific Step-up program.
These regional partnerships, including expanded relationships with the likes of South Korea and Japan, serve as critical force multipliers, enabling the nation to act independently or collaboratively in the region.
Regional frameworks like ASEAN and SEATO are organisations that have long been sceptical of Australia's place in the region. However, given the increasing assertiveness of China in the region, particularly its territorial ambitions and illegal reclaimations in the South China Sea, these frameworks will serve as a key linkage between the partners.
The symbiotic economic, political and strategic partnerships between the nations, in conjunction with concerns about the increasing power of China and the decline or distraction of the US, necessitates the emergence of a new provider of the traditional strategic umbrella – a nation with skin in the game and one who respects the international order all nations have become wealthy off.
Australia is well positioned to serve in that capacity, and must be prepared to do so while preparing for the worst possible scenario as identified by Frühling: 'major war'.
Responsibility sharing – working with Japan
While much has been made about the growing capabilities of China's seemingly impregnable anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) network rapidly developing throughout the Indo-Pacific, organisations like the University of Sydney-based United States Studies Centre (USSC) identify the continued importance of the power of interoperability between Australian and Japanese platforms.
"The fact that Japan and Australia will have a combined total of 20 major surface combatants equipped with sophisticated Aegis missile defence systems will permit them to play a crucial warfighting role in degrading and blunting missile strikes against immobile allied targets. Major surface combatants from Australia and Japan could also play critical roles in facilitating and escorting coalition amphibious operations to reverse Chinese territorial gains, or providing missile defence for forces providing offensive operations," the USSC said.
"Australian and Japanese naval and maritime air forces can also make significant contributions to coalition strategic anti-submarine warfare operations. Large-scale, co-ordinated and networked ASW campaigns remain a critical area of asymmetric advantage for coalition forces in the Indo-Pacific ... Over the next decade, the Royal Australian Air Force will operate up to 15 P-8s, while the JMSDF will have 70 P-1s in its inventory.
"Australia’s surface vessel recapitalisation is also adding sophisticated ASW capability to the entire feet, with nine new ASW frigates, towed-array sonars for the new destroyers and 24 MH-60 Romeo maritime helicopters. Taken together, these capabilities mean that Tokyo and Canberra will possess a genuinely credible capability to bring to bear in any major ASW campaign in the Indo-Pacific — finding, tracking and, if necessary, countering Chinese submarines as part of an overall defensive strategy of deterrence by denial."
However, Japan, like South Korea and China, has begun a rapid period of naval aviation capability modernisation and expansion with the approval of 42 F-35 aircraft to form the basis of the island nation's growing power projection and amphibious warfare capabilities — this acquisition flies in direct contradiction to Japan's post-World War II constitution.
As part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's commitment towards shifting the paradigm following continued Chinese naval build up – particularly the growing capabilities of China's aircraft carrier and amphibious warfare ship fleets – Japan has initiated a range of modernisation and structural refits for the Izumo Class vessels to develop small aircraft carriers capable of supporting airwings of 28 rotary-wing aircraft, with capacity for approximately 10 'B' variants of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines.
The smaller Hyuga Class vessels, weighing in at 19,000 tonnes, are capable of supporting an airwing of 18 rotary-wing aircraft, with space for amphibious units and supporting equipment. Additionally, it is speculated that like their larger Izumo Class cousins, the Hyuga and sister Ise, can be modified to accommodate the F-35B.
Supporting this, PM Abe's government plans to operate a fleet of approximately 147 fifth-generation aircraft, including the 42 'B' variant STOVL F-35 aircraft, in a similar manner to American amphibious warfare ships and the UK's Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.
The introduction of these capabilities will directly support Japan's long-range maritime strike, air interdiction and fleet aviation capabilities, which are critical to defending Japanese territorial and economic interests in Indo-Pacific Asia.
These vessels, in conjunction with smaller Osumi Class transports, will also play host to the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force's (JGSDF) 'Amphibious Rapid Deployment' brigade – a specially developed amphibious unit similar to US Marine Expeditionary Units designed to defend Japanese interests in the South China Sea, namely the Senkaku Islands, which have served as a flash point between the two nations.
Each of these platform acquisitions, capability developments and force structure developments serve to complement the burgeoning capabilities currently being developed by the ADF – meanwhile, the long post-war economic, strategic and political partnership between Australia and Japan serves as a firm bedrock upon which to build a strategic umbrella.
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."
Australia 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”.