There are few, if any, countries that will not suffer significant fallout from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak not just in economic terms, but also geopolitical. Are there silver linings to a pandemic, in terms of regional security?
The ‘Lucky Country’, as Australia is often known, has long benefited from geographic isolation in times of strife. However, as China’s giant economic engine begins to turn once again; and as the traditional Pacific watchdog, the US, presumably pulls away to focus on internal difficulties associated with both the outbreak and the November elections, it seems imminent that we will find ourselves at the leading edge of Sino-Western tensions, alone.
Many pundits have long argued that, in the wake of increasingly isolationist American rhetoric, we should look to the other ‘quad’ partners to bolster Pacific security; namely Japan and India. Defence Connect recently reported that senior foreign ministry officials from these nations have been meeting bi-monthly, and that the grouping has also demonstrated a drive towards integration through ministerial meetings and a timely tabletop exercise.
Writing in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, ANU research fellow Dr David Brewster makes the case that the Indian military is undergoing its most significant restructuring since the days of British colonialism. This reshuffling, he argues, could serve as but one example of how a unified and more effective Indian fighting force could dovetail with Australia’s interests in the Pacific, post-pandemic.
Moreover, he suggests that tight civilian reign over the country’s military has left the Indian command structure uniquely fractured. Unlike most regional players, India has never been subject to a coup or any form of considerable military influence since gaining independence from the British; the theory goes that this has led to India’s service branches operating under a splintered command system more typical of government bureaucracy. The country’s Army and Air Force each maintain separate Western, Central, and Eastern Commands (with headquarters located in separate locations, to boot).
However, Brewster suggests that the appointment of General Bipin Rawat to India’s inaugural Chief of Defence Staff could serve to rectify these issues. If he is right, all this looks set to change in the months to come, which could serve to bolster Australian national interest if managed appropriately through diplomatic channels.
Engaging directly with unified theatre commands – for example, India’s Naval Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands – plays into both notions of Australia’s ‘Pacific pivot,’ as well as the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ more specifically.
Brewster does, however, note causes for a more pessimistic take. According to his piece, the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to further curb growth in Indian military spending, which has already lagged on the back of a weak national economy.
“We should assume that there will likely be major cuts in defence spending,” he writes, “in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.”
Of particular note from an Australian perspective, however, is the Navy’s shrinking budget. If we are to look west for security partnerships, it only makes sense to look to nations that seek to project air or sea power internationally. Much of the Indian military budget is swallowed up by a bloated ground force – of over 1 million active personnel, and nearly as much in reserve. The Navy's share of an already shrinking defence budget amounted to 13 per cent for last fiscal year; in comparison, the service branch received 18 per cent of overall allocation for the year 2012-13. As Brewster is all too aware, it may seem premature to assume that the Indian Navy can be relied on as a lynchpin of Australian regional interest in the Pacific.
But what of Japan, and other Asian powers? Since Australia signed the Memorandum of Joint Defence Cooperation in 2008, we have enjoyed strong bilateral relations with the country. As an island nation with a cultural bond to the maritime, it is little surprise that the country operates a robust Navy, and is able to project power beyond its borders accordingly. As tensions have grown in the country’s immediate neighbourhood (most importantly, the South China Sea flashpoint), Japan’s diplomatic commitment to sea control and denial has scaled proportionately – and so too, the size and capability of the Maritime Self-Defense Force.
After completing a thorough review in December of 2018, Japan released its ‘National Defense Program Guidelines’ (NDPG) and ‘Medium-Term Defense Plan’ (MTDP). Widely praised by hawks and doves alike, the papers detail an emphasis on interoperability and threats in the Pacific domain – both of which would signify a willingness to co-operate with Australia on regional security matters.
Not to be missed in this discussion is the heavy dependence of Japan and South Korea on the US as a protective power. Shopworn arguments about the ‘nuclear umbrella’ and the DPRK aside, both nations rely heavily on US Pacific Command to direct freedom-of-navigation operations (FNOPS) and other shows of force in an attempt to soften Beijing’s stance in the region, and reiterate commitments to mutual defence should the flashpoint boil over.
Though it is as yet unclear how the COVID-19 outbreak will impact US presence in the Pacific, the consensus is that the immediate and long-term effects will trigger a drawdown in overseas contingencies. One example of how the outbreak will make a difference on US power projection is the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is this week docked in the US dependency of Guam.
The vessel is currently home to roughly 5,000 personnel, and has been called on in recent years to conduct FNOPS in the South China Sea. However, ABC reported on Wednesday that the Roosevelt’s captain had put in a request to "isolate the bulk of his roughly 5,000 crew members on the Pacific island of Guam". This is, admittedly, an impact at the operational as opposed to policy level. But it is seen as indicative of a broader trend that is likely to unfold in the months to come, as Washington’s influence wanes and Beijing’s waxes.
At the same time, Chinese influence in the region has returned to almost pre-coronavirus levels. Andrew Yang – secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan – didn’t mince his words.
“Priority for China is to protect their national interests, so to step up or to implement military exercises is inevitable,” he said.
Looking back at March alone, it seems Yang was right. Over the course of the month, Chinese military carried out an anti-submarine drill, as well as a joint exercise (held 15 March) with Cambodia. It seems inevitable that, as the economic downturn continues to push the US towards focusing on domestic issues, Australia will need to look west, north and east for support in our immediate backyard.