The recent announcement of a $270 billion injection into defence infrastructure poses a unique set of questions – not just in terms of the hardware itself, but also how it will shape relations with India, Indonesia, and the broader Indo-Pacific.
While Prime Minister Scott Morrison stopped short of naming names, the elephant in the room was all too clear. Many have since speculated that the uptick in defence spending is aimed squarely at a certain neighbour to our north, particularly as Australia looks to step up its regional ambitions amid an uncertain strategic environment.
Certain critics of the Force Structure Plan and Defence Strategic Update have made the case that it is overly prescriptive – a charge not commonly levelled against government budgets. Yet speaking on ABC radio's PM program, host Linda Mottram described the new strategy as “heavy on hardware, short on diplomacy”.
To a degree, she has a point. While the 2020 Defence Strategic Update is very clear about the issues posed in our immediate region, it doesn’t delve into a great level of detail as to how these threats will actually be met, beyond the unveiling of a number of new defence assets. Rightly stating that our region is "in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since World War II", it flags a number of key issues that threaten to boil over in the years to come. Namely:
- Strategic competition, primarily between the US and China, will be the principal driver of strategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific;
- The prospect of high intensity military conflict in the Indo-Pacific, which it says is "less remote than in the past";
- Grey-zone activities – such as the use of para military forces and coercive economic levers; and
- Our inability to rely on a ten-year strategic lead time as an appropriate basis for defence planning.
A soft power approach
To address these, Defence insists that it will look to “shape, deter and respond”. The first two, at least, seem to refer to leveraging Australian regional soft power – though this isn’t acknowledged in released documents.
Writing in ASPI’s The Strategist, David Burke makes the case that defence diplomacy is the way forward. As he would have it, this can happen at two levels: between individuals or small groups and through large-scale interaction during training or exercises.
“These activities occur not in isolation or for their own sake, but in support of whole-of-government foreign policy initiatives,” he writes.
As the nation looks to flex its military muscle, it follows that international training exercises are one of the best assets we have for engaging our neighbours. Just prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Exercise Pacific Reach saw personnel from Japan, Malaysia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore and the US conducting submarine search and rescue (S&R) training at Fleet Base West – and given the rarity with which submarine divisions are called on to perform S&R operationally, it makes sense to think that the value in Pacific Reach largely lies in deepening ties with our Indo-Pacific neighbours.
While it’s still too early to tell whether the strategic update will be accompanied by an uptick in co-operative exercises like this, one would hope that a more assertive Australia would seek to engage more regularly with our allies. As ASPI’s John Coyne has noted in the past, there is ample opportunity to ramp up international utilisation of Top End facilities – either through joint exercises or unilateral training in the ilk of the Australia–Singapore Military Training Initiative. His reasoning holds true for northern Queensland, which boasts three major simulation facilities that would fit this model appropriately.
As Australia looks to increase its military spending by nearly 40 per cent over the next 10 years, many ASEAN members are taking note. Indonesian and Vietnamese leaders also seem to be aware of a regional environment that is “poorer, that is more dangerous and that is more disorderly” – to quote the PM – and are beginning to scale their militaries accordingly.
Writing in The Diplomat, south-east Asia correspondent Luke Hunt makes the case that defence spending in the Indo-Pacific is likely to come under the microscope in the months to come, as a direct result of the update provided by Canberra.
He argues that “among the 10 ASEAN countries, Beijing can only count on Cambodia as a true ally while Jakarta, the sole powerhouse within the trading bloc, remains deeply upset by Chinese maritime claims in its exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands”. Quoting defence analyst Mohan Malik, formerly of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, he adds that “Indonesia wants to be a global maritime fulcrum”.
If this is the case, it makes perfect sense for Australia to play a part in this. While the relationship between the Indonesian Defence Force (TNI) and the Australian Defence Force has been rocky in the past, it has been on the upswing since 2016. Though bilateral exercises with Indonesia only amount to a fraction (roughly 8 per cent) of all bilateral exercises hosted by the ADF between 1997 and 2015, recent years have seen the TNI participate in Exercise Kakadu and Exercise Wirra Jaya. And in July of last year, senior leaders of the armed forces agreed to hold more joint TNI-ADF exercises in 2019 and 2020.
Though largely put on hold as a result of the outbreak, the same holds true for many ASEAN states outside of traditional partners like Malaysia and Singapore. Vietnam has been all too open about its disputes with China, venting frustrations as it chaired the recent ASEAN summit. Though born out of a somewhat frosty early relationship, the two countries have maintained bilateral ties since 1973. And while defence and policy co-operation is minimal at best (limited largely to combating transnational crime and joint humanitarian efforts), there is a golden opportunity for collaboration in the maritime and cyber domains in the years to come.
A world that is "poorer, that is more dangerous and that is more disorderly", says the PM. We'll need all the friends we can get.