Australia has made waves in recent weeks, not only questioning Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, but also stepping up the deployment of real military assets on the way to RIMPAC, however, for many Australian strategic policy experts, there is still room for improvement.
At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the 'end of history' was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity – we now know that to be wishful thinking.
Australia embraced the potential and opportunity presented by this new future and the lessons learned during the Cold War, particularly the impact of interventionism and sought to capitalise upon its relationships with 'great and powerful' friends like the US to guarantee its security.
However, the rise of the Indo-Pacific, in particular the emergence and, in some cases, re-emergence of many potential great powers, each with their own conflicting ambitions, economic, political and strategic designs and often ancient enmities are serving to dramatically undermine the balance of power and stability.
The nation's approach to strategic policy continues to be heavily based upon the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy as identified in the 1986 Dibb report and then enshrined in the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers in particular, with tweaks made in every Defence White Paper to date.
This largely isolationist policy focused entirely on securing the sea-air gap as a strategic "buffer zone" for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, which now serves to leave the nation at a critical cross roads as the region continues to rise.
While successive Australian government's have sought to evolve the Defence of Australia doctrine, the very premise of the doctrine continues to inform the foundation of Australia's strategic policy to this day.
Towards 'shape, deter, respond'
The relatively benign economic, political and strategic order of the Indo-Pacific since the end of Vietnam means that Defence of Australia doctrine continues to serve as the basis for Australia's strategic doctrine, which is focused heavily upon 'dominating' the sea-air gap, this concept was expanded upon by the Prime Minister, where he stated:
"Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.
"The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive. These trends are continuing and will potentially sharpen as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic."
To this end, both documents articulate a key focus for the government and ADF moving forward, namely:
- To shape Australia’s strategic environment;
- Deter actions against Australia’s interests; and
- Respond with credible military force, when required.
Building on this, the 2020 Force Structure Plan states: "The range of capabilities that Defence will maintain, develop, enhance and acquire under the 2020 Force Structure Plan will provide the government with a flexible range of options to deliver the government’s objectives to shape Australia’s strategic environment; deter actions against Australia’s interests; and respond with credible military force."
While the US alliance has been and will continue to as the central pillar of Australia's strategic posture, the nation has actively begun to assert its interests, with the government refusing to recognise Beijing's territorial claims and island reclaimations in the South China Sea, combined with the rising power's increased antagonism throughout the Indo-Pacific.
To step up Australia's commitment, the nation deployed a major capability package combining key force multiplying platforms from the Australian Defence Force as part of the nation's commitment to the biennial RIMPAC exercises off the coast of Hawaii.
However, as Ben Packham of The Australian reports there is still room for improvement on Australia's part, with many of the nation's leading strategic policy leaders calling for the nation to expand its regional presence.
So far so good, but more needs to be done
Packham collates a number of expert opinions who, while congratulating Australia on their efforts to support long-term freedom of navigation operations in the region and the South China Sea in particular cite a greater need for expanded Australian presence and capability in the strategically vital waterway.
Notably, Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, speaking to Packham, explains, "The problem is, if you don’t do anything other than just occasionally sail through the area, you are really giving de-facto acknowledgement of the reality of Chinese control.
"If we are at all serious about saying that is not acceptable, this is the moment to push back a bit harder."
This is expanded upon by Euan Graham of the International Institute for Strategic Studies following the recent deployment of two US Navy aircraft carriers, who stated, "If they propose doing something, I don’t think it can be a solo Australian operation. It would have to be some sort of rainbow sail-through with the Americans and hopefully some Asian countries to demonstrate this is not just the usual like-minded suspects."
These comments were further supported by comments made by the US ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse, who applauded Australia for stepping into a leadership role in calling out Beijing's provocations, saying, "We commend Australia for its leadership in rejecting the PRC’s illegal claims in the South China Sea at the UN and in strongly calling out malign PRC behaviour when and where it occurs.
"Australia’s robust and ongoing leadership in the region helps secure our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific."
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 chokepoints 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 as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
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 shaking up the nation's strategic approach to our regional partners.