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Indo-Pacific may not be a priority under President Biden: USSC experts warn

Indo-Pacific may not be a priority under President Biden: USSC experts warn

While there is still some question over the ultimate victor in the race for the White House, experts from the US Studies Centre, Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone, have issued a troubling warning for Australia: our region may not be a priority for a Biden administration.

While there is still some question over the ultimate victor in the race for the White House, experts from the US Studies Centre, Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone, have issued a troubling warning for Australia: our region may not be a priority for a Biden administration.

At the end of the Cold War, Australia like much of the victorious, US-led "free world" bought into two comforting myths, first the victory of the US meant the "end of history" and the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity, and, as China's economy continues to grow, it will shake off authoritarianism and become more liberal. 

Far from Francis Fukuyama's promise of the "end of history", across the globe the US-led liberal-democratic and capitalist economic, political and strategic order is under siege, driven by mounting waves of civil unrest, the impact of sustained economic stagnation across the West, concerns about climate change and the increasing geostrategic competition between the world’s great powers. 


Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of 'closer collaboration and economic integration', grasp at the lifeboats of the nation-state to secure their national interests. 

Ironically, it is often these same nations and their respective media and strategic policy communities that have levelled intense, seemingly unrelenting criticism against the disruptive, bombastic US President, Donald Trump for acting in a similar way, promoting 'America First' policies – actively emphasising a return of US jobs and critically, a scaling back of US participation in costly, foreign conflicts, particularly in the Middle East. 

This policy shift in Washington has seen myriad hostile responses from traditional 'allies' of the US, nations that have become dependent upon the overwhelming and unrivalled economic, political and strategic might of the US for their security, all of whom have seen such actions as an attack upon their "right" to live under what has become known as 'Pax Americana' or, the American Peace. 

Australia, in this instance, is no different. 

While the nation's geographic isolation, encapsulated by the 'tyranny of distance', has provided Australia with a degree of protection from the major, epoch-defining and empire ending conflagrations of the 20th century, the economic, political, societal and strategic challenges of the 21st century hit far closer to home. 

Competing priorities

On the opposite side of the political aisle in Washington, potential president Joe Biden would seemingly be a known, stabilising quantity for the global community and Australia's public policymakers in particular, however, Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone of the Sydney University's US Studies Centre (USSC) believe a Biden administration would be more focused on other parts of the world. 

Townshend and Thomas-Noone explain the scene: "Biden might be commander-in-chief but with half a country unconvinced by his agenda to restore US leadership and the liberal international order. Much like Barack Obama, he’d be a centrist Democrat in an internationalist White House that might find itself frequently at loggerheads with a Republican Senate and its power of the purse.

"Australia’s outlook is uncertain. Given the president’s latitude on foreign policy, we would expect a return to steady alliances, multilateral diplomacy, investment in America’s economic-technological strength and a competitive but sensible strategy on China and the Indo-Pacific."

Expanding on this, Townshend and Thomas-Noone add, "But with a debilitating national deficit, declining defence spending and a likely expansion of international and domestic commitments under Biden, paying for reinvigorated US global leadership would be next to impossible. Trying to do so risks distracting a Biden administration from prioritising our part of the world.

"Canberra will need to keep stepping up its own leadership contributions in the Indo-Pacific, working with like-minded friends to pool resources and sustain US attention on our collective Indo-Pacific priorities.

"Biden’s foreign policy team doesn’t need to be sold on the need to compete with China for a stable and rule-governed region. Leading advisers such as Michele Flournoy and Ely Ratner agree with the Trump administration’s focus on 'strategic competition' and the need to strengthen US military deterrence in the western Pacific." 

Regardless of the potential return to what many would define as a traditional approach to foreign relations, the increasing economic coercion attempts by Beijing, which have increased overnight, leave more questions for a potential Biden Administration. 

Nowhere is this more evident than across the Indo-Pacific as an emboldened Beijing continues to punish Australia for pursuing a global inquiry into the origins and China’s handling of COVID-19, while also leveraging the comparatively diminished presence of the US military in the region to project power and intimidate both Japan and, critically, Taiwan. 

Townshend and Thomas-Noone add, "But problems would begin for Australia when this sensible Indo-Pacific strategy met the reality of Biden’s domestic and global foreign policy ambitions, fast-declining resources and a gridlocked congress.

"Beyond his Asia hands, Biden’s foreign policy team has a strong trans-Atlantic orientation that is likely to pull the US towards prioritising NATO repair and standing up to Russian transgressions. This — coupled with Democrats’ belief that Biden must restore the liberal international order and promote democratic values globally — could sidetrack the prosecution of a robust Indo-Pacific strategy.

"While the US can invest in European and Asian security simultaneously, its shrinking pool of national resources imposes constraints. Following trillions of dollars in COVID-19 stimulus and lost revenue the US debt is likely to reach 98 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of this year, the highest since World War II. The scale of this economic fallout combined with a Republican Senate is likely to hail the cynical return of deficit politics and austerity."

Scope to expand our role

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 critical crossroads as the region continues to rise. 

While successive Australian government's have sought to evolve the Defence of Australia doctrine and the nation's critical strategic partnership with the US, the very premise of the doctrine continues to inform the foundation of Australia's strategic policy to this day. 

This new geo-strategic reality is best explained by Paul Dibb himself: "We are now in a period of unpredictable strategic transition in which the comfortable assumptions of the past are over. Australia’s strategic outlook has continued to deteriorate and, for the first time since World War II, we face an increased prospect of threat from high-level military capabilities being introduced into our region."

To its credit, the government's new $270 billion plan as identified in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the Force Structure Plan, unlike many others before it, puts its money where its mouth is. It articulates what the Prime Minister describes as budgetary certainty and supports the ambitious, 'big-ticket' defence acquisition and modernisation programs identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper. 

Building on this, the new strategic plans and the associated force structure identify some drastic departures from previous doctrine, something Geoffrey Barker explains: "Particularly impressive is the clear alignment and logical consistency between the revised strategic appreciation and the planned 10-year, $270 billion investment program, which includes long-range (possibly hypersonic) missiles, to improve the lethality of the Australian Defence Force."

It is also true to say that while the new policy identifies and responds to the "rapid deterioration in Australia's strategic environment" over the past decade or so, it fails to adequately adjust the size, shape and structure of the ADF accordingly – particularly as the US continues to flirt with isolationism and the qualitative advantages traditionally enjoyed by the US and its allies dwindle.

This is something both Townshend and Thomas-Noone expand upon, "Although Biden’s Indo-Pacific plans are a win for Australia, his apparent narrow victory and ambitious agenda will collide with significant resource trials at home and abroad. Australia and our regional partners will need to continue offsetting the shortfalls in US strategy and resources to shore-up a stable balance of power in the region even as we work with Biden’s Asia hands to press our case as to why the Indo-Pacific deserves pride of place in US strategy."

In recognising this now brutally apparent reality, is the Defence of Australia doctrine, which abdicated Australia's forward presence in the region, enough to ensure that Australia's diverse array of economic, political and strategic interests are protected during a period of mounting geo-strategic competition? 

Your thoughts

Australia is defined by its economic and strategic relationships with the Indo-Pacific and the 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 21st century’s era of great power competition and 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 Australias capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australias 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 longstanding 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 approach to our regional partners.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security 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..

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