Australia's Defence Minister has seemingly rocked the boat with her address to the Sea Power Conference at Pacific 2019, with a renewed and laser-guided focus on the rapidly evolving and seemingly deteriorating geo-strategic and geo-political environment across the Indo-Pacific.
The emergence of economic, political and military superpowers like China and India continue to develop as the powers at the core of Indo-Pacific Asia, flanked by traditional established powers like Japan and South Korea.
Additionally, Australia has also witnessed the development of the region’s periphery powers, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, each with competing priorities and objectives, combined with the rise of complex asymmetric challenges to national security serving to challenge the established geopolitical, economic and strategic security and prosperity of the region.
At the forefront of the nation's 'hard power' response is the Royal Australian Navy, which has been one of the primary focal points of the government's extensive $200 billion modernisation and recapitalisation programs as identified in the 2016 Defence White Paper.
However, as both the Defence Minister and recently the Prime Minister have identified: "We have entered a new era of strategic competition – a not unnatural result of shifting power dynamics, in our modern more multi-polar world and globalised economy. Australia is an Indo-Pacific nation and our region is the epicentre of that change. Our region is anxious as it goes through the most significant geopolitical change since the Second World War, which is why in my first month as Minister for Defence, I laid out the following three priorities to Defence’s senior leaders that relate to strategy, capability and transformation."
Responding to the emerging challenges, Minister Reynolds identified three key focus points for the RAN moving forward into the 21st century, namely:
Strategy: "In our challenging and dynamic strategic environment we need a government-led defence strategy and a supporting strategic framework within the department that is fit for purpose. That means one fit for adaptation, transformation and technological disruption," Minister Reynolds told the gathered audience.
Capability delivery and integration: "As we implement a $200 billion investment in the ADF - $90 billion alone into our Navy - we must ensure that all capabilities are:
- Delivered on time and on budget;
- Technologically superior;
Fully integrated into a joint Australian force; and
- Seamlessly interoperable with our allies and partners globally.
To achieve these we need seamless collaboration with our trusted industrial base partners here in Australia."
Reform: "To achieve the first two, we have to continue the process of reform within Defence. Transforming Defence into a single strategy-led organisation that is astute in how it sees the world, insightful about how that world is changing, attuned to technological disruption, and is agile and flexible in responding to its external environment. This is true for all parts of Defence – ADF and APS. We must now become One Defence – both in name and also in practice. A whole that is far greater than the sum of the individual parts. Because unity of effort behind a unified purpose – one that has been so clearly and decisively laid out by Prime Minister Scott Morrison – will be vital for protecting the nation and its interests in the decades ahead," Minister Reynolds articulated.
In recognising the growing role of the RAN, both Minister Reynolds and the Prime Minister have moved to identify, articulate and expand the nation's role within the Indo-Pacific and its key relationships like the Five Eyes and the Australia-US strategic partnership.
"The 2016 Defence White Paper identified major trends shaping our region:
- The US-China relationship;
- Challenges to the rules-based global order;
- The threat of terrorism;
- State fragility;
- Military modernisation; and
- The emergence of new, and complex, non-geographic threats in the space and cyber domains."
Posing the right questions
Minister Reynolds shifted the tempo and the focus of her speech posing important questions about the future direction and capability of the Royal Australian Navy as it undergoes its major recapitalisation and modernisation programs, with a focus on expanding key relationships and forward-deployed presence in the Indo-Pacific.
While Australia has long looked to larger powers as the guarantors of its economic, political and strategic security. However, as the global dynamics evolve, the nation’s enduring stability and prosperity will be increasingly dependent upon the strength, resilience and integration of its key relationships. This has been increasingly recognised by the Australian government and is forming the next stage of Australia’s evolving “middle power” diplomacy.
Minister Reynolds sought to expand on the role Navy will play, while seeming to subtly hint at the capabilities the nation's naval forces will require in coming decades: "This is particularly true for sea power. To protect and defend our national interests – and the nation itself – we will need a Navy that can do many things. It will need to understand its many roles in the national security strategy, it will need to have cutting-edge capabilities integrated across the fleet, across the ADF and is fully interoperable with our allies; and a Navy that is able to progressively transform itself to meet evolving challenges.
"Over the coming decades, the Australian government is investing more than $90 billion in the acquisition of new naval capabilities, including 36 new vessels that will join the Royal Australian Navy fleet. Naval platforms are large and complex – out of necessity. To deliver humanitarian assistance to an island devastated by a natural disaster, we need ships like HMAS Adelaide and Canberra that are capable of deploying hundreds of service men and women, along with helicopters, landing craft, earthmoving equipment, medical support, and the people to operate and maintain them all.
"To keep other ships safe in a potentially hostile environment, we need high-tech ships with advanced air warfare capabilities. To provide the stealth necessary to protect our sea lanes, a submarine force will remain an essential element for decades to come. By 2035 we expect around 300 submarines to be active in our region.
"But building these platforms, integrating the combat systems, installing the weapons systems and then delivering the full capability will take many years."
As a nation, Australia is at a precipice, and both the Australian public and the nation’s political and strategic leaders need to decide what they want the nation to be: do they want the nation to become an economic, political and strategic backwater caught between two competing great empires and a growing cluster of periphery great powers? Or does Australia “have a crack” and actively establish itself as a regional great power with all the benefits that entails? Because the window of opportunity is closing.
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 choke points of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, 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”.