The transformation of the Indo-Pacific provides the opportunity to develop a range of productive relationships with emerging great powers, enhancing Australia’s own economic, political and strategic capability.
This recognition has sparked a flurry of Australian engagement with major regional partners, including Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia – supported by an increased operational tempo for the Royal Australian Navy as it seeks to promote both a renewed and continuous Australian presence in the region.
Australia emerged from the Second World War as a middle power, essential to maintaining the post-war economic, political and strategic power paradigm established and led by the US.
This relationship, established as a result of the direct threat to Australia, replaced Australia's strategic relationship of dependence on the British Empire and continues to serve as the basis of the nation’s strategic, economic and diplomatic policy direction and planning.
However, as a nation, Australia has often walked the line, balancing traditional middle power and minor power characteristics, which have served to exacerbate the partisan nature of the nation’s strategic and defence policy making.
In particular, Australia has historically been dependent upon the benevolence of the broader international community, at both an economic and strategic level. This is most evident in two specific arenas – the nation’s continued economic dependence on China and strategic dependence on the US.
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.
Linchpin of the Indo-Pacific: The South China Sea
The core focus for many established and emerging nations has been China’s pursuit of regional primacy, which has prompted the rising superpower to pursue the development of an integrated system of natural and man-made island fortresses.
These islands are designed with a single goal in mind: dominating and controlling foreign access to the South China Sea through which approximately US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually and serves as a potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) system as a buffer for expanding China’s designs for south-east Asia.
The growing deployment and respective capabilities of China’s armed forces, particularly the force projection capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), have prompted increased concern from established regional powers, including Japan, Korea and Australia.
Additionally, smaller regional nations with competing territorial claims and ancient fears of Chinese expansion, namely Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, have all raised growing concerns about China’s militarisation and reclamation programs in the South China Sea.
Recognising the potential for confrontation and illegality of China's land reclaimations in the SCS, the US announced its ‘pivot’ towards the Indo-Pacific under the former Obama administration in 2013 moving to reassure regional US allies like Australia, Japan and emerging allies like Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam that the pre-eminent global power was committed to the enduring freedom and stability of the region.
Despite these early reassurances and renewed investment in the strategic capabilities of the US military under the Trump administration – the global responsibilities of the US, particularly in the Middle East, and the ever present potential for conflict with Iran has once again drawn the attention of the US, providing an opportunity for China to enhance its military presence in the South China Sea.
Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, spoke to Defence Connect earlier in the year following revelations that China had been rapidly militarising Woody Island, Spratly Islands and Fiery Cross Reef in the SCS, explaining the impact, "China's forward deployment of the J-10s to Woody Island will enable China to more broadly extend their control of the airspace over the South China Sea. Woody Island enables an expanded air control capacity over aircraft based at Hainan Island and could potential preclude a Chinese push toward the Spratly Islands, challenging Vietnam's interests."
Expanding Australia’s SCS presence
Enter former head of the Defence and Foreign Affairs and Trade departments, Dennis Richardson, who has called for Australia to conduct an increasing number of 'freedom of navigation' operations in the region, including directly confronting Beijing's island fortresses within the 12 nautical mile boundary of the disputed islands.
Mr Richardson reportedly explained to Paul Malley of The Australian that the nation and Navy should "not be afraid to sail within 12 nautical miles of the man-made atolls that China has constructed in the South China Sea and which Beijing claims as territorial islands — a claim not recognised under international law".
"These so-called freedom-of-navigation exercises could be conducted discretely and with little or no fanfare so as not to gratuitously antagonise China, an outcome Australian policy-makers have been eager to avoid, Mr Richardson says," Malley expanded.
Nevertheless, Australia has moved to support enduring US-led freedom of navigation patrols throughout the region as part of Operation GATEWAY, which is Australia's commitment to preserving regional security and stability in south-east Asia – with a specific focus on both the north Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
It is important to recognise that should the US be distracted by conflict in Iran, Australia could be required to play a bigger role in the region.
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.
Australia's renewed and expanded role in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea in particular and Richardson's calls for greater Australian boldness was recently reinforced by by the University of Sydney-based US Strategic Studies Centre (USSC) in a paper titled Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific, which makes a series of powerful recommendations for Australia furthering the level of interoperability between Australian and allied militaries.
In particular, the USSC identifies the growing need for capability aggregation and collective deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, with both Australia and Japan playing critical roles in balancing any decline in the US and its capacity to unilaterally project power, influence and presence throughout the region.
"Prudent capability aggregation between the armed forces of Australia, Japan and the United States will be critical to addressing the shortfalls that America is likely to face in its military power over the coming years. The strategic purpose of such efforts should be to strengthen the collective capacity to deter prospective Chinese fait accompli aggression in strategically significant regional flashpoints, particularly along the First Island Chain and in the South China Sea," the USSC paper identifies.
Despite these calls, the question becomes, what platforms and crew is the Royal Australian Navy going to pressure into increased operational tempo, dramatically impacting the service life, operational effectiveness of the vessels and crew to play a greater role in the South China Sea?
Dr Davis summarises the predicament perfectly, when he told Defence Connect: "We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before, and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.
"In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders."
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 not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.