The Chiefs of the United States Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard have issued a major warning for the Indo-Pacific region, with a specific warning for key US allies like Australia as Beijing steps up its regional presence and power projection ambitions in the region.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flash points of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.
Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities.
However, the growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, all contribute to the changing nature of contemporary warfare.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia’s northern borders, has largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern.
Meanwhile, Australia’s strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
Prior to establishing a new paradigm and priorities, it is critical to understand the nation’s history of strategic policy making and the key priorities that have defined Australia's position in the Indo-Pacific since federation – traditionally, Australia’s strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:
- Guaranteeing the enduring benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner – via continued support of their strategic ambitions;
- The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the 'tyranny of distance';
- A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
- Increasingly, the geopolitical, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours.
This state of 'strategic dependence' has placed Australia at a disadvantage and entrenched a belief that the nation is both incapable of greater independent tactical and strategic action and must consistently support the designs and ambitions of great powers, with little concern for the broader impact on Australia and its national interests as a form of insurance.
In light of this changing regional dynamic, the chiefs of the US Navy, Admiral Mike Gilday, Marine Corps, General David Berger and Coast Guard, Admiral Karl Schultz have singled China out as the gravest threat to Indo-Pacific stability, with the maritime domain in the highlight.
This warning comes in hot on the heels of information about a $200 million, Beijing-backed 'fishing' complex in Daru, Papua New Guinea, a little over 200 kilometres from mainland Australia and just 65 kilometres from northern Australian islands, namely Thursday Island, providing the rising superpower with infrastructure and basing facilities within rapid striking range of Australia.
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The three chiefs, state, "Optimism that China and Russia might become responsible leaders contributing to global security has given way to recognition that they are determined rivals. The People’s Republic of China represents the most pressing long-term strategic threat."
Beijing's growing reach is 'pernicious'
Australia's economic dependence upon China places the nation in an increasingly vulnerable position, challenging the economic, political and strategic sovereignty of the nation and is something that Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson clearly articulated during an address to the Lowy Institute, earlier this year.
"Beijing has shown a willingness to intervene in free markets and to hurt Australian companies simply because the Australian government has exercised its sovereign right to protect its national security," ADM Davidson explained.
While economic in nature, this relationship between Australia and China places the nation in a state of 'strategic dependence' on Beijing, limiting Australia's economic, political and strategic sovereignty and the potential response to mounting Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and increasingly further into the Pacific.
This is something that ADM Davidson explained in detail as insidious and undermining in its nature, saying, "Beijing's approach is pernicious. The party uses coercion, influence operations and military and diplomatic threats to bully other states to accommodate the Communist Party of China's interests."
Evidence of this can be seen from the South China Sea and Beijing's repeated belligerence in the area, through land reclaimations and the militarisation of island fortresses in defiance of international condemnation, and increasingly assertive maritime and aerial interdiction operations throughout the region bringing China's armed forces into direct confrontation with US, Japanese, Australian and other allied forces.
Further challenging Australian and US policy makers is the pervasive expansion of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and 'debt diplomacy', which has already seen disastrous results for developing nations from Africa to the Pacific, with Beijing taking direct control of key strategic and economic assets, including mines and airports to major maritime hubs like Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka.
Closer to home, repeated rumours about China's plans to establish a major naval base in Fiji or the Solomon Islands serve as powerful reminders that Australia is at the epicentre of the new Cold War.
ADM Davidson expanded on these points, describing the BRI as a "stalking horse to advanced Chinese security concerns", while stressing, "Australia has [the] right to be very concerned about the Chinese potentially building a base in the island chain. Part of the Indo-Pacific strategy the US has put forward – and I believe Australia has made quite clear is in its national interest – is to prevent such bases from happening".
Defining strategic challenge of our time
It is important to recognise that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable to, if not exceeding, that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies.
Recognising this, ADM Davidson articulated the need for recognition of this great power competition, telling Sky News' Kieran Gilbert:
"I would say the defining strategic challenge of our time is indeed China and its very pernicious approach to the region in all aspects, whether it is the way they provide developmental funds, the diplomatic cohesion they put on others, their activities in the South China Sea and the very disruptive ways that they use their economy to punish others when they don’t like what others are doing."
Further compounding matters for Australia's leaders, Dr Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) highlighted the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
Dr Davies' comments have been further reinforced by Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at ASPI, who spoke to Defence Connect about the growing importance of resetting the nation's defence posture, saying:
"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," Dr Davis explained.
"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."
Dr Davis went further, telling Defence Connect, "That means that our defence strategy, based around an emphasis on ‘air-sea gap’ needs urgent and comprehensive review, and the objective should be to consider how Australia can play a more forward and robust role in the Indo-Pacific region alongside the US and other key partners.
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
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.
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.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.