Last Friday’s Defence White Paper (DWP) rightly drew a lot of praise from (most) of the analytical community and the media. Many commentators, including myself, welcomed the more cautious tone regarding China’s military rise and the dismissal of Australia having to choose between Washington and Beijing. Does that mean Australia is less supportive of our US alliance? I’d argue that exactly the opposite is the case. There are several key points that support my view.
First, being more nuanced about China’s military capacity and intentions shows a maturation of Australian strategic thinking which surely is welcomed in Washington. As it seeks to integrate (not contain) China, Washington doesn’t need alarmist rhetoric about Beijing from its allies. It also doesn’t want us to invest in military capabilities such as nuclear submarines or long-range strike assets which would unnecessarily duplicate theirs and send provocative signals to China.
Second, I disagree with Andrew Smith’s post on The Strategist that the DWP signals to the Americans that Australia’s version of burden-sharing means only securing the Southwest Pacific. For me, the document signals our preparedness to share a larger burden in Southeast Asia and parts of the Indian Ocean. Like previous documents the DWP states that the ADF’s principal task is to ‘deter and defeat armed attacks against Australia’. However, among the military objectives to achieve this task is ‘… project power by deploying joint task forces in the Indo-Pacific region and support the operations of regional partners when required’.
This not only makes for a much wider operational area than just defending the ‘air-sea gap’ between Australia and the archipelagos to our north, it also provides opportunities for joint operations with the US Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) and US air force contingents rotating through our Northern facilities. Moreover, the reference to ‘regional partners’ raises the possibility of greater ADF engagement in Southeast Asia, which the DWP identifies to be ‘geographic centre’ of the emerging ‘Indo-Pacific system’. It also stresses the importance of improving defence ties with Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia. This is hardly ‘Defence of Australia reloaded’; instead, it reflects the government’s understanding that Southeast Asia is gradually becoming the playground of major power shifts and changing military balances.
Third, that the DWP isn’t about greater independence from the US also becomes clear by its refreshing honesty about the limitations of defence self-reliance. That is, for major military operations beyond the South Pacific we’ll continue to depend on the US. And while the DWP is more conciliatory in tone towards of China, Australian governments will of course remain wary about Beijing’s strategic behaviour, particularly in the South China Sea. As a result, the objective of remaining close to the United States will remain unchanged.
To that end, some procurement decisions in the DWP confirm the trend of closer military relations with our US ally. Australia will be the only country other than the United States to operate the EA-18G ‘Growler’ electronic warfare aircraft, with which Australia could make a very useful niche contribution to US-led operations. Australia also plans to operate at least 72 fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) aircraft, more than any US ally in Asia. The new 12 diesel-electric submarines will also be fielded with a US combat system, which should ensure a high degree of interoperability.
Moreover, on Friday the government also responded to the Australian Defence Force Posture Review. This included an announcement to ‘work with the United States in identifying mutually beneficial options for improving ADF base capacity and facilities at Darwin and Tindal’. In other words, American B-52 long-range bombers and surveillance aircraft could fly missions from the Northern Territory, providing the US with greater strategic depth. The possibility of future US reconnaissance flights from upgraded airfields on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, another announcement in the DWP, is also far from being remote.
Finally, just today HMAS Sydney arrived at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan where she will embed with the US Navy’s 7th Fleet over an extended period of time. Integrating the warship into the George Washington Carrier Strike Group (CSG)—as opposed to usual short-term exercises—is an important development. Again, Australia is the only Asia-Pacific ally to do so. Moreover, the ship will take part in real-world operations in the CSG’s ‘Area of Operations’, which includes the Senkaku Islands where tensions between Japan and China are still running high. By doing so, not only does Australia make an active contribution to US military operations in Northeast Asia, it also signals to China (and Japan) on which side it’s on. The new DWP is therefore hardly an attempt to walk away from Australia’s ANZUS commitments.
Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Defence.