As Tony Abbott wings his way to Northeast Asia, up to 130 ADF personnel are already there, participating in a major US-led amphibious exercise off the South Korean coastline. That number comes from a mid-March Stars and Stripes piece that referred to the Exercise SsangYong (double dragon) as ‘unprecedented’ and as ‘the peninsula’s largest joint amphibious landing drill.’ That’s no small thing for Australia to be part of.
But it’s a more recent Wall Street Journal article that has put a specific and challenging spin on Australia’s involvement (which it must be said is dwarfed by the nearly 10,000 US and several thousand Korean personnel). Depicting this large exercise as an attempt to reassure Washington’s allies about America’s commitment as the regional distribution of power is changing, Yuka Hayashi also had this to say: ‘The U.S. has also expanded joint-exercise programs with Japan as well as Australia, regional allies that are building their own amphibious forces to counter Beijing’s.’
That’s certainly not the way Australia would explain the development of its own amphibious capabilities, nor its cooperation with the United States, including from Darwin. But those assumptions are hard for regional observers to resist and will be even harder for Canberra to disown. A similar challenge faces New Zealand. As Benjamin Schreer and I observed last year in an earlier piece for The Strategist, the NZDF’s participation in a large amphibious exercise off the California coast came with some interesting connections. Japan’s significant contribution to the same drill, cast in relation to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute, had drawn the attention of China which unsuccessfully sought to have Dawn Blitz cancelled.
Korea doesn’t raise the same alarm bells in Beijing: indeed the two have often teamed up in their criticisms of Tokyo. But Australia still needs to be wary. Exercises which may be perfectly justifiable on training and skills grounds for the ADF need to be increasingly checked for the political signals they so often will be sending about Australia’s intentions as Asia’s geopolitics heats up. Some observers are bound to connect those peacetime examples of what Thomas Schelling has called ‘the diplomacy of violence’ to attempts by the Australian political leadership to build ever closer strategic links to Japan and the United States. In that case, and with Mr Abbott’s visit to Japan bound to attract attention, it’ll be even harder for Canberra to fight the spin.