‘Forward defence in depth’ for Australia (part 2)
29 Nov 2018|

The intensifying competition between the US and China was on full display in Port Moresby during the recent APEC summit. For the first time in its history, the summit ended in failure without the release of a joint communiqué. This was apparently due to China’s unwillingness to countenance proposed language aimed at reforming trade practices seen as unfair and unbalanced.

At the same summit, Australia, the US and Papua New Guinea confirmed their intention to redevelop the Lombrum naval base on PNG’s Manus Island into a joint defence facility. The new facility will ensure US and Australian access to the geostrategic deep-water port, and counterbalance the growing Chinese influence and presence in the region.

The deal is important, as it provides a key forward operating base for US and Australian naval forces, strengthens the security of PNG and provides a deterrent to Chinese forward air and naval forces in the future. As ASPI’s Peter Jennings argues, it’s also important to pursue development of the Momote Airport to support US and Australian aircraft when necessary.

The Manus agreement is a good start towards shifting the Australian Defence Force to a ‘forward defence in depth’ strategy, as I have recently argued. Such a strategy should ideally be developed and enacted with Southeast Asian and South Pacific states as fully active participants not as merely passive observers.

The overriding objective should be to improve Australia’s ability to make effective military contributions to ensure the security and stability of maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific in the face of challenges like climate change, and provide alternatives to greater debt and dependency on Beijing.

The diplomatic dimensions of forward defence in depth for the South Pacific would involve negotiating enhanced air and naval access not only to Manus Island, but also to the facilities of countries like Vanuatu. Australia could help South Pacific states expand their intelligence-gathering capabilities and their ability to undertake more comprehensive maritime domain awareness.

This could be achieved through practical measures such as providing UAVs and boosting the Pacific Maritime Security Program, as well as through joint training and exercises, along with staff exchanges. Australia should also deepen partnerships with New Zealand, Britain and France to respond to a range of non-traditional security threats facing South Pacific states.

The approach for Southeast Asia will be different, requiring working with increasingly capable militaries and building greater commonality between forces. In this region, our priority must be strengthening our defence relations with Indonesia. Some practical measures could include reciprocal access to each other’s bases for joint training and more regular military exercises, and joint patrols as part of multinational naval flotillas.

The sharing of intelligence is important and the acquisition of common maritime domain awareness through high-altitude UAVs and even space capabilities would be a good start. With the Triton and Reaper drones, Australia is acquiring this capability, so working with Indonesia to enable sharing of information makes sense. Both Indonesia and Australia have small space programs and there’s a chance for greater collaboration to develop common C4ISR capability.

The challenge is that not all states are willing to openly identify China as a threat that they must respond to. For many South Pacific states, the effects of rising sea levels and the impact of climate change are existential challenges. The immediate risks come from issues like transnational crime, people smuggling and illegal fishing. Nor is it realistic to expect Southeast Asian states to turn away from China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the absence of a better alternative.

Yet, as ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge notes, there is a clear pushback emerging against Chinese pressure, initially through US vice president Mike Pence’s speech, and more recently from Southeast Asia (the reversal of China’s fortunes in Malaysia being a key example) and the South Pacific. The fact that PNG wouldn’t be bullied by China into changing the text of the APEC joint statement (even though it meant no communiqué was released) is a good sign.

Australia needs to work with the US, Japan and India to offer investment approaches that free Southeast Asian and South Pacific states from the threat of Chinese debt-trap diplomacy. As my colleague Huong Le Thu notes, the Quad is broadly seen in a positive light in ASEAN. The US proposal for a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) further adds to a suite of economic, diplomatic and security alternatives. With the Quad and FOIP, ASEAN and South Pacific states don’t have to accept the BRI, with all its baggage.

Forward defence in depth would reinforce the importance of Australian diplomatic engagement and economic investment in the region in a way that takes the tools of statecraft and employs them in an aligned and linked manner. But what does going forward really mean for the ADF?

The ADF—particularly the navy—is already visible throughout the region, but forward defence in depth would mean making our force posture much more muscular and visible in order to meet threats to Australia at a greater distance. The ADF would adopt a long-range anti-access and area denial capability, which would complicate Beijing’s ability to coerce Australia and other countries in the region.

We’d focus on projection into the South China Sea, the Southeast Asian straits, and the Southwest Pacific, with air and sea power complemented by advanced cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and space capabilities. This would be incredibly expensive—with force structures akin to those mooted in debates over a ‘Plan B’ for our security. It therefore makes sense to try to reduce that impost by building closer defence relations and common capabilities with our neighbours.

Forward defence in depth would mean a higher operational tempo for the ADF, and it would dictate the development of new capabilities. A debate will need to occur within the context of the next defence capability assessment program on the force structure needed to undertake forward defence in depth.

It’s also time to take a serious look at whether the current strategy as laid out in the 2016 defence white paper is the best way to respond to a radically changed strategic outlook. Our overall approach has changed little since The defence of Australia—the 1987 defence white paper—and it needs updating.

In part 3 of this series, I’ll look at how forward defence in depth might alter ADF force structure and consider the ramifications for Australia’s defence budget.