The strategic holiday is over (part 1)
6 Feb 2018|

The release of the Trump administration’s 2018 national defence strategy (NDS) in January highlighted a more dangerous threat environment with an assertive China and aggressive Russia at the top of US concerns. The document states that ‘it is increasingly clear that China and Russia want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions’. China and Russia are certain to push back against the new US strategy, and thus the stage is set for a new period of major-power competition akin to the Cold War.

The US plans to enhance cooperation globally by developing ‘an extended network [of allies] capable of deterring or decisively acting to meet shared challenges of our time’. It also wants to reinforce ‘collaborative planning and deepen interoperability in a manner that could also include supporting foreign partner capability development to ensure an ability to integrate with US forces’. In the Indo-Pacific region, the US says it will build ‘a networked security architecture capable of deterring aggression, maintaining stability, and ensuring free access to common domains’ and ‘bring together bilateral and multilateral security relationships to preserve a free and open international system’.

Australia must quickly respond by talking to Washington about US expectations of its allies. We can’t afford to send mixed signals like we did recently, with defence minister Marise Payne supportive of the NDS one day, and foreign minister Julie Bishop distancing Australia from its key message the next. Our policy on the alliance has to be coherent and robust. The government should explore ways to strengthen the US–Australia alliance that enhance the likelihood of the NDS’s success and, at the same time, improve Australia’s security in a more contested environment.

The NDS refers to developing more survivable and dispersed basing arrangements in the face of a Chinese anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capability that’s increasingly long-range, accurate and responsive. Our contribution to that effort could include giving the US more access to Australian military facilities. For example, we could offer the US Navy home porting rights in Fleet Base West, and expand the enhanced air cooperation component of the US–Australia Force Posture Initiatives to a sustained presence, rather than only short-term rotations. That would enhance the survivability of US forces in the face of Chinese A2AD in East Asia, and reinforce extended deterrence below the nuclear threshold. It would also contribute to a more credible strategic deterrence posture for the US against China overall.

Strengthening our alliance arrangements will require us to discriminate between critical security interests and secondary concerns. If we’re going to help build the webs between the spokes in the ‘hub and spokes’ security arrangements, we must be careful to avoid commitments in which there’s a mismatch between our interests and the risks involved. That may call for some hard-headed choices about where, when and what we contribute. Making those decisions may be the most challenging aspect of developing a higher defence profile in Asia.

The Turnbull government has recently made good progress in facilitating closer defence relations with Japan, and is once again supporting a revival of the US–Japan–India–Australia ‘quadrilateral’ dialogue. These diplomatic efforts suggest useful pathways to playing a greater security role in Asia alongside the United States. But they do carry risks. We must not be naive about building ties that bind. We have to distinguish carefully between partners we want to cooperate with and those we seek a closer alliance with, because the latter group potentially entails defence obligations. These strategic conundrums aren’t new, but they’re becoming more acute and will force Australia to engage in a more mature strategic debate in more adverse circumstances. Our strategic holiday is coming to an end.

Indonesia also must, of course, be a priority for Australian defence diplomacy because it sits in the maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific region, astride vital sea lanes and maritime straits. If China is to dominate Southeast Asia through the South China Sea, it ultimately must control Indonesian waters as well. The territorial dispute over Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Islands, and China’s declared ‘nine-dash line’ which overlaps that zone, is likely to be a focal point for future crisis in Indonesian–Chinese relations.

Maintaining our strategic partnership with Indonesia is important because, as Stephan Fruehling noted recently, unless China gains access to, or control of, bases in Indonesia (as Japan did in 1942), the strategic geography makes it much harder for China to threaten Australia directly, at least in a sustained and substantial way. We should work alongside the US to boost Indonesian naval capabilities because a more powerful Indonesia that’s able to resist Chinese pressure on the high seas in turn limits Chinese territorial ambitions.

Taking on greater defence burden-sharing in Asia to support the US and counterbalance China will have significant defence capability and budget implications. I’ll consider those issues in my next post.