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Awakening a Sleeping Giant – Australia’s Shifting Defence Strategy - By Frederik Wrist

Amid the global disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Australia has shown itself as an exception to the rule, by managing to insulate itself from widespread contagion. What might have gone unnoticed is that 2020 brought a sea change in Australian defence policy, signalling what may amount to a historic transformation of the role played by this Pacific giant in the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific. So, what is the rationale for this shift, and how will it impact the future of the Indo-Pacific?


“The world we grew up in is no more”


On July 6, 2020, Australian Minister of Defence Lina Reynolds, speaking to an audience at the University of Western Australia, recognised that the country’s strategic environment had irrevocably changed. Implied in her statement, was the fact that the regional geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific, constituting Australia’s immediate geographical neighbourhood, has become more competitive and unstable than at any point since the end of the Cold War. The occasion for Reynolds declaration was the government’s recent joint unveiling of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan on July 1. These two documents in combination serve as the overarching framework for Australia’s defence policy and strategy, providing insight into the policymaking community’s assessment of the primary threats to the national interest, the strategic objectives that Australia will need to accomplish to safeguard these, and the capabilities needed for the same purpose.


While not mentioned as the specific catalyst for the update, one can read between the lines to find an ascending and increasingly assertive China as the main concerns when it comes to safeguarding Australian interests in the region, especially when it comes to Southeast Asia and the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.


Where the update is crystal clear, is in the intent to make Australia more self-sufficient in the defence realm, enabling the country to potentially act independently in a crisis. In the context of Australia’s strategic history, this is tantamount to an unprecedented change of style, from Beethoven to Guns n’ Roses.


Strategy-making Down Under


Australia’s approach to engaging the world beyond its frontiers has followed a remarkably consistent pattern ever since achieving independence in1901. One key characteristic has been its commitment to its major great power ally of the moment. As Professor Michael Wesley of the Australian National University writes “Australian strategic policy has always been derivative of the grand strategy of its great power ally. Australian strategic policy has always taken as its starting point the grand strategic frameworks developed by the British Empire and then the United States.”


Grand strategy is to be understood as the marshalling of the totality of a state’s resources and instruments of power to achieve its highest-order goals, in peacetime as well as war. While some would contend that only great powers are able to practice grand strategy, every state applies a similar logic to conceptualising its strategic environment, its primary interests, threats and opportunities to these, and the required ways and means.


Australian policymakers have so far seen the most propitious strategic environment as regional liberal unipolarity. Until the Second World War, the Indo-Pacific was dominated by the British Empire, safeguarding Australia’s regional interests as a result of its membership in the imperial system. After the defeat of Japan and the subsequent dissolution of the British empire, the United States assumed Britain’s role as regional hegemon and guarantor of a predominantly liberal regional order. While Australia has acted independently when its interest diverged from U.S. policy, the country’s strategy has always been predicated on moving in tandem with its great power ally.


This has also led Australia to participate in multilateral military operations far from its shores, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, in the expectation that support for American interests would equally benefit Australia by safeguarding a global liberal, and therefore regional Indo-Pacific, order.


However, this reliance on the grand strategy of a major ally has historically caused significant discomfort when the regional strategic environment seemed increasingly unstable and tumultuous, such as during the Second World War when it was uncertain whether Britain or the U.S. would be able to reestablish regional liberal unipolarity.


Swimming in Treacherous Waters


The most significant change to Australian strategy stemming from the 2020 update is the recognition that Australia faces such an unstable and tumultuous environment for the first time in decades. Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute described how the region is seeing “the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War.”


While not explicitly stated, the underlying catalyst for this geopolitical reconfiguration is the assertive foreign policy employed by China within the region, and the potential security threats posed to Australia by an unprecedentedly powerful Chinese military apparatus. As an example, the document states that the prospect for high-intensity conventional warfare is now a real possibility, keeping in mind that the only conventional military force in the region able to realistically threaten Australia in such a conflict-scenario is China. Also, China is actively seeking to further its interests in geopolitical disputes from the East China Sea with Japan and the status of Taiwan, to claims in the South China Sea.


Of particular significance is the emphasis on grey-zone activities, meaning activities below the threshold of actual war applied with intent of coercing the opponent, such as information operations, political interference, and economic coercion. This toolkit, in combination with military threats, has long been China’s preferred method for advancing its claims in the aforementioned disputes. But Australia has also been a particular target of Chinese grey-zone activities. Prominent cases of interference in Australia’s political system include Senator Sam Dastyari stepping down in 2017 due to revelations of links to a Chinese Communist Party-connected property developer Huang Xiangmo, who was revealed to have attempted to blackmail the Labor Party with cancellation of an AU$400,000 donation if the latter refused to alter its stance of the South China Sea disputes in China’s favour.


China has also slammed Australia with substantial economic tariffs over its condemnation of Chinese human rights abuses and anti-democracy repression.


Charting a New Course


What most characterises Australia’s new strategic direction as a departure from previous policy is its overt focus on positioning the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to act independently within the region, even in the absence of U.S. assistance. This reorientation is reflected both in the strategic objectives outlined and in the composition of the capabilities that the ADF will be operating with in the future.


With the rapidly changing geopolitics of the region as a backdrop, the 2020 update identifies three core objectives that the ADF will pursue: shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against Australia’s interests, and respond with credible military force.


The initial two objectives imply that Australia will actively seek to influence geopolitical developments to form an Indo-Pacific region in accordance with Australian preferences, while the third flows directly from these by requiring the ADF to develop adequate capabilities for these tasks.


This latter question of capabilities also breaks new ground by focusing on weapons systems and technologies not traditionally constituting part of the ADF’s inventory. Particularly long-range strike capabilities figure prominently in the plans. In analyzing the strategy, The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda concluded that “Front and center in the update is the notion of investing more in conventional standoff weaponry: specifically, long-range missiles.” Specifically, the Force Structure Plan provides upwards of AU$500 million for land-based missile, and an additional 800 million for AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which can be launched from both aircraft and maritime combatant vessels.


What is equally noticeable is the composition of the investment itself. As Euan Graham of IISS states: “Rather than a single system, it may eventually end up with a mix of land-, air- and sea-launched missiles, including some hypersonics, operated by all three services.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlined the rationale for this investment package as holding any hostile “forces, and infrastructure at risk from greater distance”, meaning a shift from simply defending Australian territory to projecting force into its wider region of interest, comprising an area stretching from the north-east of the Indian Ocean over Southeast Asia and into the South West Pacific. Additionally, the plans also place emphasis acquiring a fleet of unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) for all the services.


While self-reliance is a crucial component of the update, one should not see alliances and defence cooperation as relegated to the sidelines. The U.S.-Australia alliance is still reaffirmed as a foundational pillar of Australian strategy, considering defence “cooperation between Australia and the United States” as “critical to Australia’s national security”. This was evident in the November 2020 announcement jointly by the Pentagon and the Australian Department of Defence, that the two allies will collaborate on the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFire) intended to culminate in the development of a hypersonic missile prototype, tying into the update’s focus on long-range strike missile systems.


Despite this, Australia is seeking to hedge its bets by intensifying defence cooperation with the primary democratic powers within the region to reduce dependence on an ally which has been particularly unpredictable under the presidency of Donald Trump. The update specifically mentions India, Japan, and Indonesia as potential key partners. Euan Graham has previously reported that Australia and Japan are on the cusp of a Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) after Prime Ministers Morrison and Suga Yoshihide of Japan announced on November 17, that broad agreement had been reached on its outline.


The agreement would provide access to the counterparts basing facilities, enhance interoperability between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the ADF, and would be the only such defence agreement Japan has struck except the U.S.-Japan defense alliance. While satisfying Australia’s wish to see a more regionally engaged Japan in the defence realm, it will also boost Japan’s efforts to garner support for its Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision for the region.


Even prior to the publication of the Strategic Defence Update, Australia and India elevated their relationship to a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, signaling an acceleration of engagement between the two countries. India, Australia, Japan, and the United States, form the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (the Quad), which has seen a significant increase in attention by all four in view of the challenge posed by China, and could possibly become even tighter in future years.


A Role for a New Geopolitics?

While Australia may not be a giant in geopolitical terms if placed next to the United States and China, it nevertheless holds the potential to exert a much more consequential role in its near-abroad, not simply as a side-kick to the U.S., but as a power capable of holding its own when its interests demand it. Australia can boast of a vibrant economy, deep defence relationships throughout the region, and a clear political willingness to uphold liberal principles and values.


As the U.S. is likely to continue its vacillation between deep engagement and retrenchment in the future, Australia will see itself well-served if it is able to develop the capacity to act independently. A positive side-effect could be a more stable foundation for a regional order favorable to Australia, by spurring major allies in the region to assume a greater part of the burden from American forces, thus giving the U.S. breathing space to focus on pressing domestic issues, and diversify the pillars upholding this very order to other like-minded allies as well. The recent sequence of changes to Australia’s defence strategy is a significant step in that direction.


Frederik Wrist is postgraduate student reading International Relations at the University of Birmingham. His main focus centres around international security, US foreign policy, and military affairs. He previously studied a BA in History at the University of Copenhagen.



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