Security, stability of Asia-Pacific region in best interests of Australia
As a middle power of increasingly diverging strategic identities, the ideology and concept of Australia belongs to the West, while its security and economic well-being are undoubtedly linked to Asia. Australian strategists worry that the security environment is entering a long transitional period full of uncertainties: US President Donald Trump’s ambiguous diplomacy, the decline of American military primacy alongside an uncertain Asia-Pacific strategy and the expansion of Islamic State across Southeast Asia.
These uncertainties have triggered intense debate over Australia’s foreign and defense policy in academia, deepening ties with the US and enhancing Indo-Pacific security cooperation between Australia, Japan, India and Singapore, creating a kind of new “Eastern NATO.”
Some Australian scholars believe they must continue to deepen ties with the US to resist mounting Chinese “assertiveness.” Only by strengthening Australia’s alliance with the US and deepening intervention can Australia encourage an indecisive US to maintain its commitments.
Ross Babbage, a former senior defense official and founder of the Kokoda Foundation which enjoys a close relationship with the Austra- lian Department of Defence, once called upon Australia to completely reconfigure its defense strategy in order to deter China or in his previous parlance to prepare to “rip an arm off” China.
The 2013 Australian Defense White Paper noted, “The government does not believe that Australia must choose between its longstanding alliance with the United States and its expanding relationship with China; nor do the United States and China believe that we must make such a choice.” However, the US-Australia military alliance grows increasingly evident as Australia becomes a crucial pivot for intelligence, logistics and rotation of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region.
In 2011, Australia opened three bases to the US military. In 2014, then US president Barack Obama and then Australian prime minister Tony Abbott signed the Force Posture Agreement. The 25-year agreement made Australian bases available to US Air Force fighters and bombers and increased a US Marine Corps garrison to 2,500.
In 2016, Australia significantly increased its defense budget, procuring more F-35 fighters and upgrading its Cocos Islands base in the Indian Ocean. Boeing P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft can take off and monitor Chinese submarines in the South China Sea from these islands west of the Strait of Malacca. At the same time, Australia’s intelligence assets play a vital role in American Asia-Pacific intelligence networks.
In addition to consolidating the US-Australia alliance, Australia is seeking to strengthen security cooperation with other US partners.
The idea of an Indo-Pacific “strategic arc” coined in the 2013 Australian Defense White Paper is gradually replacing the “Asia-Pacific” as the most fashionable regional strategy concept in US politics and academia.
With the relative decline of US maritime primacy, the US feels that it must follow the example of the British empire in finding regional partners willing to “share responsibility” and maintain its dominance over the regional and global order. Australia, Japan and India are core members of that arc.
In recent years, highlevel military exchanges, joint military exercises and military technology exchanges continue to increase between the three countries and the US.
While a deeper involvement in the US-led multilateral security system ostensibly enhances Australia’s certainty over its future security environment, it also increases the risks of involvement in conflagrations. Australia’s security, diplomatic and economic interests in the region are different from those of the US, Japan and other countries, especially its relations with China.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner. The two countries do not have any territorial sovereignty dispute. The “China threat” theory propagated in certain sections of the Australian media is undoubtedly a malicious fabrication.
As an important member of Asian economic circles, Australia is increasingly dependent on the security and stability of the entire Asia-Pacific region. Australia should advance its strategic thinking beyond the Cold War to avoid being misled by the voice of exaggerated strategic uncertainty.
Australia should not base its diplomacy and defense on the self-fulfilling prophecy of Sino-US strategic competition. Balancing different strategic identities to offer a bridge for communication between traditional and emerging regional powers could be conducive to regional strategic stability while also working in Australia’s own best interests.