Commentary | 10 August 2018

Australia seeks Plan B as trust in US falters

Originally published in Straits Times.

Originally published in Straits Times.

Something is stirring Down Under. Australia is starting to fret about the fundamentals of its security, in a way not felt for more than a generation.

This observation would surprise many Australians as their immediate environment remains peaceful and the country enjoys prosperity, in substantial part because of booming trade with Asia. They fear terrorism far more than they lose sleep over strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. Polls by the Lowy Institute suggest they worry increasingly about US President Donald Trump, too, but show ongoing support for Australia's alliance with the United States.

This popular perception stands in contrast to the growing number of commentators voicing anxiety about the future of Australia's strategic position. Their underlying concern is not a direct strategic threat, which is unlikely to materialise, but the flow-on implications for Australia of a steady tipping of Asia's power scales in China's favour relative to the US. This is not new. Professor Hugh White has been warning about the power shift for years. But two factors have brought it home for Australia.

First, China's determination to pursue nationalistic interests abroad has become more overtly coercive, at the bruising expense of other states' sense of sovereignty. Australia has felt this directly to some degree. Canberra has endured the frosty fallout from a raft of friction points with Beijing, including its diplomatic stance on the South China Sea and last year's robust legislation to counter illicit foreign influence. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, for instance, has not visited Beijing in over two years. High-level contacts in both directions have been few and far between.

Second, there is the Trump factor. Australia has been fortunate to escape serious run-ins with the mercurial US President. But even seasoned supporters of the alliance have seen enough of Mr Trump's wrecking-ball approach to openly doubt the commitment of their major ally to sustaining the so-called rules-based order. That is despite the best efforts of Defence Secretary James Mattis and others to assure US allies that Washington's security commitments will not be compromised by Mr Trump's America First foreign policy.

Former foreign minister Gareth Evans warned in a recent editorial that no one "should be under any illusion that the US will be there for us militarily in any circumstance where it does not also see its own immediate interests being under some threat". He urges Australia to recast its foreign policy in "less America, more Asia" terms, while boosting self-reliance in defence.

Mr Peter Jennings, a former deputy defence secretary, counsels Canberra to develop a "Plan B", with a detailed set of defence recommendations including a sharp hike in military spending from around 2 per cent of gross domestic product, to 3 per cent, in order to finance the accelerated acquisition of a more potent conventional deterrent.

CALLS FOR NEW ALLIANCES

Mr Jennings wants Canberra to conclude new alliances with Japan, France and Britain, while bolstering relations with Indonesia and India. He further suggests that Australia should have a forward naval presence in the South Pacific.

These are not voices from the political fringe. Others, including University of Sydney's Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone, have added their own set of recommendations, amplifying the call for Canberra to concentrate its diplomatic and defence resources on the Indo-Pacific macro-region and particularly its "nearer region", encompassing maritime South-east Asia and the South Pacific.

This is not inconsistent with the government's own defence and foreign policy white papers. But there is an urgent, harder-edged feel to the recent commentary. Change is no longer impending. The old certainties have gone. The strategic imperative for Australia to step up its regional efforts has arrived.

No one within Australia's small strategic community wants the US alliance to end. "Mateship" aside, the rub is that access to US defence technology and intelligence helps hold down the costs of defending an island continent to around half of what they would be otherwise, with just 60,000 personnel in uniform. Even if those links endure, wider questions are being asked about the long-term willingness of the US to defend an isolated ally 8,000km from Hawaii. That includes questions about the credibility of America's extended nuclear deterrence guarantees to Australia.

The fact that the US alliance consistently receives bipartisan political support in Australia should not obscure how significant it is that such questions are being asked openly, in the mainstream.

BIGGER REGIONAL ROLE

In fact, it is helpful to consider re-tooling the alliance in ways that give Australia more of a leading role. The alliance has become such a fixture of Australia's strategic landscape that it sometimes appears immutable. That makes it an easy target in the Trump era.

A leading role for Canberra should follow logically from a greater alliance focus on Australia's immediate region. Diplomatically, Canberra would be well placed to lead bilateral or US-Japan-Australia trilateral initiatives, including the recently announced three-way initiative to cooperate on infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific.

Canberra can help the Trump administration with the advice and expertise that it lacks on niche countries in Australia's immediate region, freeing up Washington to concentrate on priority areas within its "free and open" Indo-Pacific strategy. In the military sphere, US forces, including the Marines in Darwin, could deploy more regularly under Australian command. That would be healthy for the alliance, demonstrating Australian "ownership" to alliance sceptics.

It would be more of a classical geographical division of labour within the alliance, with Australia assigned primary responsibility for "its" proximate patch, especially the South Pacific, where geopolitical competition is heating up. In that sense, potentially a move back from the global alliance of the 2000s.

It is important to understand that scepticism about the US alliance is also a longstanding feature of the Australian debate. It reflects fears, mainly on the left, that Australia has been easily led into foreign wars of choice. There is an associated assumption that the bonds of alliance somehow deprive Australia of independence in its foreign policy, stunting its potential to associate more closely with Asia, China in particular. Former prime minister Paul Keating has criticised Australia's "sacramental" attitude towards the alliance, going as far as saying that Australia should "cut the tag".

The "tyranny of distance" has long unnerved Australians because they feel peripheral to the major power centres. The flip side of geographical isolation is a physical security cushion from potential sources of threat. Like the weather, Australia catches the edge of storms from Asia and the Pacific Ocean, but being an island continent itself ensures that most of the population is sheltered from all but the biggest of conflagrations.

Since European settlement, Australia's security has been founded on close ties with the leading sea power of the day. That has tied Australia into a broader security system. With the exception of the world wars, that is why Australia's conflicts have always happened somewhere else. Australians have never had to fight alone.

Instability has intruded on Australia's near region in the not-so-distant past. Canberra led stabilisation missions to East Timor, in 1999, and the Solomon Islands, in 2003. But the strategic impact of these episodes was limited and localised. And Australia did not have to act unilaterally.

As a middle power, Australia should certainly do everything it can to develop its regional defence linkages within the Indo-Pacific. Japan holds the most obvious promise as an Asian ally. Indonesia and India are clear choices as security partners, but their inward focus and limited capacity portend strategic inertia in reality.

In South-east Asia, Canberra is already working around this problem, extending defence engagement and building influence with newly receptive countries like the Philippines and Vietnam, and its established Five-Power partners, Singapore and Malaysia. Canberra's options are more constrained than often realised, but creative diplomacy is Australia's main strategic multiplier. Canberra must play its cards as creatively as possible, and not be afraid to fail.

Regional countries should also recognise that even if Australia's economy is in relative decline to theirs, and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is small by regional standards, its weight in the strategic balance is significant.

Absent a major security crisis, future Australian governments will be loath to ramp up defence expenditure further. But as a result of the recapitalisation under way, Australia is qualitatively not far off the pace of US forces.

Australia now annually deploys an amphibious task force across the surrounding region, in Exercise Indo-Pacific Endeavour. It will soon include air warfare destroyers equipped with the American Aegis air defence system. Australia's Navy is maintaining a more regular presence in maritime South-east Asia than it has done for several years, including a recent submarine deployment in the South China Sea. The air force also recently deployed one of its first operational P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft to Japan in support of sanctions against North Korea. It has 12 on order.

SOUTH PACIFIC

Australia's air force is starting to take delivery of its 72 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, and has the ability to refuel them in the air. It has also bought 12 E/F-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft. These are often the same variants as operated by their US counterparts.

In South-east Asia and the South Pacific, Australia's military heft counts double or triple, because so few states have the ability to project force beyond their borders. Canberra should focus on the Indo-Pacific as its strategic canvas.

Specifically, Australia's planners need to think more about what is required to deploy and operate the ADF jointly and sustainably within the nearer region, if necessary on its own.

In the South Pacific, New Zealand and France have some limited capability to offer, but Australia is the local hegemon by default. It remains the largest aid provider overall, but needs to raise its game, given the growing "soft diplomacy" overtures from China to the countries in the South Pacific. Last month, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands signed on to a joint undersea Internet cable project, funded largely by Australia, in a deal that is seen as forestalling plans by Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies to lay the links itself.

Australia's sometimes parochial defence and security debate is getting livelier. That's good for it. But it also gives options for other small and middle powers in a regional security environment increasingly defined by major power competition.