In a major speech delivered in Canberra on June 30, Prime Minister of Australia Scott Morrison announced plans to overhaul “Australia’s defense strategy and force structure” as envisioned by the Department of Defense in 2020 Defense Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan. Such documents are updated every few years in response to changes in the environment within and outside the country, as the strategy needs to be amended accordingly.
The 2016 Defense White Paper preceded the most recent version. It had, in fact, been prepared before Donald Trump became President of Australia’s key ally at the beginning of 2017. The then new US leader described a strategic course that entailed reducing the extent of US military presence abroad and taking on fewer responsibilities outside US borders. At the same time, USA’s military and political resources were to focus on mitigating the main threat, which, in Washington’s opinion, the PRC posed.
In order to make this account more accurate, it is worth noting that the aforementioned course in fact became more distinct after Donald Trump had come to power. After all, it was first outlined by his predecessor, Barack Obama, who, for instance, started the gradual withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, thereby substantially reducing the number of US troops in this country.
In 2016, the leadership of Australia, a country which invariably became involved in all the US-led military interventions (including the one in Afghanistan) taking place thousands of kilometers from its shores, could not have predicted that the new, barely pronounced changes in policy of Canberra’s key ally would proceed so quickly.
In fact, the 2016 Defense White Paper was formulated for the following 20 years. In its introduction, the Minister for Defence at the time (and currently the Minister for Foreign Affairs), Marise Payne, wrote: “An important part of the Government’s strategy is to continue to strengthen our alliance with the United States…”.
Nowadays, upholding commitments to Australia’s allies seemingly does not entail sending servicemen so far from the nation’s shores. One thing that journalists reporting on the 2020 Defense Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan commented on was the government’s plan to “limit its geographical focus to its immediate region”, i.e. the territory around the continent of Australia. According to Scott Morrison, this area would range “from the north-east Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland Southeast Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific”.
However, this smaller region, which Australia plans to focus its military capabilities on, includes territories that Beijing views either as historically Chinese (as, for example, approximately 80% of the South China Sea) or as strategically important to its national security. In all these parts of the world, the presence of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and, especially, of PLA Navy, with its rapidly expanding capabilities, has grown substantially in recent years.
At this juncture, the Australian government needs to decide to what extent it is prepared to support its key ally as the military and political confrontation with the second most powerful nation in the world continues to escalate. Choosing the appropriate path is that much more difficult because Australia’s economic prosperity depends, in large part, on its trade ties with the PRC.
In order to understand what options the Australian government has, it would be helpful to monitor the fate of a Japanese and US initiative (from mid-2000s) to establish an “informal strategic forum” between the United States, Japan, India and Australia, which journalists subsequently dubbed as the Quad. Even in 2007, the aim of the alliance was clear: to curb the expanding influence in the region and the world, at large, of a new global power, the PRC, which had essentially taken the place of the USSR.
The initiative is still in its planning stages, which are still proceeding as part of the global chess game. In addition, Australia’s increasing and varied involvement in bilateral partnerships is becoming more and more noticeable. The author is referring to ties between the US and Australia, Japan and Australia, and more recently (and particularly notably), India and Australia.
Still, as mentioned before, the intergovernmental framework for the Quad has not been formalized since all the nations involved continue to play the waiting game. It would seem that such behavior, in large part, is a response to the ongoing tectonic shifts in the world order, at large, and particularly, in that of the Indo-Pacific region. During any period of rapid change, when the level of uncertainty in various aspects of the game increases, its participants, more often than not, choose not to make any decisive moves with their unpredictable consequences.
Still, the New Eastern Outlook has reported, on more than one occasion, about the continuously worsening political ties between Australia and the PRC. And these reactions have been deteriorating for seemingly relatively minor reasons. In recent months, a highly politicized issue of where and how SARS COV-2 originated became one such source of contention.
The latest problem to plague the Australia-China bilateral relationship was Canberra’s involvement in the propagandistic attack on Beijing on account of the adoption of the Hong Kong national security law by China. Following Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s comments on this topic, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade issued a warning to its citizens (approximately 100,000 of them) that were in Hong Kong for various reasons at the time. It essentially stated that the aforementioned individuals might “be arbitrarily detained” by the authorities of Hong Kong.
The PRC responded accordingly to yet one more diplomatic attack from Australia.
At this point, the author would like to respond to an unfounded yet wide-spread opinion, best summarized as follows: “What do you expect? Australia is an integral part of the Anglophone world and is essentially forced to follow its ‘older brothers’.” However, this has not always been the case. Besides, whether the aforementioned view reflects reality or not depends on the party the ruling coalition sides with in Parliament.
The political relations between Australia and the PRC began to deteriorate gradually starting in 2013, when the center-right coalition, with the Liberal Party of Australia (LPA) at the helm, came to power. The LPA subsequently proved its dominance in Australia’s federal elections of 2016 and 2019.
As for the previous period (i.e. from 2007 to 2013), when the center-left alliance was in power in Australia, it was not as evident who the country’s closest external partners actually were. For instance, during the premiership of Kevin Rudd from 2007 to 2010, it often seemed that Australia’s “brothers” were, in fact, the Chinese and not citizens of the English-speaking world.
For now, the author is awaiting Australia’s next federal election, which should be held at the end of spring 2022. It is, therefore, entirely possible that yet another defense paper will appear ahead of schedule, irrespective of the fact that the current defense strategy covers a period of 10 years.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.