• 042-35941921, UAN: 03-111-999-101
  • info@kipscss.net

Australia is Having a Strategic Revolution, and It’s All About China

  • Zack Cooper
  • Aug, 2020
  • 132
  • Regional Controversies

The Australian government has announced a major shift to its regional policy. Will the United States notice in time?

At the beginning of July, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that “our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War.” He wrote that in the introduction to his government’s “Defence Strategic Update” and “Force Structure Plan,” which many are hailing as a fundamental shift in Australia’s strategic approach.

Australian defense planning might seem remote, but the shift could alter the basic security dynamic in the Indo-Pacific region-and correspondingly, the U.S. approach to competition in this region. The questions now is whether Washington will notice the significant change in its most trusted Pacific ally’s posture, whether it will choose to cooperate with Canberra’s efforts to pull off its new strategy, and whether it will treat this as a useful model for other allies and partners. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update is a revision of Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper. The quick revision signifies that Australian leaders believe their security environment has rapidly deteriorated. Although the documents seldom call out Beijing specifically, the cause of the erosion is hardly a mystery. The strategic update notes: “Military modernisation in the Indo-Pacific has accelerated faster than envisaged.” Asian defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has actually decreased over the last five years. Only in China has there been a serious increase in overall defense spending.

It is not only China’s military capabilities, which it has been building for decades, that have caused anxiety. Rather, it is their increasingly aggressive use that has caused a growing sense of alarm. In just the last few months, Beijing has asserted control over Hong Kong, intruded into Taiwan’s airspace, trained guns on the Philippine Navy, harassed Malaysian vessels, sunk a Vietnamese fishing ship, rammed a Japanese coast guard vessel, reignited a deadly border conflict with India, and conducted cyberattacks and economic coercion against Australia.

It was against this backdrop that Morrison took the stage late last month to argue that Australians cannot afford to ignore what is occurring around, and to, them. At a time when governments have pumped massive resources into economic stabilization efforts, calling for more defense spending presents a challenging case. Yet given China’s aggression around its periphery, Morrison argued that investing in defense is both necessary and stabilizing.

The Australian government has therefore promised additional investment into defense, greater capability to deter hostile states, and more focus on Australia’s immediate region. Morrison laid out 270 billion Australian dollars ($190 billion) in defense spending over the next 10 years, a commitment that will grow defense spending to 2 percent of Australia’s GDP by 2020-2021.

This announcement promises to reorient Australia’s strategy around enhanced deterrent capabilities, particularly longer-range striking capabilities. This approach also acknowledges increasing risks-that might result in Australia having to go to war and fight on its own for a prolonged period (hence, a call for stockpiling more fuel and munitions). Other key initiatives include enhancing cybersecurity and space capabilities, fielding underwater surveillance systems, growing the military’s size, and boosting capabilities to counter hybrid warfare that combines political and military forms of coercion.

American leaders should pay close attention to Australia’s new approach. Canberra’s strategic shift has the potential to significantly change Australian capabilities, geographic orientation, and regional commitments. It could also fundamentally alter the dynamics and responsibilities within the Australian-U.S. alliance. Canberra’s strategic update should remind Americans of three pressing needs: devoting more resources to Asia, intensifying capability development with allies and partners, and clarifying geographic priorities across alliances.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations criticized “unfair burden-sharing” with U.S. allies, so Washington should be pleased that Canberra is stepping up and sharing more of the burden. Although 73 percent of Australians disapprove of U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of allied defense spending, Australia’s leaders have committed to a major spending increase and explicitly promised to “take greater responsibility for our own security.” This has more to do with China’s increasingly aggressive behavior than with U.S. pleas. Regardless, Australia is putting resources behind its strategy.

Now the United States should follow suit by committing more of its own resources to Asia. In 20...

Share on facebook or twitter

Email to a friend