In a historic geopolitical shift, Australia is emerging as a key alliance hub and partner for the US in Asia as the Biden administration moves to reshape and strengthen its military to meet China’s growing challenge.
A global posture review ordered by new US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is likely to result in a significant reconfiguration of US forces and an increase in resources directed towards the Pacific, elevating Australia’s importance as a logistics, maintenance and training provider.
The review could open the door to closer Australia-US defence ties. This would be certain to anger Beijing and feed into the trade and political tensions that have brought the Australia-China relationship to its nadir.
Biden has signalled that he will continue Donald Trump’s tougher line against China, albeit in a more measured way. Allies and partners will be asked to contribute more, in return for mutually beneficial investment and collaboration. This is likely to mean greater access to high-end technology and the US defence sector, increased joint development of new military capabilities, and direct US investment in our infrastructure, including the processing of minerals critical to defence.
The immediate impact of the review on the presence, distribution and operations of US forces in the Pacific will be incremental rather than transformational. US defence spending is expected to flatline, or even dip, in the next few years under the twin pressures of the pandemic-inspired recession and pressure from the left of the Democratic Party to prioritise its progressive social and environmental agenda. Also, resistance from Atlanticists to the idea of allocating more resources to the Pacific is certain. So is bureaucratic inertia. Turning around the US ship of state won’t happen quickly.
But, over time, the review is likely to reinforce the growing momentum for change to the way the far-flung and increasingly vulnerable network of US troops, weapons and bases is structured and operates. For most of this century, Washington has been bogged down in long-running ground conflicts and counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East. Deterring Chinese aggression will require the US to return to a traditional maritime offshore balancing role.
Biden’s problem is that although reliable allies are crucial, they are in short supply. There aren’t many countries like Australia that are strategically located and able to field compatible, high-end defence systems and support the smaller, nimbler dispersed force envisaged. The difficulty of maintaining costly and politically contentious overseas bases has placed a higher premium on places where the US can rotate forces for essential training and supply, while allowing them to surge from a secure sanctuary when a crisis requires a military response.
Seen though this lens, Australia is an increasingly attractive destination — which is why the Biden administration is shaping to ramp up ship and aircraft visits and consider more defence infrastructure spending, especially in the north.
The US has already committed to building a multimillion-dollar commercially operated strategic military fuel reserve in Darwin for joint use by American and Australian forces.
It is also funding a rare earths processing facility in Texas to be built and operated by the Australian company Lynas. The Texas facility will produce specialised rare earths for military use.
Admiral Philip Davidson, the influential head of the US Indo-Pacific Command that has operational responsibility for a vast area of the Pacific and Indian oceans, has submitted a new report to congress that provides a pointer to the global posture review’s outcome. It reveals that more money is likely to be spent on equipment and facilities that Australia is well placed to provide and support.
The report calls for $US27bn ($35bn) — an amount nearly the size of our annual defence budget — to be spent over the next five years on new mobile missiles, radar systems, staging areas, intelligence-sharing centres, supply depots, testing ranges and exercises “with allies and partners”.
In a none too subtle reference to China’s designs on Taiwan, the report says that this money is necessary to “persuade potential adversaries that any pre-emptive military action will be too costly and likely to fail”.
An earlier request from Davidson led to last year’s establishment of a bipartisan congressional Pacific Defence Initiative. The PDI could be a game changer if money is made available to realise Davidson’s ambitious proposal for the development of “expeditionary airfields and ports”. This is defence speak for facilities that would allow the US to project power into the Western Pacific from places that are less vulnerable to China’s missiles and rapidly growing fleet.
Darwin is an obvious candidate because of its proximity to Asia, although its defence infrastructure would need a significant upgrade.
Could Biden deliver on Barack Obama’s overhyped pivot to Asia? This promised much but delivered little, allowing Chinese President Xi Jinping precious time to consolidate his control of the South China Sea and turn his country into a military superpower.
Many experienced defence analysts believe that the balance of forces in the Western Pacific has shifted in favour of the People’s Liberation Army. Since 2015, the PLA has doubled the number of transport ships and planes in its inventory, extending its strategic reach to the furthest parts of Southeast Asia. China continues to outproduce the US on modern weaponry, is slated to increase its defence spending by a world leading 6.8 per cent, and grew last year’s defence budget by more than the rest of Asia combined (excluding Russia).
Rather than having the capacity to fight and win two wars at the same time, as US defence documents once proudly proclaimed, the US will have its hands full dealing with China alone. This reality, along with the more straitened financial circumstances confronting Biden, has enhanced both the economic and strategic value of the alliance with Australia — recently described by Biden as “an anchor of peace and stability in the region”.
Historically, we have been a loyal but junior ally reflecting the obvious power imbalance with the US. Alliance detractors see this as a subordination of our defence and foreign policy to Washington. As evidence, they cite Harold Holt’s refrain that Australia was “all the way with LBJ” and John Howard’s willingness to frame Australia as America’s regional “Deputy Sheriff”. Both tags regularly feature in domestic defence debates and are echoed in China’s increasingly vitriolic rhetorical attacks against us.
Such criticisms ignore a seminal shift in Australia’s strategic relationship with the US towards greater equality based on mutual need, and the Morrison government’s determination to act more forcefully in asserting the national interest. This has been driven by the chauvinism of Trump’s America First unilateralism, the increase in our economic and military clout, and concerns about the deteriorating regional security environment.
The key change is that Biden’s America needs us as much as we need America, the obverse of our traditional dependence on “great and powerful friends”. This is testimony to the relative decline of the US and Australia’s rise as a significant middle power. It’s also a corollary of Biden’s refocus on Asia and desire for trusted, capable allies in his country’s epochal rivalry with China, the most formidable competitor the US has faced.
Mutual need makes for a more equitable partnership, giving us more leverage over US policy on issues that are central to our interests and security. We should use it to shape the global posture review, the PDI, US China policy and Biden’s quest to unite the democracies, a worthy though challenging task. No interest is more important than protecting the integrity of our borders and preserving our freedoms in a decidedly more authoritarian world, where genuine democracies are now in a minority and co-operation between them an imperative.
Meeting the authoritarian challenge from a position of strength implies an ability to deter or impose serious costs on any country that wishes to do us harm. This will require a degree of hard power which is beyond our capacity as a nation of 25 million people without doubling or tripling a defence budget that already costs $42bn annually. Partnering with the US to train together, build defence infrastructure in Australia, share the costs of expensive equipment, invest in joint capabilities and co-operate on intelligence makes more sense today than at any time in the history of our alliance.
Tighter collaboration with the US is not without its risks. The closer our alignment, the more Australia is likely to become a lightning rod for China’s proliferating grievances and trade punishment. This could escalate to another level should we commit to freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and sail through the territorial borders that China has illegally declared around the disputed islands it has occupied and militarised. The biggest risk of all would be to join the US in military support of Taiwan should Xi decide to take the island democracy by force. Beijing could well retaliate by threatening to target ports, airfields and defence facilities in northern Australia.
During the Cold War, the argument was made that the Australia-US defence facility at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory should be closed down because it made Australia a target in the event of a nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union. This overlooked the valuable intelligence the facility provides and the critical role it plays in arms control and early warning of a ballistic missile attack. Hard strategic choices are rarely risk-free. The fact that we may be a target is hardly a reason for not defending ourselves.
On the contrary, it’s a compelling reason for making ourselves stronger, not weaker — a strategic logic that informs most countries’ defence policies. It certainly motivates Xi’s China, which respects strength not weakness.
Preparing for the worst, while hoping for the best, has been a mantra of Australian defence planning since Federation and the policy of all mainstream political parties. Countries that don’t stand up for their interests and cave in to threats are left with two choices: defeat or impotence.
But putting most of our strategic eggs in the US basket makes no more sense than excessive reliance on China as an export market. It encourages complacency, over-reliance on a single provider of security goods and, at worst, dependence. As in trade, diversification is the key to defence resilience. To become a true alliance hub we need to do more with Japan and South Korea and make Australia an attractive location and defence provider for other strategic partners, among them India, France, Germany, Britain, Indonesia and Singapore.
Each of these countries has different geopolitical perspectives, defence capabilities and needs. But most would welcome the opportunity to train and exercise more frequently on the unique training ranges that Australia has to offer — especially if they are digitally upgraded to world class standard, an achievable goal with modest investment.
Japan’s Self Defence Force has severely restricted access to training ranges because of Japan’s high population density and limited space for defence training. Half of Japan’s 13 fighter squadrons use the same F-35 aircraft as Australia, but they lack ranges to practise advanced combat training. Most other countries have similar constraints, unlike Australia.
The emerging Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and the elevation of the Australia-India relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership, means that the time is right to explore closer defence ties with India. France is building our submarines, has a significant regional military presence and has previously sent an aircraft carrier to the Pacific. Germany wants to deploy a frigate to the region for training and as a show-the-flag exercise.
Britain has substantially increased its defence budget and is now the fourth-largest defence spender. India is ranked third in the world, France sixth, Germany seventh and Japan eighth. Collectively they represent a powerful coalition of like-minded allies.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants “to extend British influence” globally, including to Asia. He intends to despatch the brand new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, to the Pacific later this year to join Australia in multinational exercises aimed at demonstrating the resolve of democracies to jointly push back against China’s creeping annexation of the South and East China Seas. The Queen Elizabeth will carry the maritime version of Australia’s F-35s, as well as a suite of maritime patrol aircraft and helicopters.
All these ships and aircraft require refuelling, resupply and maintenance. Should Biden endorse Trump’s decision to restore the US First Fleet to help secure Indo-Pacific waters, Australia is ideally placed to become a valuable destination country in Asia for six of the eight largest navies in the world. That could only strengthen our alliance credentials, defence industry and overall national security.
Alan Dupont is chief executive officer of political and strategic risk consultancy the Cognoscenti Group and a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute.