I have mixed feelings about a big new report from a US defence think tank on Australia’s potential role as a US ally in the Indo-Pacific. Sure, it will help focus US minds on the alliance in the lead-up to the next high-level AUSMIN meeting on 19-20 November, but at risk of the kind of publicity that may aggravate Australian policymakers, not to mention public opinion.
First, the positives. Gateway to the Indo-Pacific, by a research team from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, gets some important things right.
It correctly assesses the changing nature of the Asian geopolitical framework from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific, as China’s interests expand south and west and India’s expand east, lending greater strategic centrality to Southeast Asia and Australia. I am in furious agreement on that analytical point.
The report also neatly stresses Australia’s strategic importance through its use of diagonally pivoted maps of the Indo-Pacific. Scottish-Australian explorer and soldier Thomas Mitchell had that idea 165 years ago, and I would be the first to agree that is a clever way of accentuating the proximity of Australia’s north and west to Asia and its sea lanes.
There’s also evidence of detailed research in this report, into both the history and the contemporary shortcomings of Australian defence policy and capability. For example, it looks in some depth at an issue identified earlier this year by my colleague James Brown, namely the risks from failing to modernise our defence infrastructure, especially for Australian and allied air operations.
The report is right that Australian defence is under-funded – although of course this is not only in terms of our ability to contribute to the alliance. The report is also far-sighted in identifying Australia as potentially America’s most valuable ally this century. And it makes an interesting if incomplete effort at producing a typology of Australian strategists’ attitudes to the alliance (maximalist, minimalist and incrementalist).
So far, so good, and I am sure there will be more to say after a closer reading. No doubt Australia's strategic community will have plenty to say about whether the report's view of alliance military objectives, or its liberal use of World War II analogies, is helpful or realistic.
Even short of that, some significant flaws are apparent at once.
There are odd points of detail that suggest a superficial grasp of Australian politics (‘the new Liberal-Nationalist’ government) as well as this country’s policy debates and security commitments. For instance, I doubt anyone in Canberra seriously thinks that the Five Power Defence Arrangement would be a reason for us to find ourselves at war with China in the South China Sea.
These may seem quibbles, but they mean that other parts of the report are less likely to ring true to Australian readers.
The deeper problems, though, are with the report’s assumptions and the way its conclusions are framed. Those conclusions revolve around defining four possible roles for Australia in the future of the alliance, with the rather dramatic labels of 'Supportive Sanctuary', 'Indo-Pacific Watchtower', 'Green Water Warden' and 'Peripheral Launchpad'.
All of these roles assume a central role for Australia in a possible future US-China military conflict or confrontation – in other words, predetermining and limiting the nature and purpose of the alliance. It seems less about shaping the Indo-Pacific strategic order than about preparing for conflict with China.
The report is built on the questionable assumption that any or all of these roles would be automatically acceptable to Australia and Australians.
As this year’s Lowy Institute poll suggested, none of this should be taken for granted. While large majorities of Australians support the alliance and are comfortable with a larger US military presence in this country, only 36% 38% would support US military action in Asia.
There are good arguments for Australia to continue intensifying the alliance with the US. But as James Brown and I have argued recently, this should include a greater Australian contribution to the crafting of alliance strategy (especially in helping determine its objectives) and not simply greater Australian contributions to the execution of a strategy pre-made in Washington.
Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.
An earlier headline for this post ('Flawed US report sells Australia's alliance role short') was changed because it did not reflect the tone of the article. Neither headline was written by the author.