Australia Is Having a Strategic Revolution, and It’s All About China
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 2011, then-President Barack Obama promised “to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority.” Today, however, leading defense expert Michèle Flournoy acknowledges that “Washington has not delivered on its promised ‘pivot’ to Asia. U.S. troop levels in the region remain similar to what they were a decade ago.”
Australia’s efforts to match its resources to its rhetoric should inspire the United States and other countries to do the same. The U.S. Congress is considering several options that would shift defense resources to the region—including a Pacific Deterrence Initiative and an Indo-Pacific Reassurance Initiative. Both have merit, as getting America’s regional posture right will require a more robust deterrent against China and renewed efforts to reassure allies and partners about America’s commitment.
Reinvesting in deterrence capabilities demands that the United States follow Australia’s lead by investing in new types of forces. For years, America and its allies have worried that China’s growing arsenal of long-range missiles threatens forward bases and surface ships. Yet, the United States has been too slow to embrace effective counters, particularly dispersed air and sea denial systems, which would complicate China’s ability to threaten U.S. and allied assets. Canberra has signaled its intent to neutralize Beijing’s emerging power projection systems by using its own area denial capabilities to “hold adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia.” That is why Australian plans call for “submarines, advanced long-range strike weapons, remotely piloted combat aircraft, sea-mining and offensive cyber capabilities.” Taken together, these acquisitions have the potential to constrict Beijing’s ability to project power by turning China’s strategy of anti-access and area denial on its head.
The U.S. military—particularly the Marine Corps—is pursuing similar capabilities. Australia’s strategic update should serve as additional impetus to prioritize these efforts and resource them appropriately. Moreover, the allies should work together to develop these systems and concepts of operations. After all, if Beijing wants to change the territorial status quo in East Asia, it must cross large bodies of water. Reliable air and sea denial capabilities could neutralize China’s power projection forces, but maximizing their effectiveness will require close allied coordination.
Finally, the United States should take note of Australia’s revised geographic focus. Canberra has made the decision to emphasize its “immediate region: ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific.” Australia has spent much of the last two decades operating alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Australia’s greatest threats today lie in its own neighborhood. And that is also where the United States needs Australia most.
Refocusing the alliance’s geographic emphasis necessitates some difficult and overdue alliance discussions. Australia’s renewed focus on its immediate region is logical, but it has serious implications for alliance coordination. Will this approach diminish Australia’s ability to operate elsewhere in Asia? For example, what would Australia’s role be in potential contingencies inside the first island chain—the first set of archipelagos around the East Asian coast—within which China has increasingly sought maritime control? In particular, what should the United States expect of Australia in a potential conflict over Taiwan?
This question goes to a critical debate about U.S. strategy in Asia: Can the United States federate the region’s defenses? In Europe, the United States benefits from largely unified allied capabilities. American leaders have attempted to do something similar in Asia by building out the Quad—through which it partners with Japan, Australia, and India—and other small multilateral groupings. But the Indo-Pacific is a maritime theater, and each U.S. ally and partner worries about and prioritizes different contingencies.
Some aspects of U.S. policy have further incentivized this behavior. The Trump administration’s “America first” approach has forced other countries to think more about building their own independent capabilities and acclimatized them to a narrower definition of self-interest. Such an approach can have advantages, but insufficient coordination makes capability duplication or gaps more likely. If Washington is to build regional support to put collective pressure on Beijing, it will have to play a more active role integrating its strategy and those of its allies and partners.
What does this mean for the alliance moving forward? Australia and the United States need to have a series of strategic dialogues to address the implications of Australia’s new approach. These discussions should start next week at the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), which include the allies’ leading diplomats and defense officials. Jumpstarting this discussion is critical if the United States is to fully appreciate and take advantage of Australia’s strategic update. It is also necessary to start rebuilding the Australian public’s trust in the United States.
The United States has long asked its Asian allies to do more—for themselves, throughout the region, and with regards to China. Australia is responding, and the United States should work with Canberra to achieve its ambitious agenda. Australia’s updated strategy should alter alliance roles and missions, lead to more equitable burden-sharing, and reward greater Australian leadership in the alliance. It should also be seen as a model for what other states could do to redress current power trends, acquire more lethal assets, and hold Chinese forces at greater risk. Such efforts could constrain the Communist Party’s push outward and thereby stabilize the region.
All of this is born out of a tragic sensibility about how much the foundations of prosperity, security, and stability have eroded. Morrison declared that “the institutions [and] patterns of cooperation that have benefited our prosperity and security for decades are now under increasing, and I would suggest almost irreversible strain.” He conceded that looking back to the 1930s, before the world plunged into the abyss of war, and thinking about their resonance today “can be very haunting.” That dark period saw democracies insufficiently aligned, poorly armed, and unwilling to meaningfully resist acts of aggression. That should not be a counsel of despair but rather a charge to act in a situation that “requires a response.”
Changing circumstances demand adaptive policies. Neither the United States nor Australia can afford stasis or drift. Nor, for that matter, can other states alarmed by China’s increasing belligerence. Canberra’s recent announcement points in the right direction for Australia, for the United States, and for the regional more generally.
Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also co-director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and co-host of War on the Rocks’ Net Assessment podcast.