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East Asia Strategic Calculus: The Australia Factor

Introductory Observations

The Australia factor in the dynamics of the East Asia Strategic calculus cannot be ignored. Strategic analysis of East Asia tends to get focused on the Western Pacific region where reside Japan, China and Russia and the globally predominating presence of the United States in terms of its forward military presence.

Australia tends to get overlooked as the island continent is tucked away in the South Pacific. Australia however has over the decades been the sheet -anchor of the United States strategic framework for the entire Asia Pacific region.

Australia and the Untied States have enjoyed a strong strategic partnership dating from World War II. The United States – Australia Strategic Partnership has been an enduring one and spans the tenure of twelve US Presidents and thirteen Prime Ministers.

Australia has made active contributions in terms of troops and material to the American war effort in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. While Australia has withdrawn troops from Iraq recently, it continues to maintain over 1000 troops in Afghanistan.

Australia’s strategic and political culture and so also its social set-up and outlooks are totally Western in nature. It is but natural that Australia is a member of the Western Alliance in terms of global power play.

Australia is not a part of Asia. It is a separate continent by itself. Yet Asia-Pacific looms large in Australia’s strategic calculus.

Asia’s “strategic backyard” comprising the Indonesian archipelago and the other island nations to the East emerge as Australia’s “strategic front-yard”. By extension, the region of Greater South East Asia is also of primary strategic interest to Australia.

The Asia Pacific region is a vital strategic region in the global power play as it is in this region do intersect the strategic interests of the global major powers comprising the United States, China, Japan, India and a resurgent Russia.

Australia as the regional power in the South Pacific and as one of the pillars of the US security architecture in the Pacific along with Japan emerges as a strong factor in the East Asia strategic calculus.

The new Left-of-Centre Labor Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Kevin Rudd brought Australia into a wrong focus by his hasty and premature utterances on China, and his proposals for a new Asia Pacific Community which in addition to political and economic issues would address security issues also.

By itself the advocated proposal would not have caused any ripples. The Australian Prime Minister’s advocacy of inclusion of China in the security management of the Asia Pacific region coupled with the downgrading of the Strategic Quadrilateral (USA, Japan, India and Australia) and a public declaration of no uranium sales to India (previous Australian Prime Ministers Commitment) raised strategic hackles.

Widespread criticism of the present Australian Prime Minister followed as it was perceived that in these utterances which could strategically please only China, lay the seeds of a possible strategic shift in Australia’s strategic policies and outlook towards Asia Pacific.

The Australian Prime Minister was also credited with a pro-China bias with his background of being a student in China, years as a diplomat in Beijing and his fluency in Mandarin to talk directly to Chinese leaders.

This was also the first reaction of this Author too. One wondered whether the new Australian Prime Minister was signaling a paradigm shift in Australia’s strategic perspectives or was it merely a political aberration or an idealistic aberration.

To examine the above issue, this Paper proceeds to examine the following issues:

Australia’s Established Strategic Perspectives Upto 2027 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Policy Address on National Security Asia Pacific in Australia’s Strategic Calculus: Major Deductions East Asia Strategic Calculus: Major Deductions on the ‘Australia Factor’

Australia’s Established Strategic Perspectives Upto 2027

Australia has a vibrant strategic community and Australia’s national security and strategic perspectives are widely debated. In terms of Australia’s established strategic perspectives in a 20 year time frame one found useful reference in the works of the eminent authority on Australia’s strategic affairs, Prof. Paul Dibbs.

Australia’s strategic priorities upto 2027 stand spelt out as under by Prof. Dibbs (1) Australia’s own security and that of the immediate region, namely stretching from Papua New Guinea to Fiji (2) Security of the broader region of South East Asia requires strategic focus as they comprise the Northern Approaches to Australia. Indonesia needs attention (3) The Greater Region of North east Asia would require far more Australian strategic focus as in the next 20 years (upto 2027) this region would present the most major and complex strategic uncertainties for Asia’s national security.

More significant were the observations by Prof. Dibbs on the emerging security scenario with particular reference to China. These significant observations not only carry security implications for Australia but also for Asia Pacific and at the global level.

These observations were (1) China is carving out a sphere of influence in South East Asia and it can be expected that in the next 20 years, China could display a greater willingness to challenge the United States in this part of the world (2) China with great deliberation is developing a sea-denial capability against the United States in the Asia Pacific. In the timeframe upto 2027 China could conceivably acquire naval bases in South East Asia to enhance its sea-denial capability (3) Asia has never had the experience of witnessing or dealing with a strong China and a strong Japan existing at the same time. Conflictual flash points exist in which both could get embroiled. In this connection it is mentioned that unlike Europe, war is still not an outmoded concept in Asia.

In terms of Australia’s security, it would be apparent from the above perspectives as to where does the epicenter of strategic turbulence lies in East Asia.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Policy Address on National Security

The new Australian Prime Minister before the elections made an address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute laying out in great detail the National Security Policy that the Labor Government would follow.

Major points selected for highlighting from this policy address are as follows: (1) Alliance with the United States remains central for Australia’s security and central to Australia’s ability to advance her security policy interests (2) Australia needs friends and allies for a stable security environment (3) Australia needs a stable global and multilateral world order for promotion of her security and economic interests (4) Australia’s armed forces must be structured not only for Australia’s defense but also to operate further afield.

Amplifying on the “Defending the Country” aspect, Mr. Rudd highlighted (1) Labor Government is committed to 3% real growth in defense spending and carrying forward financial outlays of the previous Government (2) Self reliant Australian defense capability (3) Dominate Australia’s immediate strategic geography (4) Australia’s defense of air and sea approaches remains a critical strategic imperative (5) Australia must have force projection capability.

Significantly, a call was made for issue of a new White Paper on Defense whose core features must incorporate as to how Australia plans to address the following security issues (1) Re-evaluate the rapidly deteriorating security situation in SW Pacific (2)Evaluation of the long term trajectory of militant Islamism (3) WMD proliferation in Asia Pacific (4) Australia’s plans over the next 20 years as to how to face the implications of China’s modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces and the rise of India and Japan.

The Australian Prime Minister may not have stated China as a threat but implicit in his policy address is the imperative as to how Australia should face the challenges of China’s nuclear and conventional forces modernization. Obviously, China is a strategic concern for Australia.

Mr. Rudd has reiterated that the United States and the US-Australia Strategic Partnership remains central to Australia’s security and strategic perspectives.

If that be so Australia cannot divorce itself from the United States strategic perspectives on China where China does figure as a strategic threat.

At best the new Australian Prime Minister may have only differing nuances on China from the United States in terms of intentions reading, but these nuances do not lessen Australia’s strategic concerns on China’s military rise.

Asia Pacific in Australia’s Strategic Calculus: Major Deductions

Taking into account the established Australian strategic perspectives and Mr. Rudd’s National Security Policy address one could arrive at a few major deductions as to how the Asia Pacific and East Asia in particular figures in Australia’s strategic calculus.

The major deductions are (1) Australia faces no direct military threat from any quarter (2) Australia’s security is endangered if turbulence arises in SW Pacific, Grater South East Asia and the power tussle in East Asia (3) Viewed in a 20 years time frame it is China’s grand strategy to carve sphere of influence and challenge United States maritime security that will emerge as the gravest security concern for Australia.

Australia has military intervention capability in SW Pacific but Australia does not have an independent strategic capability to offset strategic turbulence in Asia Pacific as a whole. For this Australia has to depend on the United States and its allies and friends for the security management of Asia Pacific. That is why Mr. Rudd’s assertion that the United States remains central for Australia’s security.

If the United States remains central for security of Australia from emerging threats in Asia Pacific and East Asia then it necessarily follows that countries like Japan and India which the United States considers as vital for Asia Pacific security should figure equally vital in Australia’s strategic calculus. The Australian Prime Minister cannot afford to devalue Japan and India to please China.

Implicit once again in this discussion is that in Australia’s strategic calculus, no space exists for Australia to have independent strategic prognostications on China.

East Asia Strategic Calculus: Major Deductions on the ‘Australia Factor’

The ‘Australia Factor’ seems to operate in the East Asia Strategic calculus on two different planes, namely (1) Role of Australia in East Asia’s conflictual contingencies, and (2) Role of Australia as the regional power in South Pacific.

East Asia’s flash points and conflictual contingencies basically center on China in relation to (1) Conflict over Taiwan (2) Conflict in the Korean Peninsula (3) Japan-China territorial and other disputes (4) Power tussle between USA and China.In all such contingencies the United States cannot afford to remain a mute spectator. In fact the United States is likely to resort to pre-emptive actions, to begin with, independently and later if conflicts escalate drawing-in US allies and friends.

Japan is already tied to USA for military assistance and participation to assist USA in such contingencies. Australia as a strategic partner of USA cannot realistically bow out from assisting the USA especially in a region termed in Australian strategic perspectives as the one with gravest strategic challenges to Australia’s security.

Historically, Australia directly participated in two wars in support of USA in Korea and Vietnam. It cannot bow out of any future such contingencies.

As a regional power in the South Pacific and with military intervention capabilities in its “strategic front yard” Australia acts as the Southern flank-guard of the US forward military presence in the Pacific. This is both in peace and war and frees US from policing duties in the area. In any conflict in East Asia, perforce, Australia would emerge as the main logistics base for the United States as in the Second World War.

In terms of major deductions, the following can be said in terms of the “Australia Factor” figuring in the strategic calculus of East Asia (1) Australia is a major US military ally of the United States (2) Australia would figure as a major US strategic asset in any strategic conflictual situation (3) Australia may be courting China as the major market for its raw materials, but it is highly unlikely that Australia can be weaned away from the strong US-Australia Strategic Partnership.

Concluding Observations

Australia has been an enduring strategic ally of the United States from World War II days. The strength of the US-Australia Strategic Partnership has not diminished over these last six decades.

The United States is central to Australia’s security, a fact freshly reiterated by the new Labor Prime Minister of Australia. In Australia, bi-partisan support exists in strong favor of the strategic partnership with the United States.

This is not only a sentiment arising from Australia being a Western nation. This sentiment arises also from geo-strategic and geo-political compulsions that operate in East Asia and the Asia Pacific.

It is inconceivable that China would forego its strategically disruptive policies in the Asia Pacific to create a benign strategic environment that is sought by Australia.

The strategic reality is that notwithstanding any advocacy of China by Australia’s new Prime Minister, the United States, Japan, India and many other nations in the Asia Pacific do not read China’s intentions as benign.

Any new Australian strategic perspectives likely to be considered in the new White Paper on Defense, perforce, would need to factor-in the US strategic perspectives on China and so also those of Japan and India which form part of the US strategic calculus.

(The author, Mr Subhash Kapila, is an International Relations and Strategic Affairs analyst. He is the Consultant, Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. >>(Courtesy- South Asia Analysis Group,>)

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