Australia’s defence strategy and capabilities are expanding significantly, with a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific and plans to modernise the military as China exerts its influence in the region.
Speaking at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Tuesday, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said Australia’s position in the Indo-Pacific had become threatened “in ways we could not have predicted just four years ago”, while at the same time China had actively sought greater influence in the region.
“Australia’s strategic envionment is complex, it is increasingly contested and changing rapidly. Major power competition, militarisation, disruption and technological change and other new threats are making our region less safe.
“We needed to adapt to rapidly changing strategic circumstances of the future, and that future is now. The government and Defence must respond,” she said.
Ms Reynolds identified China as one of the primary factors influencing the government’s new approach to strategic positioning within the Indo-Pacific.
“We welcome them as a responsible regional partner but where behaviours are not consistent with the standards we expect of ourselves and expect of other regional nations, in terms of sovereign respect and adherence to rules-based order, then we are calling that behaviour out.”
According to the Department of Defence, the prospect of conflict in the region remains unlikely but the possibility is less remote than previously.
Ms Reynolds said China’s behaviour had changed the region.
“Influence becomes interference. Economic co-oporation becomes coercion. Investment becomes entrapment. All of these pressures are contributing to uncertainty and tension, raising the risk of military confrontation and compromising free and open trade. Australia must be prepared for all of these strategic challenges.”
The comments follow the announcement of a $270 billion dollar investment in Australia’s defence strategy over the next 10 years.
Ms Reynolds said across the Indo-Pacific, countries are modernising their military and increasing their preparation for conflict.
“They are transforming the characteristics of warfare. Nations are increasingly employing coercive tactics that fall below the threshold of armed conflict. Cyberattacks, foreign interference and economic pressure seek to exploit the grey area between peace and war.”
It signals a significant shift in military focus.
Since 2001, Australia has invested over $15 billion on military involvement in the Middle East, and less than $4 billion in the Indo-Pacific region.
Describing the region as the “epicentre” of rising strategic competition, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred to the border dispute between India and China as an example of territorial tension.
It suggests the risk of miscalculation and conflict is heightening, he said. “Regional military modernisation is occurring at an unprecedented rate. Capabilities and reach are expanding.”
Australia plans to acquire or upgrade a large range of Navy and Army vessels, including maritime long-range missiles, air-launched strike and anti-ship weapons, as well as additional land-based weapons.
“We are undertaking the biggest regeneration of our Navy since the Second World War and have charted the transition to a fifth-generation Air Force,” Mr Morrison said.
What are China’s interests in the Indo-Pacific region?
China has a growing military presence in the South-China Sea and East-China Sea, which includes training exercises, land claims and the deployment of long-range missiles.
Its Himalayan border dispute with India has been bubbling for decades, with no official border ever having been negotiated. But tensions have escalated in recent months, with both sides anxious to upgrade their military installations in the area.
At the same time, China has extended loans to several small Pacific nations, which critics describe as unsustainable debt traps that could leave countries exposed to demands from Beijing.
In Australia, Victoria has attracted criticism from federal government MPs over its agreement under China’s belt and road initiative, which aims to revive an ancient road-and-ocean network by creating two modern transit and trade corridors between China and the rest of the world. The projects include pipelines, ports and railways.
Impact of China-US relations on the Indo-Pacific
Ms Reynolds has described China’s strategic relationship with the US as “the most consequential bilateral relationship in our region and in fact the world” and one that is “increasingly characterised by competition”.
National Executive Director of The Australian Institute for International Affairs Dr Bryce Wakefield says growing tensions between the United States and China have also put the Indo-Pacific on edge.
“It could be a strategy to deal with US decline in the region. A lot of people are concerned that the US has become more inward-looking, that its approaches to Asia and particularly China are blunt and not sophisticated. A focus on the Indo-Pacific can be, in the minds of some, a way to bring the US back to the table, securing American interest in the region,” he told SBS.
Is militarisation enough?
Dr Wakefield leads the Indo-Pacific Research Forum, a collaboration of leaders assessing interests in the Indo-Pacific region, and Australia’s place within it.
He says Australia’s military strategy should not be the only focus in the region.
“There is a danger that if we focus too much on strategy and the military as an effective instrument to protect our interests in the Indo-Pacific, then we lose a lot of nuance in our approach to very important problems there, of interest to Australia,” he told SBS News.
National Security Professor Rory Medcalf, from the Australian National University, says the focus on militarisaton suggests Australia is serious about its own defence.
“It is also a signal to China to say that we will engage with China but from a position of our own strength. This is about Australia for the first time since the 1940s thinking about itself as a country that can fight against powerful countries in our region and defend our interests” he told SBS News.
The opposition says the government has neglected the region and Pacific neighbours need more to earn Australia’s trust.
Labor’s shadow minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy says relationships with the Pacific island states should be more meaningful than just defence and security.