Sunday, 10 April 2016

Australia’s delicate strategic balancing act

Australia’s government has been stable over the past decade, but its leadership has changed so many times that anyone would be forgiven for thinking a purge was in process. Yet while politics is ever-changing, grand strategy demands consistency and Australia is balancing a tough choice.

Its next election must be held before 14 January, 2017. However, if a double dissolution (a procedure resolve deadlocks between the House of Representatives and the Senate) is necessary, the election could be scheduled for mid-2016.

Although it remains the 12th largest economy, 2016 will be a struggle for the Lucky Country. As the slowdown in Chinese manufacturing became unavoidable in 2015, Australia’s coal and iron ore industries were hit hard. The heyday of incredible Chinese growth is probably not returning, so Australia’s government is encouraging new industries to compensate.

But whatever the formation of the next parliament, Australia will increase its regional engagement in the Asia Pacific, using its own strengthened military and warm friendship with the US military. Two recent examples point in that direction. This week, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) will participate in military exercises with the US and the Philippine navy while a recent poll suggests overwhelming voter support to build a new fleet of submarines in South Australia.

The RAN is also receiving pressure from the US Navy to join in its “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. The US continues its quarterly FONOPs near a controversial series of islands claimed by China. Washington isn’t impressed by China’s attempts to control those sea lanes but wants the RAN to assist in upholding international sea law to give the appearance of multinational unity.

Australia’s military has the capability to assist the US in maintaining this regional security. Presently the RAN has 47 warships including frigates, submarines, patrol boats and auxiliary craft based from two primary naval bases in Sydney and Perth. The largest are two Canberra class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships. These vessels displace 27,500 tonnes and can carry up to 18 helicopters, 1000 troops and 110 vehicles.

But Australia isn’t wealthy enough to defend its own security interests, which is why it works closely with the US Navy. While the RAN has some sizeable ships, Australia is essentially an island nation with thousands of nautical miles to defend. Only very wealthy nations can afford a blue water (ocean-going) navy, and Australia is not rich enough. Which means central to Australian grand strategy is the necessity of partnering with whichever nation presently controls the world’s oceans.

The same fundamental dynamics affect New Zealand. Both South Pacific nations will never become wealthy selling products and services to themselves. Instead, goods must be shipped over sea to far away markets which requires friendly and open sea lanes and lines of communication. Of course, that dependence has certain inescapable foreign policy choices.

Before the US Navy took control of the world’s nations after World War II, the Royal Navy upheld maritime security in the South Pacific. As a result, when the British Empire fought its wars, Australia and New Zealand were compelled by their debt to assist the Crown. Australia participated in the Second Boer War and both World Wars while New Zealand also joined the fighting.

Today, Australia’s relationship with the US follows the same pattern. In recent years, it joined the international effort in Afghanistan, Iraq and against the Islamic State. It has also increased its participation in maritime security across the Asia Pacific region alongside the US Navy. It does this not because of ideology – often in spite of it – but because geography always has the final say. And while Australia may look secure on a map, losing access to the oceans would be disastrous.

New Zealand’s weakness allows it to ride the coattails of Australia and choose to participate in US war requests. Wellington was compelled to fight in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq, and sent only non-combat troops to fight the Islamic State. Australia has much more to lose and often can’t deny sharing maritime patrolling burden and other commitments.

For instance, the US is presently in talks with Australia to deploy more strategic bombers at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin. In 2011, Canberra agreed to a deployment of US troops on Australian soil that would reach 2,500 by 2017. The bombers in Perth will be out of range of Chinese long-range missiles, but also places Australian cities in harm’s way should a hot war break out between China and the US.

Yet that is the reality of Australia’s geography. It must balance its grand strategy and assist the US but not hurt its relationship with its most important trading partner. China’s economy may be slowing down, but it is still deeply important to Australia’s business community. As its elections proceed, a balance will need to be found that meets both its economic and defence necessities.

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