Australia and the United States wrapped up Exercise Talisman Sabre earlier this month, the largest combined military activity on the bilateral defence cooperation agenda. As the two nations prepare to mark the 70th anniversary of their alliance on 1 September, these high-end drills are a tangible sign of progress towards deepening military interoperability and updating the alliance for a contested Indo-Pacific future. But this year’s Talisman Sabre also signals a more far-reaching shift: the emergence of the Australia-US alliance as a vehicle for advancing a strategy of collective defence among other Indo-Pacific allies.
For the first time, both Japan and South Korea sent forces to join the thousands of Australian and US troops amassing on Australia’s north-eastern coast. With small contingents from the other Five Eyes partners — Britain, New Zealand and Canada — also taking part, Talisman Sabre 2021 was one of the most sophisticated multi-domain, multi-partner wargames ever held in Australia. It’s exactly the kind of high-end security networking that the Indo-Pacific needs to accelerate.
Northeast Asia, down under
The case for deepening collective defence arrangements is crystal clear: faced with an increasingly aggressive China and America’s declining relative military position, Indo-Pacific nations must come together to jointly uphold a favourable balance of power and stable regional order.
Canberra’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update recognises this reality and envisages multilateral deterrence as a priority to manage China’s growing power and coercive statecraft. Washington, too, is coming to terms with the need for a more federated approach to regional defence strategy, building out a new concept of ‘integrated deterrence’ that would see the US pull contributions from allies and partners across the multi-domain spectrum of competition.
Deepening high-end military integration between America’s premier Indo-Pacific allies is essential to delivering on a collective defence agenda. That Tokyo and Seoul are increasingly willing security partners is critical to its overall success. Japan is no newcomer to defence networking with Australian forces. The Japan Self-Defense Force has participated in Talisman Sabre since 2015 and has now twice sent major surface combatants and its Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade to train alongside US and Australian forces.
Despite the glacial progress on a bilateral Reciprocal Access Agreement, Japan and Australia have nevertheless deepened their defence cooperation in recent years. In 2020, both sides agreed to increase the sophistication of their Indo-Pacific exercises and operations, step up combined maritime activities in the South China Sea, and accelerate trilateral interoperability training with the US military. Crucially, Japan’s Ambassador to Australia, Yamagami Shingo, has stressed Tokyo’s interest in increasing the frequency of high-end drills with Australia, for which new legal and operational agreements are currently laying the groundwork.
South Korea, by contrast, is only beginning to pursue closer defence ties with Australia in earnest. This makes its 2021 Talisman Sabre debut all the more significant. Responding to repeated invitations by Canberra to take part in the military exercises down under, Seoul’s decision to send a destroyer points to a growing appetite for region-wide defence cooperation. Indeed, had it not been for COVID-19 restrictions, South Korea would have also sent a battalion of marines to join US and Australian troops.
Drawing Seoul’s strategic gaze to the south is a key goal for Canberra. Historically, defence ties between Australia and South Korea have been bound to the Peninsula’s local security concerns through naval exercises and a decades-long engagement with the United Nations Command. But more frequent military exercises and expanding defence industry links are slowly transforming the Australia-South Korea security partnership and elevating its broader geopolitical relevance.
Towards collective maritime operations
Japan and Korea have much to gain by backing an active collective defence agenda with the Australia-US alliance. While both are still primarily concerned by Northeast Asia’s military balance, Tokyo and Seoul have deep interests in a stable rules-based order across the wider Indo-Pacific. Whether it’s the threat of disruption to trade and energy supply routes or the erosion of international maritime laws and norms, both states are deeply implicated by Beijing’s challenges to the status quo in waterways across Southeast Asia and the north-eastern Indian Ocean.
These threats are changing their strategic outlook. Japanese officials are increasingly vocal about the impact of the region’s deteriorating strategic environment on Japanese security, placing greater stock in Canberra as a partner of choice in responding to a shared China challenge. Although South Korea has been more reluctant to call out Beijing’s destabilising actions, references to the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, South China Sea and East China Sea in recent dialogues with the US and Japan suggest that Seoul’s strategic calculus is evolving.
Beyond Talisman Sabre, the growing alignment of strategic interests among all four countries has translated into other defence cooperation successes. Most significantly, Japan, South Korea, the US and Australia have staged the high-end Pacific Vanguard naval exercises four times since 2019. Held in Australian waters for the first time this year, these drills aim to improve this group’s capacity to operate as a combined maritime task force, with a focus on advanced surface and subsurface warfare.
But more must be done to operationalise this cooperation for collective deterrence effects. Just as the Quad — the US, Australia, Japan and India — should strive towards undertaking peacetime maritime domain awareness and anti-submarine warfare operations, so too should its Western Pacific cousin. Pooling resources for these and other tasks — like theatre missile defence — will be increasingly necessary to offset projected shortfalls in America’s regional military capacity and address the challenges posed by China’s rapidly growing armed forces.
Transforming military exercises into collective deterrence operations will require the US, Australia, Japan and South Korea to double down on their strategic, military and technical coordination. This is a difficult path to tread even at the bilateral level. But it is vital to upholding the Indo-Pacific order. Reassuringly, it’s being spurred on by the networking agenda of the Australia-US alliance.