Canberra’s momentous decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines through the new Aukus arrangement with London and Washington is an unmistakable sign of Australia’s commitment to balance China’s military power in the Indo-Pacific region.
But it’s far from enough. Assuming all goes to plan with the design, negotiations, building, budget, training and testing, Australia’s first submarine won’t enter operational service until the late-2030s at the earliest.
By that point the strategic environment could look a lot worse.
According to the government’s sobering 2020 defence strategic update, coercion and grey-zone activities are undermining Australia’s security interests now. Though not identified, China is the great power behind official alarm over the prevalence of “para-military forces, militarisation of disputed features, exploiting influence, interference operations and the coercive use of trade and economic levers”.
Grey-zone activities are the use of asymmetric tactics – such as political warfare, maritime coercion and economic pressure – to achieve strategic goals without the overt use of military force.
Canberra’s proposed solution is the right one: to “shape” the strategic environment, “deter” actions against Australian interests and “respond” with credible military force if required.
But not enough emphasis is being placed on shaping – which is how Australia and its like-minded partners must resist Beijing’s grey-zone campaign and aggressive push to replace the Indo-Pacific’s rules-based order with a Chinese sphere of influence.
While engineers and technicians bustle in design labs and dry docks, Canberra must regain its initiative and actively push back in the grey zone, where Australia and its regional neighbours are canaries in the coalmine.
Since at least 2018, China has attempted to gain military access in Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Solomon Islands. Major cyber-attacks have increased against federal and state government targets, including Australia’s parliament, political parties, essential services and critical infrastructure providers. Chinese espionage is rising, economic coercion has wiped billions from national coffers and Beijing’s local “wolf warriors” have laid out 14 grievances for Canberra to obey.
China’s biggest grey-zone win has been achieved in the South China Sea through illegal land reclamation, unopposed construction of military airfields and bases, and the use of coastguards and fishing militias to intimidate others into submission. China’s military forces now operate freely from its illegal outposts.
Elsewhere in south-east Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam continue to be targets, facing persistent cyber-espionage, infringements of their airspace, Covid-19 disinformation and electoral interference. And well before grey zone became the zeitgeist of regional geopolitics, Taiwan battled Chinese aggression beneath the threshold of armed conflict for decades.
These are only a few examples of Beijing’s revisionist actions. While China’s intentions and tactics are now being unmasked, president Xi Jinping is largely getting away with it and building China’s coercive momentum in the face of collective timidity.
Australia is beginning to spearhead resistance. In recent years, Canberra has introduced sweeping counter-foreign-interference laws, banned Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network, tightened rules governing foreign investment and research partnerships, and taken tough diplomatic positions on China’s behaviour in the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang.
The government has adopted the right language about collectively “limit[ing] the exercise of coercive power” and working to “build a secure, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific of independent, sovereign and resilient states”.
But a more decisive approach is required to push back in the grey zone between foreign policy and the use of force.
This doesn’t require billions of dollars in new military hardware. Cannier uses of existing capabilities and resources, underpinned by a coherent strategy and imaginative thinking, is what’s needed.
Militarily, Australia needs unorthodox options to clandestinely disrupt China’s grey-zone threats and strategic planning across the region. Large underwater drones, new types of special forces and expanding the means of information warfare are a good place to start. Alongside actively deceiving or disrupting Chinese intelligence operations, these are all cost-effective ways that can make a difference today.
More should also be done to help Australia’s regional partners resist Chinese coercion and defend their own sovereignty. Sharing intelligence, stepping up combined maritime patrols in disputed waters and increasing military and intelligence capacity-building are crucial.
When requested, Australia and other middle powers should be more willing to provide direct operational support to assure south-east Asian and Pacific countries on the frontline of Chinese coercion – a task that’s often done best without publicity.
Finally, in the contest for regional hearts and minds, Canberra needs a bolder voice to contest Beijing’s propaganda and counteract its chequebook influence. As Australian defence force chief Angus Campbell says, sunshine is “an extraordinarily powerful disinfectant” – it can disarm disinformation and expose Chinese coercion. But operating in this space requires an agile mindset. Australia must borrow from Europe’s response to Russian info-wars while adopting a more decentralised approach that reflects the Indo-Pacific’s political and cultural diversity.
Australia can’t counter China’s grey-zone coercion or shape the strategic environment alone. But it can make significant inroads by pursuing an active grey-zone strategy itself. This kind of asymmetric approach will achieve far more this decade than purchasing nuclear-powered submarines or other high-end military platforms for service in the 2030s. Both lines of effort are needed to resist succumbing to a Chinese sphere of influence. The time for Australia and its friends to invest more in the least expensive option is now.