China’s growing naval power and long-range missiles threaten to bring Canberra within range of the People’s Liberation Army as Australia’s geographical isolation no longer protects it.
The dramatic warning is contained in a joint analysis of the state of the ANZUS alliance by US and Australian defence specialists with high-level access to key policymakers in Washington and Canberra.
The report says there are increasing concerns about China’s behaviour in maritime disputes in the South China Sea and about the possibility of Australia becoming involved if China takes more risks to consolidate its control over large areas of ocean, including the Indian Ocean.
It says current strategic movements, and the rise of China, indicate that the era of regional stability backed by uncontested US maritime superiority “seems to be coming to a close”.
“The challenge arises from the fact that China’s expanding military capabilities and self-declared line of defence have created scenarios that could involve allies like Australia in direct conflict with their largest trading partner,” the report says.
The report, The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia, by the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, will be released today at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. It comes as one of the world’s largest military exercises, the three-week Operation Talisman Sabre, gets under way in the Top End and north Queensland, involving 30,000 troops mainly from the US, Australia and, for the first time, Japan.
Japan is one of the nations most concerned about the increasing military power of China and is in a long-running dispute with Beijing about territories in the South China Sea.
The new report on ANZUS notes the view in Washington that ships and aircraft based in Australia would currently be largely outside the range of Chinese conventionally-armed ballistic missiles. But Chinese operations in the Indian Ocean are a growing concern, particularly for Australia.
“Beijing may slowly be shifting from anti-access and area denial into a more power-projection focused force,” the report says. “Australia’s geographic isolation has long been one of its strongest defences, as has been the case for the United States. Yet, China’s growing blue-water navy and its long-range missile forces threaten to put Canberra within range of the People’s Liberation Army.”
Studies are under way on giving the US increased access to Australian ports, especially at Fleet Base West, south of Perth, for its surface warships, submarines and giant landing ships. Operation Talisman Sabre, attended by Tony Abbott yesterday, will be 20 days of “high-end” war-fighting, with special forces activities, amphibious landings, parachuting, land forces manoeuvring, urban operations, air operations, maritime operations and the co-ordinated firing of small arms, artillery, naval vessels and aircraft.
The operation covers defence ranges near Rockhampton, 600km north of Brisbane, and southwest of Darwin. The Prime Minister said it was “perhaps the largest military exercise of its type in the world". “And it’s involving about 30,000 troops, mostly from Australia and the United States, but we’ve also got troops from some other countries as well."
Asked whether China would be concerned by such an exercise, Mr Abbott said “the Chinese obviously appreciate that we are an ally of the United States, but our alliance with the United States has never stopped a very strong friendship with China.
“Both the United States and Australia are friends of China’s."
The report on ANZUS says Australia’s importance to US national security is growing, and so are Washington’s hopes and expectations for the contribution it can make to regional security.
Three vital areas are access to Australian facilities, developing Australia’s naval capabilities and building Australia into a regional hub for co-operation with other allies. Australia’s geographic location is more important to the US today than at any time since World War II, the report says.
“Australia serves both as a link between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and as a sanctuary from China’s anti-access/area denial capabilities (missile systems).
“US officials have therefore focused on expanding US military access and joint training in Australia and gaining access to additional facilities for joint training and operations.”
US marines already rotated through Darwin, which could be an important operating location and hub for training with amphibious forces, including those from Canada, South Korea, Japan and New Zealand. That could be critical in disaster-relief operations.
“In higher intensity regional crises, access to air and naval bases, particularly the northern air bases and the southern port of Perth, would be strategically important to overall US strategy,” the report says.
The report says Washington wants to see Australia’s capabilities improve to deal with possible threats from aircraft, naval vessels or long-range missiles.
This article was originally published in The Australian