By Brendon Nicholson
Australians have been delivered a timely warning they may be entering an era of significant strategic shifts and they should not take for granted three crucial relationships.
One is with our closest military ally, the US, which we presume will always be there to help defend us.
Another is with the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, which is growing and changing fast on our doorstep.
The third leg of what has been in recent history a sturdy triumvirate of friendships is China, but a new report suggests the possibility of an uncertain future with the unthinkable catastrophe of a ballistic missile exchange with the nation’s main trading partner.
The warnings are contained in a joint analysis of the state of the ANZUS alliance by US and Australian defence specialists with high-level access to policymakers in Washington and Canberra.
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, makes the confronting point that Australia can no long rely on its geographical isolation as one of its strongest defences.
It says there are increasing concerns about China’s behaviour in maritime disputes in the South China Sea and the possibility of Australia becoming involved if China is prepared to take more risks to consolidate its control over large areas of ocean.
And it notes studies are under way into 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. The report says there is a view in Washington that ships and aircraft based in Australia would be largely outside the range of Chinese conventionally armed ballistic missiles
Chinese operations in the Indian Ocean are a growing concern, particularly for Australia, the report says.
“Beijing may slowly be shifting from anti-access and area denial into a more power-projection focused force,” it says.
The report observes bluntly that China’s growing blue water navy and its long-range missile forces threaten to put Canberra within range of the People’s Liberation Army.
It says the era of regional stability backed by uncontested US maritime superiority “seems to be coming to a close” and Australia’s geographic location is more important to the US today than at any time since World War II.
“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),” it says.
The report says the institutional and ideological foundations of the alliance are deep and enduring.
“But no alliance should be taken for granted, particularly during periods of major structural change such as that now transpiring in Asia,” it says.
“By deploying more US forces to Australia, expanding joint development and production, and networking regional relationships, Washington hopes that the two allies can better manage regional security challenges.”
The paper on ANZUS says that since 2012 especially, Beijing has stepped up its assertiveness in the East China Sea and Chinese coastguard ships regularly patrol near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
“People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels typically remain over the horizon but their presence is intended as a warning to both the Japan Maritime Self Defence Force and the US Navy.”
The reality is that China lays claim to much of the mineral-rich South China Sea including areas also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, The Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
And both China and Russia regularly penetrate other nations’ territorial waters and airspace.
In March, the commander of the US Pacific Fleet blasted Beijing for its apparent efforts to fortify the disputed Spratly Islands by creating a “Great Wall of Sand” in the South China Sea.
Admiral Harry Harris said China was building artificial land by pumping sand on to live coral reefs — some of them submerged — and paving over them with concrete to create many square kilometres of artificial landmass. It is now building military facilities on this land including a large airstrip.
In May, Defence Department secretary, veteran diplomat and former ASIO chief Dennis Richardson said he was concerned about the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land-reclamation activities.
Richardson said that with more than half of its merchandise trade passing through the South China Sea, Australia had a national interest in safe and stable maritime routes, and freedom of navigation and overflight.
Given the size and modernisation of China’s military, the use by China of reclaimed land for military purposes would be of particular concern, he said.
“It is legitimate to raise such questions and express such concerns because tensions and potential miscalculations are not in anyone’s interest,” Richardson said. “The speed and scale of China’s land reclamation on disputed reefs and other features does raise the question of intent and purpose.
“It is legitimate to ask the purpose of the land reclamation — tourism appears unlikely.”
Paul Dibb, a defence white paper author and key architect of the Defence of Australia strategy, has long been warning that the chances of a military confrontation over disputed territories have risen significantly. He has argued strongly that a system must be set up to avoid unintended collisions or clashes on the high seas that could lead to conflict.
Last year, the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, which includes the chiefs of navy of most nations in that area including the US, Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan, agreed to a new Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to reduce the chances of an incident escalating out of control.
Warships would not point missiles, guns, or torpedoes at each other and they would not “lock on” radars or use lasers to blind members of other crews.
Nor would they get in the way of ships that were launching or landing aircraft.
China later suggested the agreement did not apply in its exclusive economic zones.
The US and Australia are among many nations that insist on freedom of navigation, or to carry out surveillance or gather intelligence in such zones but not in territorial seas.
Dibb says the Chinese view of CUES is different from everybody else’s view.
“They say you can’t do any of those things in exclusive economic zones, so CUES does not apply,” he says.
“The problem is of course that we don’t know whether the Chinese do or do not claim exclusive economic zones around all these small islands and islets and artificial structures in the South China Sea.
“If it does, that completely negates and undermines the whole purpose of CUES.”
Last year the agreement was endorsed by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. They also agreed to work to avoid such encounters involving aircraft.
Dibb says while progress has been promised it remains to be seen how well it is implemented.
“If it is good enough for the leaders of the US and China to sign such an agreement, and to work towards one on aircraft, why can’t China and Japan sign such an agreement?” asks Dibb.
“We all know that is the most dangerous encounter we could conceive of on the high seas.”
China claims vast areas of the South China Sea inside what it describes as “the nine dashed line” including waters that the rest of the world considers international.
Dibb says China’s territorial claims are highly questionable and should be challenged.
“If we give China the elbow room to coerce us not to challenge their disputed claims and not to go into disputed areas, we are conceding the game to them, and I think that’s wrong,” he says.
The ANZUS report also raises the possibility of an increasingly powerful Indonesia replacing Australia in the future as the US go-to ally in the Asia-Pacific region, and it calls for the creation of a new trilateral security process to militate against any potential rift between Jakarta, Canberra and Washington.
If the US seeks to build Indonesian military capabilities as a bulwark against Chinese power, Australia may feel less enamoured of the US, and US expectations of Australia may actually diminish, it says.
“Conversely, history suggests that there is no guarantee that Washington will side with Canberra in times of crisis involving Indonesia — particularly an Indonesia whose geostrategic importance is perceived to be on the rise.”
The report points out as an example of why Australia should not presume too much of the US, the experience during the late 1960s when Washington refused to back Australian opposition to Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua for fear of driving Jakarta into the arms of Beijing.
Then, in 1999, Australia’s calls for the provision of US “boots on the ground” during the crisis in East Timor went unheeded.
The shifting strategic sands identified in the report will provide food for thought for some of those urging big changes in defence decision-making.
The argument that Australia should replace its existing diesel-electric submarines with nuclear- powered boats has recently resurfaced, with proponents arguing strongly that a new fleet of conventional submarines would be badly outclassed in a war.
But without the support of a national nuclear industry, the Royal Australian Navy would not be able to operate nuclear submarines until a whole generation of nuclear physicists is trained to operate and support them, perhaps in 30 years.
One answer that has been suggested would be for the RAN to “borrow” necessary crucial crew members from whoever supplied the nuclear submarines, presumably the US. That would raise significant sovereignty issues. What if Australia’s cabinet opted to send a nuclear submarine secretly into Indonesia waters at a time of bilateral tension with Jakarta, against Washington’s objections. The US might order home its nuclear technicians, leaving Australia’s submarines inoperable.
The report makes it clear that if the regional situation deteriorates, Australia will need Indonesia. It says Australia’s ability to police the maritime approaches to its northern shores will also be increasingly important as China’s military operations shift outward.
“Chinese projection of power through the Indian Ocean along the Maritime Silk Road must necessarily pass through the Indonesian archipelago,” the report says. “As a result, close co-operation with Indonesia, Singapore and others may be required to monitor the movements of regional militaries.”
Some of the issues raised in the report on ANZUS are hypothetical but they are providing food for thought for decision-makers.
Australia has hundreds of ADF personnel on exchange or embedded into the US military and the report says this is set to grow substantially in the next few years.
On the positive side, experts in Washington want Australia’s help to network US allies and partners in Asia where this nation’s ties have long helped to bridge the gap between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the US and helped to guide US interactions in the region.
“Washington’s expectations of Canberra are growing as Australia’s own influence expands and as Australia’s geopolitical position becomes more central in US regional strategy.”
This article was originally published at The Australian