The Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Allard

Australia needs to refocus its military on security in the region and rethink its commitment to the Middle East as the expansion of the naval and missile capability of an increasingly aggressive China "threatens to put Canberra within range".

The assessment in a new report into the ANZUS alliance by prominent US and Australian defence analysts comes as Australia boosts its role in the fight against Islamic State as the second largest contributor in the US-led multinational coalition.

"Australia's geographic isolation has long been one of its strongest defences," the report — The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia — 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."

The rise of China's military power and its increasingly assertive stance in prosecuting its territorial claims — including building air strips and other infrastructure in contested areas in the South China and East China seas — risks "direct conflict" between Australia and its biggest trading partner.

And, states the report, it requires "detailed and frank discussions" about where Australia deploys its military assets.

"The era of regional stability backed by uncontested US maritime supremacy [in the Asia-Pacific] that underwrote ANZUS's extra-regional focus after the end of the Cold War is coming to a close," it reads.

Since the first Gulf War, Australia has continuously had military assets in the Middle East, increasing significantly during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq after the attacks by al-Qaeda on New York and Washington in 2001.

After a brief pause, Australia's involvement in the Middle East deepened. Some 900 military personnel have been deployed to fight Islamic State in the past nine months, along with FA-18 Super Hornets strike jets and other support aircraft.

While the involvement in those conflicts enhanced the co-operation of the countries' militaries, "the operational focus in the Middle East at times detracted from the needed geopolitical focus in the Asia-Pacific", the report states.

"In order for the alliance to be successful in Asia, a renewed strategic focus on the region will be necessary".

This is especially the case when budgetary pressures are challenging governments' abilities to fund defence spending.

One of the report's authors Michael Green, who was a national security adviser to US president George W. Bush, did not back an immediate draw down in Australia's presence in and around Iraq.

"But the American and Australian strategic and operational on the problem of [Islamic State] in the Middle East has gotten ahead of our strategic and operational discussions on the Pacific. We need to step up discussions at a strategic level and also operationally."

Calling for Australia to become a "central hub" for the US-led "security order" in the region, the report notes that Washington wants greater access for its naval and air assets in Australia, in addition to the rotation of up to 2500 US marines through Darwin each year.

"It's necessary because of the tensions in the South China Sea," Dr Green said. "China has a grand strategy and it is, over time, to facilitate a return to a more Sino-centric order in Asia ...

"The Chinese leadership has judged it has a lot more room to move than we thought they had to push the boundaries and coerce smaller neighbours."

"There's going to have to be a little bit of tension and a little bit of risk in the relations with China because they are now thinking they can get away with more," he. said.

Responding to the report's warnings about China's military capability, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he wanted to focus on the "strength of the friendship [with China] rather than on hypothetical possibilities in many, many years' time".

This article was originally published in the The Sydney Morning Herald