Letting the Beijing bully know this is our neighbourhood
The government’s decision to expand significantly our key northern air force base near Katherine, about 300km southeast of Darwin, is a giant strategic step forward, delivering a firmer deterrent posture and a closer alliance with the US.
A stronger Australian defence posture in the north also could be the basis for a greater leadership role in the region, where we can work with key Southeast Asian partners Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and, hopefully, Vietnam in a shared strengthening of the region.
Especially valuable is that the enhancements at RAAF Base Tindal are planned to be finished by 2027. By contrast, in 2027 the first of our new Attack-class submarines still will be nine years from entering navy service.
The importance of the new submarines should not be underestimated, but the security of the region is changing so fast that Australia needs urgently to boost its military hitting power and strengthen our deterrence capability. There is no better or quicker way to do this than through air power and the US alliance.
I’m very positive about this military strengthening, not least because a decade ago I led the Defence effort to expand co-operation with the US in northern Australia. There were three reasons for establishing a US Marine Corps presence in the north and planning for increased air force and navy co-operation.
First, it added a new dimension of closer co-operation with the US, deepening American engagement in, and commitment to, Australian security. This is a hugely valuable deterrent asset for Australia, one that complicates the planning of any potential adversary.
Second, this co-operation will modernise the alliance and make it better suited to handle emerging threats. The northern focus will be on the ability to disperse rapidly and deploy forces over long distances; to extend the range of combat hitting power and to bring our military forces into more effective hi-tech co-operation.
Third, enhanced northern co-operation is a strong signal of American and Australian interest in the security of Southeast Asia.
Geography doesn’t change. Southeast Asia was the strategic fulcrum around which the Pacific War was fought and it is the region most sharply in Beijing’s sights as the Chinese Communist Party seeks to weaken the US’s security leadership in the Asia-Pacific.
A much sharper strategic competition for influence is building in Asia between the US and China. Australia can’t opt out from this reality. Washington and its key allies, Japan and Australia, need to give the wider region some confidence that collectively we can push back against Beijing’s bullying.
The bones of the enhanced northern defence co-operation plan were shaped in early 2011 and announced in November that year in Darwin by Barack Obama and Julia Gillard. We should have done a better job of bringing Indonesia into the discussion, and Indonesia’s president at the time, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, did Canberra and Washington an enormous favour by graciously accepting what he knew to be a positive strategic development for the region, not withstanding some failings to bring him into the discussion.
Learning from that mistake, Scott Morrison should brief President Joko Widodo quickly. He must surely have been given a heads-up about the Tindal development on his recent Canberra visit.
Jokowi’s speech to the Australian parliament, in which he said “Australia adalah sahabat paling dekat Indonesia” — Australia is Indonesia’s closest friend — is not simply an expression of friendship so much as it is a statement of shared strategic risk.
In contrast to the strategic outlook of two decades ago — when East Timor’s independence loomed large and trust with Jakarta was abysmally low — this new stage of defence interest in Australia’s north can involve Indonesia as a vital partner.
Of course, the most dramatic difference between the strategic situation at the time of the Obama-Gillard announcement and today is China. In 2011 Xi Jinping had yet to become President, had yet to assume permanent personal control and had yet to purge the Communist Party and military of his factional rivals. China had not yet annexed the vast bulk of the South China Sea, building three substantial military bases and bringing Chinese air and maritime power into the heart of Southeast Asia.
In 2011 China was well down the track of modernising its military forces but few Western analysts at that time would have imagined how far and how quickly the People’s Liberation Army would develop in less than a decade.
China’s reaction to the expansion of Australian and US air power out of RAAF Base Tindal and Darwin will take two forms — one public and one private.
Publicly, Beijing’s diplomats, PLA senior colonels and party editorial writers will berate Australia for “Cold War thinking”, for failing to appreciate the benign intent of Belt and Road economic entanglement and for misrepresenting China’s honourable and defensive cyber espionage operations.
In Australia, a variegated collection of China boosters, US alliance haters and people determined to see in our modest defence companies a “mini-me” military-industrial complex, will complain about the government’s initiative and, indeed, about the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s gall to talk frankly about the strategic risks of an assertive, authoritarian China.
Can Beijing’s response and its domestic echoes be completely unconnected? China’s palpable decision to turn the diplomatic dial to “loud and angry” has been noted around the world.
It seems any national expression of independence not completely aligned with “Xi Jinping thought” will aggressively be refuted. Any attempt to enhance Australian and US military co-operation — which has, after all, been the core of our defence policy since before the communist takeover in China — will be treated as an affront by Beijing. None of this should matter to the Prime Minister. A more private Chinese leadership reaction will be to regard the Tindal announcement as a logical strategic response to China’s influence-building in Southeast Asia. Beijing’s strategic planners are opportunistic realists. They understand how to make tough judgments based on national interest and they will see the Tindal announcement in that light.
China views Australia’s defence alliance with the US with a mix of envy and puzzlement: envy because the alliance gives Australia access to a trove of technology and information that China could never source through willing partnerships.
The puzzlement is about how countries can co-operate so effectively based on trust, strategic interest and shared values. China does not have these types of relationships.
What should happen next in Australia-US defence co-operation in northern Australia?
There is certainly scope to expand the size of the marine corps footprint now at about 2500 personnel annually.
Australia also is well placed to offer sophisticated air training ranges in the north to countries that, like us, are buying the Joint Strike Fighter — Japan, South Korea and Singapore. At the heart of these trends is the increasing need for weapons with extensive range. Finding a weapon that can push the hitting power and deterrent effect of the Australian Defence Force well north of the Indonesian archipelago is the next essential task for defence planners.
Finally, there is the Port of Darwin, now in year five of its 99-year lease to a Chinese company. How long will that odd deal last in an emerging new regional order that makes northern Australia more strategically significant to the country, our allies and our neighbours?
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Defence Department.