Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 03:28 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 03:28 | SYDNEY

Returning geography to Australian strategy

6 July 2011 16:03

Geoffrey Barker is a defence and foreign-affairs columnist for the Australian Financial Review and a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU.

Of course the Defence Force Posture Review announced by Defence Minister Stephen Smith is primarily about hedging against increasingly active and aggressive Chinese naval and air power. But it is also about hedging against the possibility of the United States deciding to discontinue or to diminish its willingness to act as a stabilising force in the Asia Pacific and around the Indian Ocean rim.

Smith's statement came as President Barack Obama announced his decision to start withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan and declared the time had come for the US to start nation-building at home. Obama's announcement was not surprising given the human and economic sacrifices the US has made in Afghanistan, the unpopularity of the ten-year war as the President embarks on his re-election campaign, and the state of the US economy.

It remains Australia's hope and expectation that the US will stay strongly engaged and involved in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, perhaps making greater use of Australian bases. Indeed Smith's statement notes that his review will complement work underway with the US on the ongoing US global force posture review, which seems certain to alter the disposition of US forces in the region.

Australia's decision to fight on apparently indefinitely in Afghanistan seems driven by Canberra's hopes that it might help to persuade the US to remain fully engaged in the Asia-Pacific as Chinese military power grows. Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper noted that any US regional retrenchment would be of 'particular concern'.

But an ongoing full-strength US presence cannot be assumed — especially with secretary of state Hilary Clinton and Defence Secretary Robert Gates quitting the administration.

The US is periodically attracted to isolationism, especially after it has been painfully engaged in the world and is suffering economically. Obama understandably wants now to strengthen America domestically, rather than enhance its global military might.

So Stephen Smith has prudently commissioned two distinguished former defence department secretaries, Dr. Allan Hawke and Ric Smith, to assess whether the defence force is 'correctly geographically positioned to meet Australia's modern and future strategic and security challenges'. Their findings will inform the next (2014) Defence White Paper.

It is an important initiative for three reasons. First, because it because it is the first full-scale force posture review since the Hawke-Keating years and it will help to determine where Australia will base many of its planned new military capabilities — especially new jet fighters, submarines and surface ships — for optimum regional use.

Second, because it recognises the urgency of protecting remote and vulnerable western and northern gas and petroleum resource developments, and their growing communities. Protection of these assets is essential given rising energy insecurity and maritime competition in north Asia.

Third, because it recognises the importance of geography in Australian military strategy and reinforces the 2009 White Paper view that 'our capacity for influence and imperative for action are going to be a function of proximity'. During the Howard government era the importance of geography in strategic security was at times denied.

Smith said the force posture review would assess the rise of the Asia Pacific as a region of global strategic significance, the rise of the Indian Ocean rim, the growth of military power projection capabilities of Asia-Pacific countries, and the energy security and security issues in Australia's north-west and northern approaches.

Put plainly, it is about where Australia should base its new ships and planes and soldiers to assist in helping to maintain stability in the highly contested South China Sea and the Indian ocean region. It is about supporting US and possibly Indian power and resisting if necessary Chinese naval aggression which is already increasing. It is also about ensuring that sea lines of communication for merchant shipping to and from Australia are not disrupted. And it is about the 2009 White Paper goal of creating a defence force able to impose 'substantial costs' on a 'major power adversary'.

The decision to conduct a force structure review indicates that these concerns have intensified even as Australia has moved to strengthen trade relationships with China. The review seems certain to emphasise the need to base sea, air and land forces increasingly in the west, north-west and north of the country and in Queensland. That is what our geography requires, whatever the future levels of American support and engagement.

Photo, of an M1A1 Abrams Tank training in the Norther Territory, courtesy of the Department of Defence.