Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 03:35 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 13 Oct 2021 | 03:35 | SYDNEY

What I saw at Kakadu IX


Rory Medcalf


15 August 2008 16:20

It’s not every day you see warships from as far away as Japan and Pakistan in Australian waters. So I was surprised that the Australian and international media did not take more notice of Kakadu IX, Australia’s largest multinational maritime exercise, which concluded in the waters off Darwin recently.

This combined international exercise involved naval (and some air) forces from Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Pakistan, Japan and France, totalling about 2,000 personnel, with observers from Indonesia, the Philippines...and the Lowy Institute. I spent five days at sea observing the exercise as a guest of the Royal Australian Navy and several other participating navies.

At one level, exercises like this are about giving multiple navies some much-needed practise in working together, whether on fundamental skills such as communications and sailing in formation, ‘non-traditional’ activities such as disaster relief or search and rescue, and rehearsing more warlike scenarios. At the same time, the simple fact of requiring the armed forces of many diverse countries to work together brings its own benefits – including an inevitable degree of transparency. By the end of the show, participants have a sharper sense of each other’s professionalism; you know who you’d be comfortable having by your side in a crisis. 

Australia’s ability to draw together such a wide range of partners for this activity is a genuine demonstration of this country’s potential as a broker of regional co-operation at a much more practical end of security diplomacy than the now thankfully abolished ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial musical evenings. The involvement of a major Japanese ship – the Murasame-class destroyer Samidare (pictured; photo by me) – was a real achievement: a sign of the health of Australia-Japan defence relations, and of Japan’s cautiously increasing comfort levels with international engagement by its Maritime Self-Defense Force. A Japanese warship in Darwin harbour with friendly intent was a welcome sight.

Japan’s presence and China’s absence do not mean, however, that Kakadu IX could by any stretch be seen as a ‘China containment’ gesture, in the way that last year’s Malabar exercise was misread. For a start, the US was not a player in this one. And Pakistan is hardly a contender for an anti-China coalition. Indian involvement, incidentally, seemed on the cards – and it would have been fascinating to see Indian and Pakistani ships on the same side, even if just in a game – but did not eventuate this time for New Delhi’s entirely domestic reasons. That was definitely India’s loss, and disappointing for those of us who would like to see India constructively and steadily engaged in East Asian security matters. 

From a purely diplomatic perspective, the absence of both the US and China from Kakadu IX is intriguing. Yet America’s exclusion from some such enterprises is not necessarily a bad thing. Another example: the US was not invited to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, convened by its friend India in February. It makes sense for a range of regional countries to sometimes test the waters of co-operation without the superpower directly at hand. Most participants in Kakadu IX have plenty of other chances to co-ordinate with the US Navy. And Australia, for its part, has an enduring US alliance – including in the maritime domain – as a series of commemorative events about to begin in Sydney will remind us. It was exactly 100 years ago that the US Great White Fleet dropped by, first raising Antipodean expectations of a great and powerful friend.

Which leaves China. The big question for Australia, the US and many of the countries whose ships and aircraft have just left Darwin is how to engage with Beijing’s growing maritime power. Multinational exercises and actual multilateral co-operation – like the US-India-Japan-Australia core group that delivered tsunami relief – require trust and transparency as a starting point. This is a question that I hope a forthcoming Lowy Institute symposium will help address.