The US is ramping up its pressure on China while Australia – focusing its defence policy on the Indo-Pacific – emphasises America’s critical role as a stabilising force in the region. The Aussies regard NZ as a key player, too – and even the Americans now call us allies.
President Trump this week removed Hong Kong’s special status and now regards it as part of mainland China. Then David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, said if Beijing continues to block Philippine access to fishing waters in Scarborough Shoal or militarise outcroppings there, the US would regard those as “a dangerous move.”
The US will no longer remain on the sidelines when China uses “gangster tactics” to get its way in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, he said, noting that four years ago, an international arbitration panel ruled against China and said Scarborough Shoals belonged to the Philippines.
Beijing ignored the ruling, calling it “a piece of paper,” he recalled.
On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Beijing had failed to put forth a lawful, coherent maritime claim in the South China Sea. That means Washington accepts only Beijing’s territorial claims to 12 nautical miles from its coast or natural islands it controls.
China asserts it has territorial control of much of the South China Sea, bounded by what it calls the Nine-Dash Line and enforced by quasi-military installations built on artificial islands.
Australia’s Defence Strategic Update, unveiled last week, gives priority focus to its immediate region, defined as running from the eastern Indian Ocean through south-east Asia to Papua New Guinea and the south-west Pacific is now a priority focus.
Its new strategic objectives include shaping Australia’s strategic environment, deterring actions against its interests and respond with a “credible military force when required.” This is a significant shift as the 2016 Defence White Paper spread the effort over national, regional and global issues.
Launching the new document, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia had not seen such global, economic and strategic uncertainties since the 1930s. The Indo-Pacific was now the “epicentre of rising strategic competition” where the risk of miscalculation and even conflict is heightening.”
Relations between China and the US were fractious at best. Australia’s interests lay in having an “open, sovereign Indo-Pacific, free from coercion and hegemony”.
In a separate speech, Defence Minister Marise Reynolds said Australia watched closely as China actively sought to gain greater influence in the Indo-Pacific and supported China when it pursued mutual interests in security, prosperity and stability.
The paper lists New Zealand as one of Australia’s “important partners” alongside Japan and the US which remains central to its planning and is “critical” to regional security and stability.
Canberra projects defence capability spending will reach around $A270bn until 2029-30. This includes new frigates to replace the Anzacs, new submarines and the F-35 joint strike fighter.
The cost of new Defence equipment is considerable. For example, $A9.3bn is earmarked for area-denial with R and D into long-range hypersonic weapons; new long-range anti-ship missiles at $A800m; $A15bn on deployable ballistic missile defence and up to $A7bn on smart sea mines and underwater surveillance.
Then there is $A15bn to be spent on defensive and offensive cyber capabilities, command and control systems and electronic warfare systems, and $A7bn on space including Australia’s own satellite communications system.
This new focus on the Indo-Pacific at the expense of global operations (think of Afghanistan and Iraq) has been broadly endorsed by the Labor Party and confirms the largely bipartisan approach taken in Australia.
The new paper is being studied closely in NZ. At one end of the spectrum, it will be seen as yet another example of a “regional sheriff” but this overlooks how geographically close the region is to the Australian homeland – and the extent to which Canberra has invested heavily in the south-west Pacific.
Defence Minister Reynolds said the security environment had deteriorated far more quickly than predicted. This required a significant response and Australia acknowledged it had to do more “heavy lifting”, encourage others to do so and not rely on just one nation.
The US, she said, remained the “bedrock of peace and security in the region”.