National Security Strategy

The National Security Strategy released in January 2013 is perceived as shifting the focus of national security away from non-state actors and terrorism towards the risks of regional conflict.5 It stresses the importance of Australia’s regional defence engagement in support of national security and calls for deepening security dialogues and combined defence activities with key partners across the region to build greater understanding, trust and cooperation.6 The strategy recognizes the Australia-US Alliance as a key pillar of national security.

Australia’s regional military engagement

Central to Australia’s strategic posture is its network of alliances, its bilateral and multilateral defence relationships and the growing range of multilateral security forums and arrangements in the region.7 The alliance with the United States is Australia’s most important defence relationship, providing Australia with significant access to American materiel, intelligence, research and development, communications systems, and skills and expertise that substantially strengthen the ADF.8 This relationship underpins virtually all Australia’s defence policies and day-to-day activities.

The Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) is Australia’s major alliance in the region. FPDA remains important to Australia as an accepted entry point into the defence and security environment of Southeast Asia. Despite occasional criticism that the FPDA has lost its relevance, the arrangements still offer benefits to the participants but in different ways. They provide a potentially useful operational security link into Southeast Asia for Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. They retain some deterrent value for Singapore. They remain a comfortable cooperative agreement between generally like-minded nations that share a common doctrinal and cultural background in the British armed forces. The defence forces of these nations are able to come together to exercise and develop their tactical doctrine and share practical experiences in an environment that is mainly non-threatening.

Australia’s regional military engagement occurs at three broad levels: strategic, operational and tactical. At a strategic level, Defence to Defence talks occur regularly with many regional countries, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and most Southeast Asian countries, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. At an operational level, Australia is regularly involved in a large number of international exercises in the region. Interactions at the tactical level include Australia’s leading role in the Integrated Area Defence System under FPDA and regular lower scale passage exercises between Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships and regional naval vessels. Australia has a liaison officer at the Information Fusion Centre at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore and is seeking to join ReCAAP.

In a practical sense, Australia has to be careful with how it engages in the region. Air exercises with Japan and the United States off Guam are possibly acceptable because they are geographically removed from ‘hot spots’ in East Asia and are an opportunity for advanced air forces that share much American equipment and doctrine to exercise together. On the other hand, combined amphibious exercises with the United States and the Philippines in the South China Sea would be inadvisable as they may imply that Australia was supporting the Philippines’ disputed territorial claims.

While the United States claims that it is open-minded on the South China Sea disputes, by exercising with the Philippines in the disputed areas and forging closer defence ties with Vietnam, it is seen as having taken a position. This is how the situation is viewed in Manila, Hanoi and Beijing, only adding to the nationalistic fervour that prevents effective cooperation to manage and resolve the disputes. While China has been acting more assertively in the maritime disputes in East Asia, in part this is in response to initial actions by other parties. This adds to the unfortunate game of ‘tit for tat’ in regional seas that benefits nobody.9

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