Australia’s Geostrategic Support for the U.S. Pivot to Asia Policy

Sailors observe as an Australian Royal Navy Westland Sea King Mk.50 helicopter takes off for a ship to ship personnel transfer from the amphibious transport dock ship USS Cleveland (Credits: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eli J. Medellin, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 15 Issue 3
Author: Riccardo Rossi

With the 2012 appointment of Xi Jinping as Head of State, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) developed a wide-ranging program called China Dream, aimed at returning the nation to a primary role in the Asia-Pacific region. This assertive approach of Beijing in the Asia-Pacific has led the Obama administration to develop a specific foreign policy line for this area called Pivot to Asia, to circumscribe the Chinese military presence within the first island chain.[1]

The adoption of this program by the Obama Presidency, confirmed by his successors Trump and Biden, required, among other aspects, adequate political-military support from the most advanced countries in the region, such as South Korea, Japan and Australia.

In the case of Australia, this contribution is in part facilitated by the presence of historical-cultural affinities with the United States, such as to allow a better understanding between the two governments on the implementation of the Pivot to Asia doctrine.

Based on these observations, the analysis aims to clarify why Washington led to consider Australia an essential ally for Chinese containment within the waters of the South China Sea.

The role of Australia in the U.S. Pivot to Asia policy

During Obama’s two presidential terms, the United States identified the increase in Beijing’s military presence in the Asia-Pacific region as one of the main threats to the geopolitical stability of this area. Evaluation that led the Obama administration in 2011 to develop a specific foreign policy line for this region called Pivot to Asia, aimed at countering Chinese assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific.

The implementation of this program has required the Obama Presidency to elaborate a strategic doctrine that combines the tactical-strategic enhancement of the U.S. Navy, Army and Airforce bases located in South Korea, Japan, Philippines, Australia and Guam, with the request for adequate political-military support to the most advanced allied countries in the Asia-Pacific, such as the Republic of Korea, the Rising Sun and Australia.

Regarding this last point, Australia’s contribution is in part facilitated by the presence of historical-cultural affinities with the United States, which can be traced back to being, respectively, part of the Anglosphere, defined by Andrew Mycock and Ben Wellings in their text «The Anglosphere: Past, present and future » as :

«Anglophonic community bonded by a shared language (English) […] literature, culture[…], as well as the mutual commemoration of past and present military conflicts, and ascription to a ‘civilisational’ heritage founded on the values, beliefs and practices of free-market economics and liberal democracy».[2]

Washington’s membership in the Anglosphere allowed the Obama administration and the Trump and Biden presidencies to quickly enter into political-strategic cooperation agreements with Canberra to contain the PRC’s assertiveness in the Southwest Asia-Pacific.

The achievement of these understandings led Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (2015-2018) and his successor Scott Morrison (2018-in office) to develop a foreign policy line for the Southwest Asia-Pacific, which was made official in 2016 with the publication of the Defence White Paper. In the paper, the Australian government acknowledged Washington’s leadership role in implementing the Pivot to Asia, but at the same time identified its own goals, such as:

«[…] to shape Australia’s strategic environment; to deter actions against Australia’s interests; and to respond with credible military force, when required.»[3]

In order to pursue these goals, the Australian government has elaborated a political-military theory articulated in two main steps. As indicated in the 2020 Force Structure Plan, the first foresee a military investment plan for the decade 2020-2030 quantified in 575 billion dollars, the implementation of which depends mainly on the political-industrial support of the United States. This U.S. contribution is confirmed by Washington’s decision to sell military technologies to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAFF) and support the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Between 2020-2030 the United States will deliver the RAFF F-35 A/B Lightning II, Boeing E/A-18G Growler, P-A Poseidon to improve its intelligence, surveillance, and target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR).[4]

In the case of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Washington recognises the strategic need to expand its surface and underwater assets, the latter through the construction of twelve conventional attack submarines (SSK) effective for coastal patrol missions, but with barely acceptable range for long-range operations. To make up for this reduced operational capability of SSKs, the Scott Morrison government has agreed with the United States and the United Kingdom through the November 2021 signing of the Australian-UKU.S. security pact (AUKUS) treaty, their support for the design and construction of eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), starting with the UK Astute-class (SSN) and U.S. Virginia-class (SSN).[5]

In addition to this military development program, Australian strategic theory envisions as a second step the support of U.S. operations against Beijing’s expansionism in the vicinity of the Spratly and Paracelsus archipelagos and the straits of Luzon, Malacca, Java, Sunda and Lombok.

Canberra’s decision to support the United States has required the elaboration of a military doctrine aimed at the tactical-strategic enhancement of some sectors of its territory, that of Manus Island belonging to New Papua Guinea, in order to increase the operational range of the Australian Defense Force (ADF).

Map of Australia showing maritime boundary zones (Credits: Australian government, Geoscience Australia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the case of its own possessions, the Australian government of Malcolm Turnbull has focused its attention on the northern coastline, which due to its proximity to the sea straits of Sunda and Lombok, guarantees the Royal Australian Air Force a crucial strategic advantage by deploying Boeing E/A-18G Growler, P-A Poseidon and F-35 Lightning II aircraft at its bases in Learmonth, Curtin, Tindal and Darwin. In the case of the Darwin outpost, it must be remembered that following an agreement between Obama and Prime Minister Turnbull, the base can host 2500 marines, M-22 Osprey, and in certain cases, Boeing B-52 bombers.[6]

In addition to the tactical-strategic enhancement of the northern coastline, the Australian military doctrine provides for the geostrategic optimisation of Manus Island due to its proximity to the southern sector of the first island chain, to the sea straits of Sonda, Lombok, Luzon, and to the U.S. base of Guam (1750 km).[7]

This particular proximity of Manus Island to the territories described above has led Canberra to agree with the government of New Papua Guinea on a military investment plan called Project 225 aimed at modernising the Lombrum base located on the island. Launched in September 2020, Project 225 provides infrastructural investments for an estimated 130-175 million dollars.[8].

Through this modernisation plan, the intent of the Australian government and the United States is to transform the base of Lombrum into a large hub to conduct military operations against the growing presence of the People Liberation Army (PLA) near the southern side of the first island chain, and the sea straits of Luzon, Malacca, Sunda and Lombok.

Pursuing this objective has required the ADF, U.S. Navy and Airforce to exercise constant sea control in the areas mentioned above to defend from PLA manoeuvres the allied countries of the Southwest Asia-Pacific area and the sea lines of communication (SLOC) [9]that cross this geo-maritime space.

Conclusions

In these concluding notes, we intend to summarise the main aspects that allow Canberra to be considered Washington’s main ally for implementing the Pivot to Asia policy in the Southwest Asia-Pacific area.

The first motivation supporting this assertion can be traced back to the sharing between the two states of linguistic and cultural roots, identifiable in being, respectively, part of the Anglosphere. This commonality has favoured the sharing between Canberra and Washington of a political-strategic vision for the South-West Asia-Pacific space, identifying in the increase of the military presence of the PRC one of the main factors of geopolitical risk for the area.

Defining Beijing as primarily responsible for instability in the Asia-Pacific has prompted Canberra to develop a political-military doctrine that includes full U.S. support, confirmed by the AUKUS agreement to design and build a class of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs).

This decision of Washington can be considered to a large extent conditioned by the peculiar geographic position of Australia in the Asia-Pacific south-west, due to its proximity to the geo-maritime areas of political and military interests of the PRC, such as the archipelagos of Spratly, Paracelsus and the maritime straits of Luzon, Malacca, Sunda and Lombok.

From this particular geographical position of Australia, it follows the interest and convenience of the United States to support and share with Canberra the implementation of a tactical-military doctrine aimed at the geostrategic enhancement of the northern segment and Manus Island subject to the sovereignty of New Papua Guinea.

The intent of this operation responds to the necessity of the two countries to maintain a sea control localised to the southern side of the first island chain and to the straits of Malacca, Luzon, Sunda and Lombok, in order to block and distance the threat brought by the PRC towards the allied countries of the South-West Asia-Pacific area. Moreover, by exercising control over the waters close to the sea straits considered, Washington and Canberra are capable of controlling the sea lines of communication (SLOC) that cross this geo-maritime space.

From these evaluations, it can be deduced that Australia’s support role for the United States will be increasingly significant and incisive in the years to come.

Sources

[1] Slavery. M, What Exactly Does It Mean That the U.S. Is Pivoting to Asia? And will it last?, The Atlantic, 2015

[2] Mycock. A, Wellings. B, The Anglosphere: past, present and future, British Academy Review, No. 31 (Autumn 2017).

[3] Australian Government Department of defense, Defence Strategic Update, 2020, pp. 24-25.

[4] Ibid

[5] Frank N. von Hippel, The Australia-UK-U.S. Submarine Deal. Mitigating Proliferation Concerns, Arms control today , 11/2021.

[6] Thomas. J, Cooper. Z, Rehman. I, Gateway to the Indo-Pacific: Australian defense startegy and the future of the Australia-U.S alliance, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2013, p.17

[7] Lockyer. A , Burke. J , Lim. Y, Smith. F, Manus Island and the Lombrum Naval Base: Five Options for Australia’s Geostrategic Gateway, Royal Australian Navy, 2021.

[8] Ibid, p.13

[9] J.S.Corbett Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 2005, www.gutenberg.net.