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Date: 22 April 2022 Author: Jan Hernik

Australia’s Role in the Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States

“A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential to each of our futures, our countries”

President Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The development of the situation and the state of security in the Indo-Pacific is the main determinant of the future of the world and the distribution of power between two competing superpowers. This research paper covers the United States’ position in Indo-Pacific waters, its response to the growing interference of the People’s Republic of China, and Australia’s stabilizing role in the region. The text presents the genesis of the presence of the American Navy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, the causes and effects of the increased activity of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in the South China Sea region. The study also indicates the response of the anti-Chinese alliance countries in this region, among which the expansion of the field of allied cooperation and the militarily strengthened Australia are to play a key role.

SOURCE: FLICKR

Background of U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific

For decades now, Chinese presence in the Indo-Pacific has risen considerably and undeniably. Back in the 1970s, China saw a period of high economic growth. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, reforms transformed the economic system, bringing the country into prosperity and making it the world’s leading economy. This allowed Beijing to build up the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

China’s armed forces are the world’s third-largest military power––after the United States and Russia––with an annual budget of $178.2 billion[1]. China wields by far the world’s largest military, with 2.25 million soldiers or 3.25 million––including paramilitary groups. The Chinese army could mobilize up to 7 million extra personnel. It has 216 million reserve personnel.

It was not until the early 1990s that the not-so-sizeable Chinese navy was a component of land forces. Since then, it has undergone a rapid upgrade, becoming a separate branch of the Chinese armed forces. Efforts to modernize the Chinese fleet seek to elevate Beijing into full readiness in the ocean although China now boasts the world’s first navy[2]. China is gradually sneaking into the region where the United States so far dominated undisputedly.

Washington has always considered the Indo-Pacific key for its own security. America is evincing bigger interest in the region as the latter is now facing growing challenges––notably from China.

The United States has been tied to the Indo-Pacific since its early beginnings. The first U.S. presence in Asia comprised trading vessels that serviced China just eight years after the thirteen colonies won independence. New England whalers soon joined, and over the next decades American ships increased their presence in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

In 1821 the Navy authorized the Pacific Squadron, and in 1835 the East India Squadron. These two carried out the first US military operations in Asia, namely two punitive expeditions against Sumatran pirates in 1832 and 1839. The Pacific Squadron also helped conquer California during the Mexican–American War in the 1840s.

During and after the Civil War, the East India Squadron (renamed Asiatic Squadron in 1868) continued antipiracy operations in waters from Japan to the South China Sea. Major actions in this period included skirmishes in Shimonoseki Strait, an expedition to Formosa in 1867, and operations in Korea in 1871.

As the nineteenth century neared its end, the U.S. presence in the Indo-Pacific increased. The purchase of Alaska in 1867 staked a major claim to the North Pacific and the Arctic, while the development of California’s ports linked the continental United States with the Indo-Pacific.

War with Spain made the United States a prominent Pacific power. Commodore George Dewey’s victory on May 1, 1898, at Manila Bay, followed by Major General Wesley Merritt’s capture of Manila that August, led to the Spanish relinquishing the Philippines to the United States after 350 years of colonial rule. The Filipinos revolted in 1899 against American rule but failed to win independence after three years of fighting. Also in 1899, the Second Samoan Civil War concluded with the signing of the Tripartite Convention, dividing the archipelago between Germany and the United States. The deal consolidated U.S. presence in the region.

American power in the region grew in 1905, when President Theodore Roosevelt presided over the Russo–Japanese War’s end via the Treaty of Portsmouth. In 1907 the Great White Fleet––a group consisting of sixteen battleships and destroyers––completed a voyage around Asia in a move that displayed new U.S. naval power to the world.

In 1922 the Washington Naval Treaty forestalled a naval arms race by fixing the ratio of British, American, and Japanese capital ships at 5-5-3, respectively. This treaty generated resentment in Japan for its inequality and stoked nationalist sentiment, which in turn drove the aggressions against Manchuria in 1931 and Chiang Kai-shek’s China in 1937. Further Japanese expansion into French Indochina caused Britain, the United States, and the Netherlands to embargo Japanese raw material shipments, including oil. This was directly behind the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941.

Japan’s aggressive expansion ended with the American victories at the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Both sides turned to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where the Americans and Australians won campaigns at Buna Gona and Guadalcanal. Thirty years after Japan’s surrender, the geopolitical reality was defined by the Cold War conflict between communist states and the West. At that time, Mao Zedong and his communist allies controlled what is now the People’s Republic of China.

In 1972 President Richard Nixon took action toward normalizing relations with the communist People’s Republic of China. The U.S.-China ties brought a breakthrough in these two’s economic relations in the next four decades and ushered communist China to the world stage after almost twenty years of isolation[3].

In the post-war era, the United States solidified its ties with the region, through ironclad treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand. Efforts toward international cooperation and democracy have always been key to maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific region.

Main points of the U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific

For decades, Washington referred to the vast area stretching from Australia and India as the “Asia-Pacific,” political scientists––mostly in India, Indonesia, and Australia––preferred the term “Indo-Pacific.” It was the Donald Trump administration that first introduced the wording “Indo-Pacific” to the U.S. political discourse while Joe Biden, the incumbent president, has stuck to this policy through the February 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy that continues to support several regional priorities that the Trump administration embraced. This strategy outlines President Biden’s vision to more firmly anchor the United States in the Indo-Pacific in response to Chinese claims in the Pacific and Indian Oceans[4].

The United States had for years failed to devote much room to the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration’s strategy has suggested changes that seek to turn U.S. and international attention to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Countries of the region are capable of shaping the political situation through a raft of alliances and partnerships. The U.S. strategy consists in deepening and sustaining the existing alliances to open up new technology, economy, and defense opportunities.

The Biden administration, reads the strategy, like Japan, believes that a successful Indo-Pacific vision must advance freedom and openness and offer autonomy and options. Like Australia, it seeks to maintain stability and sovereignty to make the region peaceful and prosperous[5].

The United States will pursue an Indo-Pacific region that is:

  1. Investing in democratic institutions, a free press, and a vibrant civil society;
  2. Improving fiscal transparency in the Indo-Pacific to expose corruption and drive reform;
  3. Ensuring the region’s seas and skies are governed and used according to international law;
  4. Partnering to build resilience in the Pacific Islands;
  5. Forging connections between the Indo-Pacific and the Euro-Atlantic;
  6. Advancing integrated deterrence;
  7. Expanding U.S. Coast Guard presence and cooperation against other transnational threats;
  8. Innovating to operate in rapidly evolving threat environments, including space, cyberspace, and critical- and emerging-technology areas;
  9. Continuing to deliver on AUKUS;
  10. Maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait[6].

Washington’s focus on the Indo-Pacific featured the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget. President Joe Biden on March 28, 2022, proposed a $773 billion budget for the Defense Department. The U.S. president suggested $1.8 billion to support his Indo-Pacific Strategy along with another $400 million to counter the malign Chinese behavior. To avoid shutdown, U.S. Congress must adopt the budget by September 30, 2022.

Comparing the U.S. and Chinese navy capabilities

China possesses the biggest navy in the world by number of hulls, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed in its latest report on Beijing’s armed forces[7]. It was not until the late 1980s that the backbone of the Chinese navy was just coastal and river sailing ships.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has 355 front-line ships, including some 145 major surface combatants. They are operated by 300,000 active military personnel. As of 2020, the PLAN was largely composed of modern multi-role platforms. In the near-term, the PLAN will have the capability to conduct long-range precision strikes against land targets from its submarine and surface combatants using land-attack cruise missiles, notably enhancing the PRC’s global power projection capabilities, the U.S. Department of Defense said in the report. China is enhancing its anti-submarine warfare capabilities and competencies to protect the PLAN’s aircraft carriers and ballistic missile submarines.

Technically, the U.S. Navy is the world’s second-largest navy. It boasts 72 nuclear-powered submarines, 11 aircraft carriers, nine amphibious assault ships, 22 missile cruisers, 60 destroyers, 27 frigates, 19 landing vessels, and more than 100 smaller ships. In 2011 it had a total number of 286 battle force ships[8]. In 2021, it was already 296 vessels and 350,000 active personnel[9].

An insight into Washington’s and Beijing’s navy capabilities is enough to state that the U.S. Navy has more personnel although the Chinese navy boasts more vessels. The U.S. Navy has also more aircraft carriers and landing ships. Nonetheless, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is making a successful attempt to improve its underwater capabilities and develop a fleet of nuclear-powered missile boats to make its way into the region and win some territorial gains in the Indo-Pacific. As the Chinese navy is building up its stockpile, tensions rise high amid Beijing’s territorial claims in the region.

Chinese territorial claims in the Indo-Pacific

Beijing’s growing might is stretching across the globe while being most dangerous to the Indo-Pacific region. Those most threatened by Chinese aggression are Washington’s allies throughout the region. Australia is suffering some consequences of Chinese economic pressure while Taiwan and other East China and South China Sea territories are under pressure from Beijing.

What signals a new balance of powers across the region is territorial claims of China whose forces are holding military drills in the South China Sea. China is making sweeping claims to those areas that belong to neighboring countries under international law. These waters belong to Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Vietnam, which is where most Chinese goods are shipped.

The South China Sea is home to a wealth of natural resources and trade routes. For years it has been a sore point in China’s relations with neighboring states and the U.S. The latter country has accused Beijing of building up its military power in the Sea and intimidating neighboring countries to cut them off resources.

China claims sovereignty over virtually all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters. Tensions grow high in the region; in June 2021 Chinese forces followed and warned away a U.S. warship that entered waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. The Chinese military later said the U.S. guided-missile destroyer illegally entered China’s territorial waters while the military response was a deterrent. The fact is that USS Benfold performed a freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 (UNCLOS).

USS Benfold asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands, consistent with international law, U.S. 7th Fleet said in a news release. The U.S. refuses to recognize China’s claim to virtually the entire South China Sea and regularly conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations to assert its right to sail in international waters.

In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that most of China’s claims in the disputed sea were illegal. One more purpose of the Chinese foreign policy in the region is to take over democratic Taiwan.

International law and defense capabilities of U.S. allied states

Security in the Indo-Pacific is to a large extent determined by treaties and military and diplomatic alliances. The U.S. strategy put it clear, saying that China poses a major threat to Indo-Pacific nations and the world while the United States and its allies must take firm action to contain Chinese might. The Australia, New Zealand, and United States Security Treaty, or ANZUS Treaty, was an agreement signed in 1951 to protect the security of the Pacific. Although the agreement has not been formally abrogated, the United States and New Zealand no longer maintain the security relationship between their countries[10].

Another key alliance for security in the Indo-Pacific is the Quad––an informal strategic forum of India, the United States, Australia, and Japan. It was first established in 2007 and reborn in 2017 in Manila as the Quad 2.0. The Quad is frequently referred to as an Asian NATO. Its top mission is to keep what is known as Pax Americana across the region to address China’s increasingly assertive policy in the Indo-Pacific, including its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the rapid expansion of the PLAN. The Quad is a signal for China that the United States has some like-minded allies in the Indo-Pacific[11].

One of the newest features of the U.S. strategy for dominance in the region was through establishing AUKUS––a trilateral security partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia––in September 2021. The strategic alliance marks the end of the U.S. primacy in the region amid growing Chinese influence while breathing some fresh air into how foreign policy is made locally. The West thus focused on strategic rivalry with China by forging an alliance comprising the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia.

As for the Indo-Pacific alliances created now and in the past century, U.S. and their allies’ defense efforts focus on multilateral cooperation and its quality is crucial for this part of the world. However, amid a dynamic situation in the region and intense Chinese drills in the South China Sea, the Indo-Pacific region will play a key role in the future balance of power and the “power race” between China and the U.S.

Australia––a key U.S. ally in the South Indo-Pacific region

Australia is a key U.S. ally and trade and investment partner at a time of increasing geopolitical uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific. The United States and Australia enjoy close people-to-people, trade and investment, political, cultural, intelligence, defense, and alliance relations. In recent years, as Australia’s relations with China have soured, Australia and the United States have strengthened their partnership to address the geopolitical uncertainty in the region.

Ties with the United States and China have in recent years determined Australia’s geopolitical posture. As tensions ran high between Australia and China, the former country doubled its alliance with the United States while upping its ties with Japan and other nations.

This includes the announcement of the Australia, United Kingdom, United States (AUKUS) agreement, which is to provide Australia with nuclear propulsion technology for its next-generation submarines. Ties between the United States, Australia, Japan, and India have been boosted by the developing Quadrilateral Security Dialogue known as the “Quad.” In addition, Australia signed a reciprocal access agreement with Japan in January 2022 designed to facilitate closer defense cooperation between the two nations[12].

Revelations regarding China’s attempts to influence Australia’s society and region have hurt Australian perceptions of China. A poll found that in 2021 China was nominated as a threat by 63 percent of Australians, compared with just 34 percent who described it as an economic partner. This is a significant reversal from 2018 when 82 percent felt China was “more of an economic partner” and 12 percent felt that China was “more of a security threat[13].”

Australia’s defense strategy and military capabilities

While analyzing the “military” strategy, it is key to determine military spending. Nowadays Western states seek first and foremost to protect their citizens. Western armies play essentially a defensive role and the Australian military strategy is no exception.

The Australian armed forces consist of the land warfare force, the navy, and the air forces. Australian military forces consist of 58,700 soldiers plus 25,700 reserve personnel. Australia is the world’s seventeenth-biggest military power, according to the Global Firepower ranking[14]. Particular attention should be given to the Royal Australian Navy, or RAN.

The RAN is a medium-sized force that plays a vital role in the Asia-Pacific region. It is also present in the Indian Ocean[15]. The RAN fleet was made up of 43 commissioned warships and three non-commissioned as of March 2022. In recent years, the RAN has seen constant updates and improvements. “We are undertaking the largest revitalization, the largest modernization, the largest investment in Australia’s Navy since the Second World War,” former prime minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull commented on the 2016 Defense White Paper back in 2016.[16] The Australian government spent $50 billion to upgrade the navy. The 2016 Defense White Paper was a turning point for the domestic defense industry. It enshrined industry as a fundamental input to defense capability and devoted nearly $1.5 billion to promoting and funding the innovation and R&D that underpin real growth in both industry capability and exports[17].

The Navy’s biggest surface combatants are three Hobart-class missiles destroyers, two Anzac-class missile frigates, and two Canberra-class landing helicopters docks. The RAN operates six Collins-class submarines. In addition, it has patrol ships, mine destroyers, and a slew of auxiliary boats[18]. Another branch of the RAN is naval aviation which boasts three helicopter squadrons.

During most of its history, Australia had a coherent defense strategy. It was mostly about securing sea routes that a potential aggressor would use to strike an attack. In partnership with bigger navies, the navy is the best solution to implement this strategy. With the geography of Australia and its not sizeable population, it seems reasonable for many to stick to the collective maritime defense principle[19].

In peacetime, Australia is building its security upon bilateral and multilateral alliances. In wartime, the Australian strategy seeks to maximize security through engaging allied forces in collective defense commitments.

While commenting on Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) said: “it should explicitly encourage a multilateral approach to building human security, and position Australia as a champion of such an approach[20].”

Australian efforts to address the Chinese threat

Australia and its allies––notably the United States––are seeking to significantly bolster their military potential. Canberra channels its defense efforts both through defense treaties and by building up its military potential.

As a result of AUKUS, Australia will be able to build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines armed with conventional weapons. No details have been discussed nor has the choice been made between U.S. and UK-made submarines. The Royal Australian Navy will acquire at least eight nuclear submarines worth $70 billion, but many experts say the price will be higher. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute said in its December report that the program would cost more than $80 billion. Six months into the deal, the AUKUS countries agreed to cooperate on hypersonic weapons and electronic warfare capabilities. AUKUS states will soon see the first report card being delivered. They will likely shift to topics such as quantum technologies, artificial intelligence, information sharing, and cyber security, according to the Financial Review.

The United Kingdom has pledged 25 million pounds as part of a commitment to promote “peace and stability” in the Indo-Pacific, as it deepens a security pact with Australia amid continuing concerns about China’s power and influence in the region. The funds will be used to “strengthen regional resilience in areas including cyberspace, state threats, and maritime security,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison said after a meeting.

In March 2022, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the planned move was the biggest increase in the size of Australia’s defense forces by 2040. The force would grow by 18,500 personnel to 80,000 over the 18-year period, at a cost of some 38 billion Australian dollars ($27 billion), the prime minister said during a visit to an army barracks in Brisbane[21]. Morrison added the military build-up was a recognition by his government of the “threats and the environment that we face as a country, as a liberal democracy in the Indo-Pacific”.

Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific strategy of the United States – conclusions

By continuously bolstering its military potential and deepening regional partnerships, Australia is seeking to intensify the resistance from the anti-Chinese coalition towards Beijing’s territorial claims and staged provocations. In this, Australia, with some support from the Anglo-Saxon coalition, is poised to stabilize the situation in the region. A strong Australia is in Washington’s interest as the United States hopes to bolster its posture and build an alliance-based advantage in the region amid the growing might of the Chinese navy. The Biden administration has now a major task to ensure security in the Indo-Pacific through a pile of treaties as White House officials are perfectly aware of some threats from ignoring China and the country’s bolder endeavors in the South China Sea. With growing Chinese naval might, it is only through steadily enhanced alliances that the Free World can continue its primacy across the Indo-Pacific.

A strong Australia has one mission––to ensure symmetry through the South China Sea. While Japan is stabilizing the situation in the north, Australia aspires to follow suit in the south. The location of these two U.S.-backed nations can contain the rising Chinese threat in the South China Sea. If Chinese claims there are not stopped immediately, Western countries will be meant to give their go-ahead for further territorial expansion of Beijing.

Australia could compete with China through the AUKUS under which Australia will acquire eight nuclear-powered submarines. Adding them to the RAN’s stockpile is a fundamental decision that matters much for competitiveness in the Indo-Pacific. It is about the distance between the Australian coast and the South China Sea. The RAN facility near Perth is located some 5,500 kilometers from this region. The RAN would have to compete with a Chinese fleet of SSNs that now are of worse quality than Western-built attack submarines. However, the Chinese navy is likely to increase the number of its submarines.

The increase in the size of Australia’s defense also makes Australia a more reliable ally and a leader for stability and security.

Australia’s mission is to stabilize the situation in the region through an anti-Chinese coalition and a tight partnership with the United States––in both bilateral and multilateral alliances. The state is somewhat doomed to commit as in a potential kinetic conflict against China, Canberra would be unable to defend itself.

Australian state officials put their political strategy on many fronts to ensure security through a coalition for peace in the Indo-Pacific. It seems that Canberra’s efforts have been welcomed by the Biden administration whose members build a foreign policy upon stronger alliances and follow the best practices of their regional allies. It is only through a consolidated allied force that Indo-Pacific nations can contain the still-growing power of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

 

AUTHOR’S BIO

Jan Hernik – Graduate of the American Studies Center at the University of Warsaw. He specializes in the theory of religion, race, and ethnicity for political choice in the U.S presidential elections. His research interests also include U.S.-Australia ties and the geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region.

 

[1] Global Firepower – World Military Strength, 2022 China Military Strength, https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.php?country_id=china, [accessed: April 7, 2022].

[2] Global Firepower – World Military Strength, Navy Fleet Strength by Country (2022), https://www.globalfirepower.com/navy-ships.php, [accessed: April 7, 2022].

[3] Ch. Kolakowski, A Short History of US Involvement in the Indo-Pacific, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/JIPA/journals/Volume-01_Issue-1/03-V-Kolakowski.pdf, [accessed: April 7, 2022].

[4] I. Denisov et al., Russia, China and the Concept of Indo-Pacific, “Journal of Eurasian Studies 12” 2021, No. 1, pp. 72–85, https://doi.org/10.1177/1879366521999899.

[5] Indo-Pacific Strategy, White House, whitehouse.gov,https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/U.S.-Indo-Pacific-Strategy.pdf, [accessed: April 11, 2022].

[6] Ibidem.

[7] Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, Annual Report to Congress (US Department of Defense), https://media.defense.gov/2021/Nov/03/2002885874/-1/-1/0/2021-CMPR-FINAL.PDF, [accessed: April 11, 2022].

[8] R. Czulda, Polityka wojskowa Stanów Zjednoczonych pod rządami Joe Bidena, „Wojsko i Technika” 2021, No. 2, p. 15, Warsaw, ISSN 2450-1301.

[9] DoD Personnel, Workforce Reports & Publications, DMDC web, https://dwp.dmdc.osd.mil/dwp/app/dod-data-reports/workforce-reports, [accessed: April 11, 2022].

[10] The Australia, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS Treaty), 1951, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/anzus, [accessed: April 8, 2022].

[11] J. Walkowicz, Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – Perspective of India, http://www.diplomacy.pl/pl/blog/azja-i-pacyfik/item/411-quadrilateral-security-dialogue, [accessed: April 8, 2022].

[12] B. Vaughn, Australia – Federation of American Scientists, https://sgp.fas.org/crs/row/IF10491.pdf [accessed: April 8, 2022].

[13] Ibidem.

[14] Global Firepower – World Military Strength, 2022 Australia Military Strength, https://www.globalfirepower.com/country-military-strength-detail.php?country_id=australia , [accessed: April 11, 2022].

[15] Australian Defence Force Research Sheets: Maritime Defence, p. 3.

[16] M. Turnbull, Press Conference with Minister for Defense and the Minister for Defense Industry, Canberra, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Commonwealth of Australia, 2017.

[17]A. Cooper, Indo-Pacific Returns in 2022, Manufacturers’ Monthly, April 12, 2022, https://www.manmonthly.com.au/features/indo-pacific-returns-2022/.

[18]The Fleet, Royal Australian Navy, https://web.archive.org/web/20100808083958/http://www.navy.gov.au/The_Fleet [accessed: April 11, 2022].

[19] The Australian Army – Overview, Home – Parliament of Australia (House of Representatives Committees, April 2, 2014),

https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_representatives_Committees?url=jfadt%2Farmy%2Farmych8.htm.

[20] Australia’s Global Leadership and Foreign Policy 2017–2027, Australia Council For International Development, https://acfid.asn.au/sites/site.acfid /files/resource_document [accessed: April 11, 2022].

[21] Al Jazeera, Australia to Expand Defence Personnel by a Third by 2040, News, Al Jazeera, March 10, 2022, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/10/australia-to-expand-defence-personnel-by-a-third.

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