When speaking with analysts and journalists in Europe, I’m surprised to find that Australia is no longer seen as a bit player in the Indo-Pacific region but as a substantial power. They speak of the high regard in Europe for our resolve and express a degree of confidence in our role and abilities that is, frankly, disconcerting.
This turn in international perceptions of Australia’s strategic importance has occurred in the last four to five years and is due solely to the way we have resisted China’s intimidation and coercion without backing down.
The way Australia is viewed abroad stands in vivid contrast to the way Australians have seen their country, that is, as a small to middling power, blessed by our distance from conflict zones, trying to negotiate our way through turbulent waters over which we have no control and relying on a big brother to protect us.
The determination of Australian governments—beginning with the one led by Malcolm Turnbull, maintained by Scott Morrison’s and reaffirmed by Anthony Albanese’s—to draw a line in the sand against Beijing’s interference in our democratic institutions garnered admiration around the world.
Since 2018, a steady stream of parliamentary groups, academics, think tankers and intelligence experts have trekked to Australia to ask: How are you doing it? And the handful of Australian experts in Beijing’s subversive and coercive strategies have been in strong demand abroad.
Australia’s central role in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, India and the United States, the formation of the AUKUS military technology exchange agreement with the US and United Kingdom, and our own moves to reinvent our military capability for the new era, have added to perceptions that Australia is now a nation to be reckoned with.
While some Australian critics have deplored our closer security ties with the United States, the characterisation of Australia as America’s deputy sheriff no longer works. It reflects an out-dated understanding of the strategic landscape and Australia’s influential place in the Indo-Pacific.
Firstly, the United States is now more dependent on Australia. Washington values our leadership in resisting Beijing and wants our advice. It relies on Australia to be at the forefront of building defence and security alliances with the Pacific, a task now possible since our new government takes climate change seriously.
If the United States is to maintain a presence in the Indo-Pacific, Australia is indispensable. For those, like Hugh White, who think we would be better off if the US withdrew, the certain effect would be to cede hegemony over Australia to the Chinese Communist Party.
Secondly, beyond the US relationship, Australia has been building much closer political, military and strategic ties with the second and third most important powers of the Indo-Pacific, India and Japan. As in Europe’s capitals, in Tokyo and Delhi Australia has over a very short period been elevated from minor player allied to the United States to significant power in our own right.
This shift in attitude is being bolstered by sustained efforts to strengthen economic relationships with India and Japan, something all three are eager to do after realising the risks of relying too heavily on China for trade and investment.
President Xi Jinping’s sharp change in attitude at the Bali G20 meeting last week, from bully to ‘friend’, was acknowledgement that his strategy of intimidating Australia into submission has failed. Beijing understands that Australia has to be taken much more seriously, so a different strategy is needed.
In a revealing recent speech, defence minister Richard Marles described the new environment and explained why the Albanese government is moving quickly to remodel Australia’s defence capability. The old order has been upended by China’s massive military build-up and its expansionism in the South China Sea (trashing international law and kicking sand in the faces of nations like the Philippines). As a result, the global strategic centre of gravity is, for the first time, in our part of the word.
Marles’s plan will take several years to be realised. It will change our military capability from one structured to assist the United States in far-off and often foolish wars to one oriented overwhelmingly to defending Australia from China, including the ability to project force beyond our borders as a deterrent. If that is achieved, Australia’s emerging reputation as a serious power will be consolidated.
The reorientation occurs within the context of closer security ties with neighbours in the Pacific and closer cooperation with South Korea and Singapore, among others.
Those who say Australia should pursue a more independent foreign policy have yet to see that our deeper enmeshment in the region does mean a more independent foreign policy. At the same time, our decisions are shaped by pressures, opportunities and political considerations coming from a number of directions, not just the United States.
China under Xi Jinping has forced Australia to change with a speed unknown since the Second World War. The world has looked on as we have quickly taken the lead—in understanding China’s threat, in putting up barriers against Beijing’s interference, in protecting our critical infrastructure, in resisting economic coercion, and in reinventing our defences.
For better or worse, what Australia does now matters not only for us but the world. It will take a while, but Australians are slowly coming to terms with our new status.
Published in The Australian, 26 November 2022