Gareth Evans, the former Australian Foreign Minister likes to tell an anecdote from the mid-1990s. He was attending a regional summit, and during a break in proceedings tried to find a private room to make a call. On opening one door, he found he had wandered into an ASEAN side-meeting. He made his excuses and was about to leave, when one of the ministers waved him over saying “No need to leave, you’re one of us”.
For a Foreign Minister who devoted his career to pursuing Australia’s links with Southeast Asia, you can understand why this moment resonated. The question ever since has been whether other voices — on both sides — would continue to view the great southern land as a partner to Southeast Asia in solving the problems of the day.
Australia’s new 2016 Defense White Paper, released in late February insists the answer to this question must be yes. Gone is the demand for an Australian Defense Force that defends the continent, with any other tasks to be resolved with spare parts. Gone too is any hint that Australia should treat terrorism in the Middle East as the defining struggle of the century, with coalition requirements driving military acquisitions.
Instead, the strategic heart of Australia’s new policy is a focus on “a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime South East Asia and the South Pacific.” This is the Goldilocks region for Australia’s capacity as a middle power. The “rules-based global order” is too cold to focus on. The issues are vast, the players many, and the capacity for Canberra to meaningfully shape and warm it is low. And as the last few years have shown, even the implosion of distant regions such as the Middle East has not substantially affected Australian security.
Likewise, defending the continent is too hot a task. Not only is it extremely unlikely given current circumstances, it would also be extremely difficult to cool down with our resources alone. Australians might hope that their current armed force could defend their country, but how it might do so would look very different to the plans and spending patterns of this White Paper. And the main question would not be whether the amount of submarine purchases was right, but whether the United States would maintain its alliance commitment to Australia.
The focus of this middle power is therefore the middle distance from its shores. The South Pacific, an area where it is, according to the White Paper, “the principal security partner” of the smaller island states, and maritime Southeast Asia where there is a “strong foundation of longstanding bilateral and multilateral partnerships.”
In the South Pacific, Australia’s concerns are three fold. Policy makers would like to see the region stable, prosperous and safe, and recognize that threats may be man-made and natural. They would also strongly prefer that the South Pacific not have weaknesses of governance or authority that would allow dangerous non-state actors to make use of the region. But the Australian government will insist on the region not serving as a base for an outside major power to launch attacks on the continent, as Japan did in World War II.
It’s noticeable that the White Paper’s discussion of the South Pacific is largely directed towards establishing a responsive capacity. The paper says it will help to strengthen the ability of the region to manage its own problems, and emphasizes the role of Defense to either respond if there is a need for humanitarian assistance — such as after a natural disaster — or to evacuate Australians if there is political instability.
In Southeast Asia by contrast, Defense is looking for partners and solutions. Australia recognizes that maritime Southeast Asia is a region close enough to home that it can make “meaningful contributions to operations addressing shared regional security challenges.” But regardless of the size of the Australian armed forces, there is no thought given to doing so alone.
Instead the government is hopeful that it will find in maritime Southeast Asia a group of states who can help maintain regional stability today and build resilience to mitigate future challenges. The emphasis is on Indonesia, with Singapore and Malaysia also viewed as important contributors. If the Philippines, Brunei, Thailand and particularly Vietnam can endorse if not actively contribute to this task, so much the better.
For all that maritime Southeast Asia is home ground, Australian policy makers are aware of how little they have focused on this part of the world as an area of genuine strategic focus in recent decades. Since the end of Konfrontasi and the decline of the Cold War in Asia, Canberra’s defense planners have tended to look over the horizon. They may have been dragged back by crises such as East Timor’s independence vote in 1999, but the region has been one of relatively comfortable peace for the most part.
Symbolic of this was a largely unnoticed change in the 2013 Defense White Paper. For the first time it moved Australian strategic thought to a “post-Indonesia” framework. By this, scholars mean that Australia has explicitly made its peace with having a strong and capable neighbor to its north. This was not inevitable. Countries always consider capability as well as intentions and ideology when examining the risk of other states — indeed this is precisely China’s burden today. As such, and given Indonesia’s population and proximity, Australians have long struggled to decide what kind of an Indonesia they preferred.
A weaker Indonesian state threatened instability, along with social deprivation for the people of the archipelago chain. A stronger Indonesian state by contrast could impede Australia’s freedom of movement in the region and seek to dominate the regional environment. These concerns didn’t always drive national policy — for instance Australia has not sought to break up or separate Indonesia as some conspiracy theories allege — but it did create an element of indecision and caution in the way Canberra approached Jakarta and thought about its role as a security partner.
In the 2013 Defense White Paper, and continued in the 2016 paper, those worries have been abandoned. Australian elites have decided that a powerful Indonesia is by far the best outcome and welcome the country’s growth, development and burgeoning leadership. As the paper states, “a strong and productive relationship with Indonesia is critical to Australia’s national security.”
Australian policy makers believe that a Southeast Asia which has modern military capacities, understands its environment, and which can meaningfully address regional security problems, is to be strongly encouraged.
The paper also welcomes Indonesia’s military modernization and commits to supporting the process. The clear hope is to develop a pattern of “cooperation on maritime security activities that contribute to a stable and prosperous region.” The nature of this cooperation would be at Indonesia’s discretion, but Australia will not be a reluctant partner if President Jokowi pursues his ambition to make Indonesia the “maritime fulcrum” of the region.
The ideal form of cooperation, while peace still remains the dominant trend in Asia, is improved intelligence and capacity building. The White Paper commits Australia to “work with regional partners to develop shared maritime domain awareness capabilities” and embrace the “increasingly sophisticated practical military cooperation” that regional defense modernization has made possible.
The focus on maritime security is not just a response to land reclamation in the South China Sea, though that is obviously part of it. Rather it is also a recognition that the maritime zone is where a spark of conflict is most likely to occur, and where the armed forces of Asia are increasingly devoting their resources. Cooperation for Australia is thus as much about helping strengthen regional resilience, and building an understanding of how the seas and water-ways are being used, as it is about trying to respond to any one particular issue.
As the recent Military Balance 2016 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies makes clear, Southeast Asian governments have been heavily investing in their maritime capacity. Vietnam already has four of the six Kilo-class submarines it ordered from Russia in 2009, and is currently pursuing patrol aircraft and unmanned systems to complement them. Indonesia — like Australia — is committed to building 12 new submarines, although infrastructure challenges have temporarily delayed the delivery from South Korea. Malaysia and Singapore have also ordered two new submarines from French and German developers, and the latter is also expanding its capacity with eight new Littoral Mission Vessels.
From the dusty plains of Canberra, the naval focus by the region’s militaries is both challenging and welcoming. It is challenging because Australia is not used to seeing such busy sea lanes to its north, and the “capability edge” it has prided itself on — thanks largely to US technology and intelligence — is clearly beginning to erode.
Yet such concerns are being pushed aside to welcome the significance and meaning of this investment. Like their view of Indonesia, Australian policy makers believe that a Southeast Asia which has modern military capacities, understands its environment, and which can meaningfully address regional security problems, is to be strongly encouraged. Whatever fears there may be of arms racing and action-reaction dynamics, Australia is firmly of the view that a much more capable Southeast Asia is a much more secure environment for it to live in.
A region of more regional powers and a more powerful region is potentially quite a comfortable environment for a middle power, particularly given that the main threats today come from either end of the spectrum. Non-state actors, particularly criminal groups and terrorists, are omnipresent and basic state capacity is vital for identifying and impeding them, if not stopping them entirely. At the other end, the emergence of assertive great powers such as China and Russia is also troubling. While few in the region fear the other great powers, Japan, India or the United States, there is also a reluctance to embrace everything that they do.
Australia has mirrored these same debates and while a formal ally partner of the US, there are many in its defense community who take the regional view of viewing all the great powers of Asia with some suspicion. Indeed the White Paper explicitly states that “the interests of Australia and the United States will not always align.” As such, the question being asked in Canberra is “Who can help with which problem,” not “who do we like” or “who we are friends with.” To borrow a well-worn phrase, Australia is firmly seeking its security with Southeast Asia, not from Southeast Asia.
Readers in Asia may be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu from all this — Australian leaders have made plans to open doors into the region before, often with little to show for it. This time however should be different. Cooperation isn’t merely for the sake of cooperation or long term potential economic or social returns. Rather, there are common regional security issues that have to be addressed, and significant increases in mutual capacity to address them.
Notably the 2016 Defense White Paper did not go all the way and commit Australia to joining ASEAN or forming alliances with its Southeast Asian partners. Nor is Australia about to abandon its ties with the United States any time soon. This is not a document that is seeking a radical change in direction, or ringing the alarm bells. It remains hopeful that moderate changes will be sufficient, and recognizes it doesn’t know exactly what those changes should be. The process matters, and that’s where the leadership of ASEAN and insights of the countries of Southeast Asia will be so vital.
But a careful reading of the paper does reveal that Australia is beginning to focus much closer to home when it thinks about strategic challenges. Far from feeling that it has wandered into the wrong room, Australia is now actively seeking to stand alongside Southeast Asia in an attempt to find a path to security and stability. That’s the hope inherent within the country’s new Defense White Paper. Whether the region will once more say “you’re one of us” is still to be answered.