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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Eye on China: Australia’s Proposed Defense Reforms are A Step in the Right Direction 

Australia’s Defense Strategic Review is a direct and necessary response to its changing environment and to China’s military buildup and aggressive actions in the Pacific. As the U.S. and China find themselves in a new Cold War, an increasingly capable and determined Australia can play a critical role in protecting a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

Virginia-Class. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The government of Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently released its Defense Strategic Review. The panel that helped produce it described the Review as “the most substantial and ambitious approach to Defense reform recommended to any Australian Government since the Second World War.” Unsurprisingly, it focuses heavily on the growing threat from China. 

The document assesses that advances in Chinese military capabilities have ensured the U.S. is no longer operating as the “unipolar leader of the Indo-Pacific.” What’s more, Australia’s remote geographical location no longer insulates it from strategic competition. China is actively meddling in Australia’s near neighborhood, including the Pacific Islands, while asserting sovereignty over the South China Sea. 

Under the proposed strategy, Australia will shift away from its “Defense of Australia” concept, which focuses on “low-level conflict from small to middle regional powers.” Instead, a new strategy will embrace a whole-of-government approach to prioritize “potential threats arising from major power competition.” Those threats include artificial intelligence, cyberattacks, supply chain disruptions, and conventional conflict.  

The document recommends changes in force design to accommodate a new “strategy of denial” that would replace the current approach of “deterrence through denial.” Although they sound similar, the report offers distinctions. Australia’s current deterrence approach focuses on “establishing effective defense capabilities relative to the threat.” For Australia, that refers to more low-level threats “within [its] immediate region,” such as a disturbance with a Pacific Island or Southeast Asian nation. 

Conversely, a strategy of denial aims to “stop an adversary from succeeding in its goal to coerce states through force, or the threatened use of force, to achieve dominance.” This strategy assumes a high-level threat intending to assert dominance through force and calls for embracing collective deterrence with the U.S. and other partners. 

A Change in Australia’s Priorities 

The review also recommends Australia shift from a balanced force structure to what it calls a focused force structure. Rather than take a balanced approach to “a range of contingencies,” the Australian Defense Force (ADF) would prioritize Australia’s most significant military risks and focus accordingly. For the concept to succeed, the review calls for the ADF to evolve into an “Integrated Force” addressing all five military domains: land, sea, air, space, and cyber. 

The report also highlights the importance of military technology. The review recommends Australia develop new asymmetric warfare capabilities to “circumvent an opponent’s strengths.” Capabilities such as undersea and hypersonic weaponry could play a significant role in any conflict with China. 

To support the eventual arrival of SSN-AUKUS nuclear submarines and the production of needed munitions, the Australian industrial base will need new facilities, including shipyards, factories, and logistical services. To expand the workforce, the review proposes the centralization of the ADF’s personnel management and a strategic review of ADF Reserves. Reform of Australia’s domestic industrial base will be required to turn this strategy into reality. 

The Albanese government either agreed or agreed in-principle to all 62 recommendations from the review. And rightly so. 

Standing Up to China

A key question is how the strategy will be funded. The Albanese government is prepared to “increase [defense spending] over the next decade above its current trajectory.” Australia, however, has already authorized $42 billion in additional defense measures since 2020 without appropriating funds for those measures, including $1.9 billion for AUKUS Pillar II Advanced Capabilities. For the proposed strategy to be fully implemented, the government must decide how to fund outlays and how to maintain long-term political support for enhanced defense spending — no matter the party or coalition in power. 

Australia should be well served by this new strategic vision. China’s military expansion, its preparations for a possible military conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea, and its new security agreement with the Solomon Islands reflect the tremendous growth of Beijing’s power, influence, and capabilities across Australia’s near abroad. Absent more vigorous diplomacy, Australia risks ceding more influence to China in the Pacific and compromising its national security.  

Australia’s Defense Strategic Review is a direct and necessary response to its changing environment and to China’s military buildup and aggressive actions in the Pacific. As the U.S. and China find themselves in a new Cold War, an increasingly capable and determined Australia can play a critical role in protecting a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

Andrew J. Harding, a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, is co-editor of “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China.” 

Written By

Andrew J. Harding, a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, is co-editor of “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China.”

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