Australia Understands the China Threat. Does the U.S.?
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The U.S.-Australia military relationship remains strong, but Australia would be justified in questioning whether the United States is taking the China threat as seriously as they are.
Monday marked the start of Talisman Saber 2009, a biennial joint military exercise that the United States conducts with Australia, one of its most important and dependable allies. A country of only 21 million people, Australia has made significant contributions to international security in recent years, deploying forces to Afghanistan, Iraq, East Timor, and the Solomon Islands, among other places. The Australian Defence Forces (ADF) have also engaged in humanitarian operations, such as those launched following the 2004 tsunami.
The launch of this year’s Talisman Saber affords an opportunity to consider the importance of the U.S.-Australian defense relationship. Australia certainly recognizes the alliance’s value. In its 2009 defense white paper, released in May, the Australian Department of Defence noted that “our alliance with the United States is our most important defence relationship” and that “the alliance relationship is an integral element of our strategic posture.” Without the alliance, “the ADF simply could not be the advanced force that it is today, and must be in the future.”
Not only has the relationship been important to Australia, but as the white paper demonstrates, it has been fruitful for the United States as well:
For almost 50 years, through the joint defence facilities, Australia has made a significant contribution to U.S. national security by hosting or supporting some of the United States’ most sensitive and critical strategic capabilities. These include systems related to intelligence collection, ballistic missile early warning, submarine communications, and satellite-based communications.
Australia’s geography, stable democratic system, developed economy, and technical expertise, combined with our close alliance with the Untied States, will continue to underpin the enduring value of the joint defence facilities. The contributions of these facilities to global U.S. capabilities strengthen the alliance and greatly enhance our own capabilities.
Australia perceives a possible future threat from China and is now poised to dedicate significant resources to ensure that the Australian Defence Forces are prepared to face that challenge.
It is, of course, Australia’s actions, rather than its words, that have so clearly demonstrated its commitment to the alliance. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Australia invoked the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security (ANZUS) Treaty for the first time, quickly coming to America’s aid.
One hopes that U.S. officials take security threats to Australia as seriously as Australia has taken security threats to the United States. In the white paper, Australia lays out a future force posture for the ADF that was designed, implicitly, with the Chinese threat in mind. For example, the Department of Defence now plans to acquire or develop new submarines, air warfare destroyers, and frigates optimized for anti-submarine warfare; 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters; strategic strike capabilities; and cyber warfare capabilities. These defense requirements are driven by China’s growing military power. The white paper explains:
China will also be the strongest Asian military power, by a considerable margin. Its military modernisation will be increasingly characterised by the development of power projection capabilities. A major power of China’s stature can be expected to develop a globally significant military capability befitting its size. But the pace, scope, and structure of China’s military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans.
China has begun to do this in recent years, but needs to do more. If it does not, there is likely to be a question in the minds of regional states about the long-term strategic purpose of its force development plans, particularly as the modernisation appears potentially to be beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan.
It is Australia’s actions, rather than its words, that have so clearly demonstrated its commitment to the alliance.
Australia, then, perceives a possible future threat from China and is now poised to dedicate significant resources to ensure that the ADF is prepared to face that challenge. The United States, on the other hand, is preparing to cancel the F-22 program, delay procurement of a new bomber, shrink the aircraft carrier fleet, and postpone the acquisition of new cruisers. In short, the Obama administration is preparing to deny vital high-end capabilities to the Air Force and Navy—the very services that would play a leading role in countering a China threat.
The U.S.-Australia relationship remains strong, but Australians would be justified in questioning whether the United States is taking this threat as seriously as they are. Future joint military exercises and ongoing dialogue are important for ensuring that our defense establishments understand each other’s interests and concerns. Australian troops have bled alongside their American counterparts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is critical to ensure that, should the fight ever move closer to home for the Australians, they remain confident that America will be right there by their side.
Michael Mazza is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group.