Australia: the New Japan?

Plans to have more U.S. Marines in Australia have prompted debate over the country’s security interests.

Australia is busy upgrading its defense relationship with the United States. Under the terms of the deal set to be announced during President Obama’s flying visit to Australia this week, U.S. Marines won’t strictly speaking be “based” in Darwin – that term being politically sensitive to the Australians, much as the term “air base” is anathema in Kyrgyzstan, home of the U.S. Transit Center at Manas. There’ll just be a lot more U.S. Marines in Darwin a lot more often from now on.

Slicing through these strategic euphemisms, it’s clear that Australia has decided to extend its security reliance on the United States, notwithstanding its increasing commercial linkages with China and the feathers that the decision will inevitably ruffle there. Tightening the U.S.-Australia alliance may indeed, as Canberra believes, be the best way to guarantee security in Oceania. But while Australians continue to debate whether their interests are truly best served by moving further beneath the U.S. security umbrella, they may find that they increasingly come to resemble, in strategic terms, some of the other Asia-Pacific countries that already huddle there – and Japan most of all.

It’s not just that Darwin could become Australia’s answer to Okinawa, the reluctant home of thousands of Marines. It’s that the country’s procurement choices and defense-industrial problems, influenced and created in equal measure by junior partnership with a superpower, are already looking distinctly Japanese in character.

Japan, for example, is in the throes of procuring a new fighter aircraft. While reports that the Eurofighter Typhoon has been formally eliminated from Japan’s F-X competition may have been premature, the European aircraft never really had a prayer of breaking the U.S. monopoly to supplying military jets to Tokyo. So Japan faces the following choice: its request for the F-22 Raptor having been summarily rejected, it must now select either the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet (an older aircraft that it doesn’t really want) or the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II (a risky option due to mounting costs and continuing development delays). Meanwhile, its domestic defense industry is withering, 55 unbroken years of domestic fighter production having ended in September and the need simply to import from, rather than collaborate with, the U.S. continuing to rise.

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Australia is also in the market for a new fighter aircraft. It too pressed for the F-22 and was refused, leaving it with the same decision as Japan: more Super Hornets on top of the 24 already purchased as a stopgap measure (again, this isn’t the aircraft Australia really wants right now), or the untested F-35, which Australia had intended to procure in large numbers but now regards with a mounting sense of alarm, as timetables slip and costs creep up. Earlier this year, Defense Minister Stephen Smith stressed that Australia had so far only committed itself to 14 F-35s, not the 100 on his department’s original shopping list, adding that buying more Super Hornets was beginning to look like a smart alternative. Like Japan’s, the Australian defense industry is coming under severe pressure, as domestic companies lose out to foreign (mainly U.S.) competitors. And though the Australian government plans to spend AUD80 billion on defense equipment over the decade, it’s belatedly realizing that the country lacks the capability to take on work of this magnitude. The United States, which already accounts for half of Australia’s defense market, stands ready to capitalize.

Australia has the resources, and lacks the political constraints that hamstring Japan, to avoid this kind of client status: wise reforms and targeted spending can revitalize the country’s domestic defense industry, even if the suboptimal choice between the Super Hornet or the F-35 can’t now be avoided. But with an American safety net being stretched out beneath them, it’s questionable whether Australia’s political and military leaders – who have generally made a dog’s dinner of defense management in recent years – have the incentive to do better.