Asia Defense | Security | Oceania

2020 Australian Defense Strategic Update: The Revenge of Geography

Australia’s strategic environment is rapidly changing and along with it the risks that the nation’s defense policy must manage.

By Peter J. Dean for
2020 Australian Defense Strategic Update: The Revenge of Geography
Credit: Facebook/ Defence Australia

The traditional foundations of Australia’s strategic policy, and its dominant way of war, have been transformed. This new fact of life was signaled in this month’s 2020 Australian Defense Strategic Update. In her speech at the University of Western Australia on July 6, Australian Defense Minister Linda Reynolds summed up these changes in the most direct manner: “The world we grew up in is no more.”

Australia’s strategic environment is rapidly changing and along with it the risks that the nation’s defense policy must manage. The 2020 Strategic Update hones in on the key causes of these changes: As well as the intensifying great power rivalry between China and the United States, Australia, among many other Indo-Pacific countries, is also facing regional military modernization, the deterioration of the rules based order, and the rise of “grey zone” activities – including cyber operations, foreign interference, economic coercion, and disinformation campaigns.

It highlights the fact that Australia’s strategic region, the Indo-Pacific, is the center of global economic and military power. However, for Australia it is also more dangerous than at any time since the end of World War II.

This has major implications for Australian strategy and its use of military force. The 2016 Australian Defense White Paper placed less emphasis on risks such as warning time and the military expansion base that are now accorded a prominent place. It placed less emphasis on Australia’s geography – a key determinant of strategic planning.

The 2020 Strategic Update marks a step-wise change. It will serve as an historic marker point.  It clarifies the centrality of Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategic geography, defining new strategic objectives to: “shape Australia’s strategic environment; to deter actions against Australia’s interests; and to respond with credible military force, when required.” Most significantly it provides clarity as to how the Australian Defense Force will prepare and structure itself for these unprecedented challenges.

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These strategic objectives will “guide all aspects of [Australia’s] Defense’s planning, including force structure planning” and will “prioritize our immediate region,” defined as the area from “the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific.”

A result this strategic update provides a calibrated approach to risk management, providing insurance against regional uncertainty. It also provides a long overdue rebalancing of Australia’s alliance with the United States from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, a beneficiary outcome for both countries.

The implications are clear. The long battle between history and geography in Australia’s strategic planning and military operations is now over. The traditionally dominant Australian way of war — supporting its great power allies, firstly Great Britain and then the United States, in operations often far from Australia’s shores — is only viable when there is a relatively benign strategic environment in Australia’s immediate neighborhood.

Only twice in the 20th century did Australia face a radically different set of strategic circumstances: in 1914 and 1942.

The start of World War I saw the German colony of New Guinea on Australia’s doorstep and the German East Asia Naval Squadron roaming the Pacific. Australia’s occupation of German New Guinea and the defeat of the German naval force quickly restored security in the region.

In 1942, Australia faced the most perilous period in its military history. It took a new coalition partnership with the United States, enabled through General Douglas MacArthur’s South West Pacific Area, and a long and bitter struggle in the Pacific War to end Japanese Imperialist expansion to see the emergence of the United States as the new uncontested hegemonic maritime power in Asia.

These were critical periods for Australia’s sovereignty. They demanded a prioritization on the defense of Australia’s near north, and the focusing of its military power on maritime operations. Yet they were somewhat brief, episodic epochs in Australia’s defense history: two short interregnums among more than two centuries of otherwise uncontested maritime supremacy by Australia’s great and powerful friends.

But, like in 1914 and 1942, this reality is no more. Today’s era is one of a radically changing geostrategic balance in the Indo-Pacific: the relative decline of U.S. power, the end of U.S. uncontested maritime hegemony, the rise of China, and the growing multipolarity of Australia’s region.

All of these factors mean that Australia’s contemporary strategic environment history and geography have collided with a force that now seems irreversible. Concerns about the return of episodic epochs of heightened strategic risk have been replaced by an unambiguous long-term strategic reality. The 2020 Strategic Update makes this clear.

Therefore what we are seeing in Australia’s strategic circumstances is something akin to the collision of Francis Fukuyama’s now infamous line of “the end of history” and Robert Kaplin’s “revenge of geography.” Australia’s past concept of distant military deployments alongside Great Britain or the United States has now collided with the acknowledged reality of its strategic front yard. That geographic space was defined by Reynolds as “more dangerous,” “more disorderly,” and full of “rising uncertainty and tension.”

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The geography that sits at the center of Australia’s 2020 Strategic Update is an unambiguously Indo-Pacific one. The first major Australian government document to assert this revolutionary strategic geography was Labor Defense Minister Stephen Smith’s 2013 Defense White Paper. Such is the currency of this approach it has survived one Labor and three conservative prime ministers, six defense ministers, and three major federal government foreign and defense policy documents. Now Reynolds has delivered a merging of this strategic geography with Australia’s force structure and military preparedness supported by a A$270 billion investment program over the next 10 years.

The task ahead will require this historic strategic reassessment to translate through Australia’s defense planning and force structure changes. This will not be easy. It will be subject to political, budgetary, and bureaucratic pressures and tensions. It will also challenge some of the core areas of Australia’s military culture, particularly that of the Australian Army, who will have to hasten its transformation to a maritime army, with plenty of lessons to considered from the recently initial force structure changes and reforms to the U.S. Marine Corps.  In doing so the Australia defense establishment must ensure that culture does not eat its new strategy for breakfast.

Professor Peter J. Dean is the director of the University of Western Australia Defense and Security Program and a senior fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre.