11 September 2019
Even by Australian standards, Scott Morrison’s recent commitment of troops to join a United States–led coalition in the Strait of Hormuz seems lukewarm. Morrison plans to send a surveillance aircraft and a frigate to ensure free passage through the narrow strait following threats by Iran. But the aircraft will be deployed for just one month later this year, and the frigate will only begin its six-month patrol in early 2020. The deployment is little more than a part of existing operations in the Middle East, aimed at combating piracy and terrorism. Effectively, it’s a gesture.
The primary purpose of Australia’s involvement in the Strait of Hormuz mission is to support the US alliance. Protecting international shipping is secondary. Australians have become used to these sorts of deployments. The most striking example in recent years was Australia’s contribution to the Iraq War. Australia fully backed the war but sent far fewer troops than the United States and Britain. Its soldiers were largely kept out of harm’s way, and during the combat phase of the war, from 2003 to 2009, no Australians were killed in action.
Since federation, such alliance-supportive missions have helped Australia be protected by stronger distant powers, such as Britain and the US. Yet, as Michael Wesley noted in “Dangerous Proximity” in last October’s issue of Australian Foreign Affairs, the foundation on which this equation rests – US domination of the Asia-Pacific region – is becoming shaky. China’s rise, and the region’s changing power balance, is challenging the traditional security assurances that Canberra has received from Washington. Potential threats are moving closer to Australia’s own neighbourhood.
These changes will require Australia to shift its defence focus – to abandon far-flung missions that aren’t in its immediate interests and to prepare instead for closer deployments. For instance, Australia should focus less on the Strait of Hormuz than the Strait of Malacca, and should worry less about freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf than in the South China Sea.
Morrison’s deployment to the Gulf was lukewarm, yet it was still widely criticised by security analysts, who believe Australia should not only pay more attention to the Indo-Pacific region but also encourage Washington to do so too. Many were also sceptical of the operation’s aims, and whether Australian troops were being deployed to support Donald Trump’s campaign to impose “maximum pressure” on Iran following his withdrawal from an international nuclear deal.
Ashley Townshend from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney said Canberra should have resisted Washington’s appeal to join its coalition. “I would rather see Australia say to the US that … we need to rebalance our strategic attention and military resources away from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, particularly to deal with the growing challenge that China presents,” he told me. “There is a need for us to speak out and help the Americans help themselves.”
Peter Leahy, a former chief of the army now at the University of Canberra, told ABC News: “Rather than sending ships and aircraft, why don’t we go back to talks?”
Morrison’s gesture in the Gulf allows the US to add another country to its meagre coalition. It may also help to ensure that he is received warmly by Trump when he visits the White House later this month. But it demonstrates that Washington’s preoccupations are increasingly different to Canberra’s, and that, as the Indo-Pacific region changes, the overlap between the interests of these two traditional allies is starting to contract.