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4 March 2020

With Jonathan Pearlman

Out of the Middle East, into the Indo-Pacific

On Saturday, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal that may finally end America’s – and Australia’s – longest war. The war in Afghanistan is almost twenty years old. It has led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Afghans, and almost 2400 US troops. Australia joined the war at the outset. More than forty Australians have since died there, and tens of thousands have served. Today, there are still 200 Australian soldiers stationed in the country.

It has been a costly and inconclusive conflict. US-led forces quickly drove al-Qaeda out of the country but the counterterrorism mission then transformed into a protracted war against the Taliban. There is no guarantee that the latest peace deal will hold.

An end to the war in Afghanistan will also mark the end of an era for Australian foreign policy. Australia’s standard defence equation – supporting America’s foreign battles in return for its promise of security in Asia – is quickly changing. As China rises, and tensions in Asia increase, Australia will want to keep its troops as close to home as possible. At the same time, these changes are weakening the value of the United States’ security guarantees.

In 2001, when Australia joined the war in Afghanistan, China was the world’s fifth-biggest military spender, behind the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom and France. Today, China is the second-biggest spender. Since 2001, China’s military spending has increased ninefold to US$250 billion, while US spending has slightly more than doubled to US$649 billion. The other spenders in today’s top five are Saudi Arabia, India and France.

China’s new strength allows it to assert its interests more forcefully – to create artificial islands in the South China Sea and to send fighter jets across the unofficial midline in the Taiwan Strait that separates Taiwan from China, as it did again last month. This encourages other nations in the Indo-Pacific to push back and to invest more in their defence. And, as Asian countries become wealthier, they have much more to spend.

Australia has one of the region’s strongest militaries and the world’s thirteenth-biggest defence budget, but it needs to choose its defence priorities carefully. This is why, for instance, there is debate about whether Australia should focus on buying a large fleet of submarines, which could protect its maritime approaches, or more surface ships, which could stage more offensive offshore missions. It cannot afford both.

As risks in the region increase, Australia will be less able to afford alliance-building commitments that do not directly boost its security. At its peak, Australia’s presence in Afghanistan amounted to more than 1500 troops, from a total force of about 60,000, and the command of an entire province. This was not a token deployment.

Meanwhile the United States, too, is starting to reconsider its willingness to risk lives and spend money on foreign conflicts. It will increasingly ask more of its allies, particularly as the costs of a confrontation with China grow. Australia will need to prepare for a scenario in which tensions in Asia continue to rise and the usefulness of the US alliance in addressing them diminishes. Australia will not want to pay as much for US support if it receives less in return.

Canberra does not typically air its concerns about the future value of its alliance with the United States. But it is willing to admit that rising tensions in Asia require it to avoid overcommitting to distant conflicts.

This much was evident from Scott Morrison’s limited commitment last August to the US-led effort to protect shipping through the Strait of Hormuz. Morrison deployed a surveillance aircraft for one month and a frigate that was already due to be in the region.

Announcing the deployment, Morrison was asked whether Australia should be focusing its defence resources on the Indo-Pacific region rather than on the Middle East.  “Well,” he responded, “I’d say this is a very constrained commitment … One of the reasons I’ve put so much emphasis on our Indo-Pacific relations … has been to extend, strengthen, and further build the alliances, the relationships, that exist across the Indo-Pacific”.

Australia is still taking part in distant US operations, but with more restraint, and with an eye on events much closer to home.



COVID-19 – nearing a global pandemic?

“[The World Health Organization] is walking a fine line between leading a global healthcare response, retaining access to China, and avoiding panic. Its constant praise for China’s efforts to combat the virus has attracted criticism, though others claim this was the best way to secure access for the WHO observer team to China.” Roland Rajah & Natasha Kassam, The Interpreter (lowy institute)

Making the Indo-Pacific

“The Indo-Pacific is pushback aimed at achieving balance … The rise of China and its ambition to dominate Asia, India’s arrival as a major player, the need to stabilise a multipolar system (and avoid war), and the geoeconomics and geostrategy of the two joined oceans, webbed by the shipping lanes that are the Indo-Pacific’s veins, all crowd the new moniker.” Graeme Dobellthe strategist (aspi)

Australia stands with the US (most of the time)

“But Hockey was also quick to add a qualification: when we disagree with the US we do so ‘quietly’ … That just sounds like sensible diplomacy. What is interesting, though, is the contrast with how Australia’s approach to managing differences with China has evolved.” James LaurencesonAustralian Outlook (AIIA)


Indonesia, China, and the Natuna linchpin

“The problem is that Indonesia’s rights are recognised by international law, particularly the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and China’s are not … Put more simply: one side has a valid and legal claim and the other conjures up legal figments at the expense of international law.” Evan A. Laksmana, The Diplomat [$]

Three underlying forces fuelled Malaysia’s recent political crisis

“While I do not doubt Mr Muhyiddin will appoint non-Malays to his cabinet, in reality, it is unclear if non-Malay representatives … will wield any influence. This goes against the dream of the nation’s founders for Malaysia to become a successful experiment in multiculturalism.” James ChinChannel News Asia

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

THE FIX – developing a grand compact for the Pacific

“The success of a free compact arrangement will depend on presenting it in a respectful manner that considers Pacific environmental sensibilities. It will work only if Australia avoids a patronising, domineering and selfish approach, and agrees to safeguards that ensure the dignity of the states involved.” John Blaxland, HERE



Turkey is in a historical and vital fight for its present and future.


[Russia] cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish flights in Syrian skies.

Oleg Zhuravlev, Defence Ministry official (Russia)

[We are] constantly looking … to provide further support for Turkey.

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary-General (NATO)

Sources: Twitter, Reuters, The Guardian

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