• Deekhit Bhattacharya & Ashley Eadon

The Oceans of Churn: Australia’s Defence Strategic Update 2020

The Indian Ocean region has historically been a zone for both confluence and competition between powers. Criss- crossed by vital trade routes, hosting the presence of every major power, and bridging the peoples of three continents, the region has always been an arena of great power rivalry(1). The Pacific ocean as well has been betraying its name, fast emerging as a related area of contestation between the three great powers (USA, China, and Russia) at its shores. These two oceans together form a continuum spanning the vast majority of humankind’s population as well as might. Australia sits as a bridge between these two oceans, a geographical boon which has enriched it immensely. Australia maintains important economic and military relationships with a multitude of countries in these vast oceans, and is inseparable from developments occurring along its rims. More importantly, it remains a pillar of stability for the region, a role which is turning out to be more complicated with each passing day.

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update(2) highlights the reality of the seas heating up, and warns of a sharp deterioration in Australia’s strategic environment. China’s relentless maritime aggression in the South China Sea, and with Japan, has been taken not just as a threat in and of itself, but also a sign for things to come. The governance of the high seas through rules and norms has taken a severe beating since quite some time. However, China’s indignant rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 verdict on the South China Sea(3) is emblematic of a wholesale rejection of all such concepts when convenient. Such brutish and coercive actions threaten to clog mutually respected coexistence maintained through a rules based order, and have heightened the possibility of outright conflict between states. The seas are not the only global commons which face such stresses- cyberspace, space and the informational domain face a similar breakdown of peace sustaining norms and systematic subversion. These rules were designed not only for systemic stability but also to regulate competing interests without catastrophic breakdowns of state relations. Major powers progressively choosing assertion outside of these rules bring back terrible memories of the failure of the League of Nations and its aftermath.The Strategic Update reminds not just Australia but the entire world that coercion, competition, and grey-zone activities by renegade powers circumventing international law (such as China’s infamous maritime militia) are already chipping away at both the global architecture and national interests.

Being as frank as grimly realistic, Australia no longer considers that a timely warning will be received before conventional conflict, and has no choice but to maintain an unforeseen level of preparedness. It points to a larger reality facing the Indo- Pacific states, that warfare does not correlate with war as we know it, but that any and every coercive means of achieving objectives below the threshold of a conventional war are as much a manifestation of warfare as war itself. In a way, Comprehensive National Power is at the forefront of the ongoing global balance of power, whereby no threat nor response can have purely military, economic etc. domains of application.

The Strategic Update has vindicated itself almost immediately. With Australia determined to maintain its strategic autonomy and its commitment to a rules based global architecture, China has piled a range of underhanded retributions upon Australia, ranging from alleged cyberattacks(4) to tariff escalations(5). This is in addition to the long efforts China has consistently made over the years to influence public opinion, business, and politics in Australia(6). The Strategic Update had presaged such Chinese means of ‘unrestricted warfare’(7) as a means of pressurising Australia. To this ends stand the three principle guiding lights of Australia’s new outlook, shedding a reactive stance to that of proactive, all- pervasive defence capabilities:

Shape Australia’s Strategic Environment

Deter actions against Australia’s interests

Respond with credible military force, when required

Australia’s perceptions of the kinds of threats it faces are evident from the capabilities it looks forward to investing in. While it is no stranger to maintaining strike capabilities in the past, with aircraft carriers and F-111 Aardvarks, Australia now intends to have long range missiles which may be a multitude of weapon systems instead of a single one. This, along with the thrust on sensors and logistics, including specialised munitions, points to far more aggressive posturing compared to its past. The explicit intention itself makes it clear that ‘to hold potential adversaries’ forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance’- an unmistakable escalation in posture. While it reaffirms Australia’s commitment to the American Nuclear Umbrella, it has clearly picked up on American vacillations due to war- weariness, and aims to ramp up its capabilities in all spheres, particularly those having a long range and/or technological component to it. Indeed, an ambitious AUD 270 billion (USD 182 billion) investment in defence capabilities within a AUD 575 billion push over a period of a decade points to a major rethink- a bipartisan endorsement included. The specific plan to bolster ‘Sovereign Industrial Capability Priorities’ by supporting innovation in defence industries is another aspect to this shift in capabilities, for it builds a long term, sustainable basis for continuous technological upgradation with lesser reliance on its allies for the same. The bottom line for these efforts is that a tilt towards ‘deterrence by punishment’ from ‘deterrence by denial’(8) seems to be on the cards for the Australian Defence Forces in the coming years, where maintaining the capacity to inflict punitive responses would be key in avoiding such situations in the first place. While it definitely increases risks of escalation, grey- zone tactics adopted by China leave little room for manoeuvre.

The Strategic Update attains a particular salience when juxtaposed with Australia’s economic relationship with China. Australia is blessed with mineral resources, and China’s insatiable manufacturing demand has naturally made China Australia’s largest trading partner(9). This has enabled wealth and jobs to grow in Australia, but China has repeatedly weaponised its interdependence with other nations to browbeat them- Australia’s predicament was inevitable. While Australia has been trying to diversify its export baskets, Chinese preponderance can only be diluted, not wished away. Within this context, attempts to place Australia’s troubles with the Chinese as a dilemma of economics versus politics is a futile oversimplification. Economic relations have always been used by China as a political tool, a rather profitable hydra which not only binds nations in interdependence but also provides channels for broader influence (as Australia has seen). China’s economy is fundamentally different from the free markets of the west, where it has broken hundreds of WTO regulations(10) to create uneven playing fields and enrich its princelings. Its politics, both international, and domestic, is inseparable from a rigged economy geared towards market capturing and furthering China’s foreign policy objectives. With the Chinese, the economy is politics, and vice versa(11). All economic relations with China are inherently political. The false dichotomy between Chinese political ambitions and economic goals has been responsible for today’s situation to a large degree- the west subsidised a rogue state aiming to replace it. While Chinese money is here to stay, its extent and influence can be carefully controlled, and its risks managed. The Strategic Update is one such endeavour in this risk management, where the ability to respond to China is being ramped up in not just terms of military capabilities, but also in terms of building up an Australian military- industrial complex driven by innovation.

Amidst Australia’s hedges of increasing its self reliance on the security front, it has simultaneously doubled down on the importance of a cooperative defence paradigm with regional peers. While its immediate neighbourhood remains its priority, Australia recognises the fluid nature of threats in its vicinity where the line between the near and far is easily penetrable. Any disturbance from Djibouti to the Pacific Islands immediately impacts Australian security, and it makes up for its limited reach by capitalising on convergent interests of the powers in its region. The ASEAN nations, Pacific Islands, USA, Japan, and India, all find explicit mention in the Strategic Update, putting special emphasis on shared security interests. The anticipated revival of the Quad military engagements involving India, Japan, and USA along with itself is but one manifestation of Australia’s willingness to look beyond the American alliance for looser arrangements and coordinated capacity enhancements. The effects of the policy update were made palpable soon, where the Australian Prime Minister revised his nation’s laissez faire stance upon the South China Sea encroachments of China on July 27, 2020, rejecting Chinese claims and upholding freedom of navigation not long after the US had done the same(12). Countering power asymmetries with China through further collectivisation of regional security is bound to remain a fundamental rule of thumb for Australia. This would naturally necessitate greater Australian hard power involvement, a process which has been set in motion since a few years now with similar moves from peers such as India.

Australia’s Strategic Update 2020 is ultimately a result of progressively heightened uncertainties owing to a complex interaction of great power rivalries, and having a large great power determined to corrode all peace maintaining institutions in its immediate vicinity. USA’s demands from its allies to take greater burden, as well as the general domestic political risk an increasingly polarised America carries, even as the Chinese threat only intensifies, is only one trigger. China’s economic relationship with Australia is a multifaceted source of risk, and a lever which China will use to pressurise more often as its belligerence waxes. However, China has not shied away from engaging in barbaric thuggery for non military matters through its forces all along its peripheries, India being the latest victim13. While a China shrouded in uncertainty, and an equally uncertain USA is already a source of much consternation, other local powers face their own political instabilities. For example, Australian surveillance aircraft flew in aid of the Philippines when it fought the battle of Marawi against Islamist terrorists in 2017 may become a leitmotif of sorts for both regional cooperation as well as emergent turmoil in many of the Indian Ocean states. In such a world, a policy such as Australia’s can be a call for action to all the states in the region. Japan has had long standing hesitations in shedding the limitations of the MacArthur Constitution to develop offensive capabilities, and India has been glacially slow when it comes to clarifying its muddled maritime thinking. The time to dither is over, and Australia has realised it- time however, is running out for others.

(Deekhit Bhattacharya is an Economics Graduate from the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. He has interned previously at the Australia India Institute at New Delhi, and the Federation of Indian Exports Organisations under the Ministry of Commerce, the Government of India.)

(Ashley Eadon is a New Colombo Plan Scholar which is an initiative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. Ashley has previously held the role of ‘Youth Advocate for the United Nations’ in Bangkok, Thailand. She is a Youth Citizen of the Year (Macedon Rangers Shire), co-founder of community education project ‘Dear CRIS’ and studies a Bachelor of Laws and Psychological Science at La Trobe University. As a youth leader, she has spoken at the United Nations Conference Centre in Thailand, Australian Parliament House and the Australian-Indian High Commission)


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8. "Understanding Deterrence - RAND Corporation." Accessed 17 Jul. 2020.

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