The Defence Strategic Review commits Australia to acquiring an impressive variety of long-range strike capabilities to deter adversaries operating near the archipelago to our north and in and around the South Pacific, and beyond.
How will this be received by Southeast Asian nations nervous about an arms race occurring between China on the one side and the US and allies on the other? What will Pacific Island nations think? And, more broadly, will the review enhance Australia’s standing and relevance in these subregions or weaken it?
At first glance, it seems strange that regional nations might be critical of Australian strategic ambition given it is China that has engaged in the most rapid military build-up in peacetime history, illegally militarising artificial islands in the South China Sea and claiming maritime territory far from its continental landmass.
In the South Pacific, Beijing is pursuing deals with nations such as Solomon Islands to gradually build its military assets in these countries under the cover of providing domestic security, just as it did in the strategically significant country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.
Regarding Southeast Asian nations, the official stance has been that they seek the predictability and stability that comes from adherence to the status quo. The problem is that while we would define the status quo as the preservation of existing laws, rules and boundaries, many Southeast Asian governments believe the status quo is one of inevitable and advancing Chinese presence and power.
Being resigned to and having internalised what China is doing, some of these states tend to identify any Australian or allied countermeasures as the more disruptive and risky activity. This was evident in some earlier Southeast Asian responses to AUKUS.
However, the evolving reactions to AUKUS indicates how most Southeast Asian nations are likely to eventually react to the strategic review. Across the next few days, there is likely to be similar immediate public reactions to the review, with states calling for de-escalation and the avoidance of an arms race. But what really matters is concrete results.
If Australia shows it is delivering what is being promised, our enhanced military capability, posture, reach and offensive doctrine will be methodically factored into their assessments and responses – as will Australian credibility. A Southeast Asian region obsessed with the balance of material power will subtly alter their hedging strategies in ways that better suit our interests.
However, fail to follow through and Australia will be dismissed and taken less seriously by not only Southeast Asia but also allies and partners such as the US and Japan.
The South Pacific has a different dynamic. Unlike many countries in Southeast Asia, the Pacific Island nations are too small and weak to contemplate pursuing sophisticated hedging strategies vis-a-vis the great powers. They would rather avoid being involved in any geopolitical contest altogether. That being the case, the review implicitly delivers the following message to them: allow Chinese military assets on their territory and they risk becoming unwilling participants in a geopolitical and military contest they claim to want no part of.
This should cause nations such as Solomon Islands to think twice about allowing gradual Chinese militarisation on its territory.
The strategic review is an ambitious document but does not occur in isolation. Countries such as the US and Japan are responding in similar ways to Australia. They are reacting to a China that is advancing aggressively.
In a strategic environment changing from a competitive to a rivalrous one, standing still is a losing strategy. Whether we meet our own commitments is how Australia ultimately will be judged by the region.