The forthcoming announcement by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott that his conservative government is moving up by three years work on a 20 billion Australia dollar [U.S. $14.6 billion] fleet of advanced frigates couldn’t be more welcome. It is part of Abbott’s program to increase defense expenditures to 2% of GDP from the current 1.8%, adding A$3.5 billion a year to the current A$32 billion military budget.
We appreciate that some of our colleagues in the media Down Under have complaints about this project, and that they may be legitimate up to a certain point. And we beg off on taking sides in what will undoubtedly become one of those boisterous if healthy rows characteristic of Ozzie democracy. But Alas! the complexities of Australian politics are far beyond us; we have more than enough with the shenanigans of our own self-government.
But at a time when the rhetoric of the Obama Administration sometimes flies ahead of its actions – the so-called pivot to Asia is a prime example – it is good to know that we have a solid and ambitious ally in opposing Chinese aggressive moves in the area. Abbott’s initiative which includes a modernized fleet of 40 surface warships and submarines is part of a logical and badly needed answer to Beijing’s thrust into the South China Sea. There, with no perceived threat to its southern shores almost a thousand miles away to the north, China has begun scraping up coral reefs and shoals on Southeast Asia’s doorstep, turning them into military bases athwart one of the most important sealanes in the world.
Nor do we underestimate the difficulties Abbott and the Ozzies will have with such a pricey if necessary expansion of their military forces.
For Australia is the canary in the mine shaft in this instance, with its economy already feeling the effects of China’s slowing economy and the collapse of commodity prices. If China descends further into crisis which is certainly a strong possibility, as all the attention is focused on Greece and the Euro’s problems, it will have severe repercussions for the Ozzies, as eventually for all China’s trading partners.
Also, looking at the shambles of our own shipbuilding industry, we have more than a little sympathy with Abbott’s efforts to rescue local manufacturing. The fact that it comes at a time when Australia’s allies – Britain, Canada, and Obama’s U.S. as well as Germany and the Netherlands – are cutting back on their defense expenditures is all the more dramatic.
The growing integration of American, Australia and Japanese strategies in East Asia now have to make do with a U. S. Navy which once bore virtually all the weight of keeping the vast sealanes of the region free for all. That American fleet is at its lowest numbers since before World War II, granted in no small way compensated for by our dominance of the air and the greater firepower of all our vessels.
Nor is Australia alone in the region in looking to its defenses. The Chinese jockeying for strategic advantage is having ripples throughout Southeast Asia, in many cases with China as their first trading partner, the geopolitical complexities are a real cats cradle. And unfortunately, to extend our metaphor, as events leading up to World War II in the area proved, the reversal of roles and relationships could come quickly and unexpectedly as in that childs’ game.
Australia is at the same time – and that too is a refreshing relief from some of the Washington politics we experience – on a multiparty basis expanding its strategic and tactical relationships with the U.S. Going against a longtime red line in its own political history, it has opened a base for American marines on the doorstep of Southeast Asia in Darwin. It is scheduled to eventually have Asia’s largest fleet of the controversial Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters along with Boeing’s P-8A Poseidon submarine-hunting aircraft and a dozen Growler electronic warfare jamming aircraft – the first outside the U.S.
Of course, all this is recognition of its exposed position as a wealthy society on the edge of Asian neighbors, developing at a rapid rate, but with their own severe internal problems and beset with old rivalries. We can only hope that the Obama Administration is paying enough attention, not only to our Australian ally’s ambitious initiatives, but that it too might think a bit about where its current military cutbacks are taking U.S. capabilities in a dangerous world.