12 Oct 2022
ADF can put some spine into Biden’s strategy for Pacific
By Anthony Bergin and Grant Newsham
The Biden administration recently hosted the first US-Pacific island country leaders’ summit at the White House and announced its new partnership strategy with a range of programs to broaden Washington’s presence in the region.
It explicitly linked the strategy to China’s growing role in the region. While most of the measures are sensible it looked like the “goodie bag” you’d get if you go to the Oscars. It had no step-by-step plan for bringing the elements to fruition.
From a military perspective Australia can do more to support the new US strategy and advance our regional interests. And this effort would be timely: on November 1, the Albanese government will receive the interim report from the defence strategic review that will shape the capabilities and posture of the Australian Defence Force for the next decade. The final recommendations are due in March next year.
It’s not about bases but rather “rotational access”, which we should now deepen and broaden with the US. Australia should create a Pacific regiment. The focus should be on building island capacity in areas like disaster mitigation and response. The regiment could be headquartered in Fiji or Papua New Guinea with ADF personnel integrated into it under South Pacific command. We should find some junior officers who want to contribute to regional resilience in areas ranging from small unit tactics, surveillance and boat operations.
Working with locals, this is developing skills for local youth along with discipline that pays off later in life and feeds directly into local societies. For the US this would seem to be a natural activity for US Marine Corps’s new littoral combat regiments — offering valuable experience — and influencing and facilitating US access. Australia should encourage the US to consider opportunities for bringing us and Japan into the effort.
We should set up national guard programs in certain island nations with US and Australian defence support. Disaster response can be the main focus. One or two such relationships should be with a combined national guard and ADF army reserve unit. And maybe in a few cases we designate a reserve unit to a Pacific Island as well. The Australian government has promised to establish a defence training school in the Pacific. Along with the host nation, we should make it a joint effort of the US, Australia and Japan and make it a priority.
Australia should encourage the US to establish a marine expeditionary unit/amphibious ready group operating out of Darwin and elsewhere in northern Australia. It would be multinational. But with US/Australia/Japan as the core. This means that the Australian government needs to end the lease of the Port of Darwin to a China company. The lease is preventing the rapid development of the port for more important security purposes. It’s slowing and complicating greater USMC and ADF use of the port.
Enabling greater US access to expanded facilities here in Australia is about our security and improving our own defence facilities for our use and that of our allies and partners. If the US is able to capitalise on Palau’s offer to the US to establish a base, then Australia should offer some military assets there. We’re now building 12 offshore patrol vessels. There could be a rotational access of say four OPVs through the area.
US and Australian defence forces should deliver health assistance to the islands. The Mercy, a 1000-bed US Navy hospital ship, has sailed throughout the Pacific offering medical care to many island populations. Australia now has Pacific Support Vessel that will expand the range of support Defence provides across the region including delivering medical support. Australia should also work with the US and develop regular rotation of teams of military clinicians through host-nation hospitals for around four weeks each to leave a more lasting impact.
Australia, working with support from the US, should initiate a joint Australia and PNG project to enhance the existing port facilities and airfield at Milne Bay. It offers better potential defensive coverage of the vital Solomon and Coral Seas than Manus Island more than 500 nautical miles to the north. Australian forces could operate from Milne Bay in support of PNG and other Pacific Island Forum partners.
South Pacific defence ministers last year agreed to a Pacific-led initiative to develop a regional humanitarian and disaster response framework to refine the way countries within the region work together when disaster strikes. Why not take this to the next level with Australia and the US working with the islands to create a regional stabilisation and disaster response force.
Finally, Australia should be recruiting Pacific Islanders into the ADF. Pacific recruitment sits comfortably with the goal of security and economic integration with Australia over time and at a pace and scale that’s welcomed by Pacific Island countries. Military service is a unique offer we can make that China can’t and won’t. No changes to defence legislation would be required, only a change of policy.
Australia and the US must respond to both development challenges and geostrategic competition in the Pacific Islands. We can’t afford the luxury of choosing. And the military forces of the US and Australia have a vital contribution to make.
Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Colonel and senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.