26 Apr 2023
The surprising omission of Pacific Islands, Antarctica and Southern Ocean in Defence Strategic Review
It’s surprising that there’s almost nothing in the Defence Strategic Review about the Pacific Islands or our strategic interests in Antarctica.
The review looked north but not south or east.
Where else will Defence Minister Richard Marles’s aim to develop “impactful projection” be needed if not to deter China in the Pacific?
With their militarily useful locations, ports and airfields it’s only a matter of time before we see Chinese bases or at least “forward operating locations” in the Pacific.
China is interested in the Pacific Islands for the same reason Japan was interested in them during World War II – it’s all about complicating US access to the Western Pacific.
The Pacific Islands region is key terrain. It’s a pity the review didn’t make clear that what we do in the region ties directly to success or failure in a war with China over Taiwan.
The challenges posed by a Chinese presence in the Pacific Islands are considerable. It would be tough for us to fight our way up towards Taiwan and get whittled down in the process.
The review sensibly recommends strengthening our northern bases. But given it recommends deepening our defence partnerships with key partners in the Indo-Pacific it should have made specific recommendations on the Pacific Islands. It might have suggested, for example, we seek the same Australian Defence Force access rights in Guam as the US has in Darwin. Guam is the centrepiece of US-led North Pacific security.
We did a good job pre-empting the Chinese at Manus Island and the Blackrock facility in Fiji several years back. But the review doesn’t consider any follow-up of any permanent ADF presence. Defence money spent in the Pacific Islands is like a maintenance fee or insurance. Far cheaper than having to fight a war to recover them.
The review might have recommended Defence install small detachments in as many island nations as possible. Perhaps even create the Pacific Regiment and give it tasks such as disaster management. The regiment could be headquartered in Fiji or Papua New Guinea with ADF personnel integrated into it under South Pacific command. The review could have suggested we create a naval version of the Pacific Regiment operating out of Manus Island.
Given the Pacific’s oceanic environment the review should have recommended that Defence establish a maritime domain awareness centre in the region to inform operational responses to challenges such as illegal fishing, people-smuggling and drug trafficking.
Creating such a facility would tie into a permanent presence and influence effort in the region, not to mention potential intelligence benefits.
The review might have suggested Australian forces operate from Milne Bay in support of PNG and other Pacific Islands Forum partners. It should have recommended Defence lead in working with the islands to create a regional stabilisation and disaster response force and that we recruit Pacific Islanders into the ADF.
Military service is a unique offer we can make that China can’t and won’t. The DSR says the ADF must undertake urgent action to expand the pool of eligible applicants.
The other area where the review is silent is Antarctica, where we claim 42 per cent of the continent. The review does at least have a map including Antarctica as part of the In
do-Pacific region. China is investing in significant assets there. It’s now in a strong position to influence developments on our southern flank.
Last year’s US Department of Defence report on China’s military notes that China’s strategy for Antarctica includes dual-use technologies, facilities and scientific research that “are likely intended, at least in part, to improve PLA capabilities”. It says China’s facilities there can serve as reference stations for China’s dual-use BeiDou satellite navigation network, Beijing’s alternative to the US-run global positioning system.
At the very least the review should have canvassed how Defence could strengthen its logistic support for our polar operations and how our military capabilities might improve our situational awareness there. The review missed an opportunity to suggest how Defence should support our security interests in the Pacific, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean as these regions are becoming more geo-politically contested.