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Darwin defence hub crucial to white paper’s diplomatic ambitions

By Anthony Bergin

Last week’s defence white paper, much more than previous ones, placed international military engagement in the Indo-Pacific centre stage as a strategic measure to build a sense of common cause in the region.

For more than 40 years Australia’s assisted countries in our near region with military capacity building to secure our strategic interests. That’s been particularly true with countries in Southeast Asia and those Pacific Island states, notably Papua New Guinea and Fiji, that have military forces.

Defence engagement embraces many activities: from exercises and joint operations, service-to-service talks, through to training programs in Australia for foreign military students.

We've long had military staff exchanges, port visits, education and training programs, search and rescue and other joint exercises, and provided military response to regional natural disasters.

There are regular talks between the Australian defence organisation and the national defence agencies of many regional countries, including China, India, Japan, South Korea and most Southeast Asian countries. The ADF and our defence civilian leaders participate in a range of regional defence forums. At the operational level, Australia is regularly involved in a large number of multilateral military exercises in the Indo-Pacific.

All these activities are aimed at building trust and co-operation with other armed forces in our neighbourhood.

The latest defence white paper rightly points out that our military physical footprint overseas and pattern of collaborative activities contributes significantly to Australia’s perceived global standing and our ability to exert influence in pursuit of our interests.

While our international defence engagement is a strategic asset, it won’t always be easy. It’s a congested market.

With the changing power relativities in the region, greater competition for regional defence engagement is evident: China, the US, India, Japan, France and other EU countries are all active in Southeast Asia. Defence engagement in Asia often has an industrial dimension as the arms-producing countries compete for the defence dollar.

Southeast Asia is rising higher in US strategic priorities than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War. It’s now much more active with ship visits and promoting multilateral and bilateral military exercises.

The challenge for Australia is that the US could squeeze us out of regional defence engagement by being a bigger and better partner. We have to work harder to retain our influence.

Competition is also evident in the Pacific Islands region, particularly between China, Japan, the US and more recently, as we’ve seen in Fiji, Russia.

Australia enjoys some comparative advantages. We’re an attractive military co-operation partner for many powers in our region, given worries about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and the worsening situation in the East China Sea.

We’ve been in the defence engagement game for a long time and have established a reputation as a reliable partner, perhaps with fewer ulterior motives and clearer strategic interests than other countries.

Australia’s views on security are accepted as sitting with those of the region generally. Our Western alignment is a positive factor: the ADF is viewed as having access to advanced Western military technology, doctrine and tactics.

Our capability for joint and combined operations is respected in Southeast Asia. We’re a sought-after partner for joint exercises and training, without the negative factors associated with other players from outside of the region: all this means that there’s good opportunities for our defence engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Given that Japan welcomes the rise of India, trilateral maritime co-operation between India, Indonesia and Australia, for example, would make good sense. A Japan-Australia-India dialogue was launched last June and will continue, offering prospects for trilateral military co-operation. Military exercises between Australia, the US, and China, centred in northern Australia, may help reduce Sino-US tensions.

To sharpen the focus on regional defence engagement at the operational and tactical levels and to co-ordinate defence engagement activities we should establish an Australian defence regional engagement centre in Darwin to exploit the city’s proximity to the region and to the main military exercise areas in northern Australia.

The centre would promote regional interoperability, capabilities, operational experience and habits of working together in a multinational environment. It would provide a professional centre of excellence to bring leaders of regional defence forces together to exchange views. It could have oversight of Australia’s military exercise program with regional countries.

The centre would become the key place to go for professional military interaction in the region. It could be used to help integrate rotating US marine deployments into the regional security architecture.

It would offer a clear demonstration of the government’s commitment in its 2016 defence white paper to strengthen Australian defence diplomacy to build regional co-operation and capacity.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

The Australian, p9 

Originally published by: The Australian on 29 Feb 2016