Games without frontiers: Why Indo-Pacific military exercises matter

Patrick Flannery | Indo-Pacific Fellow


As the COVID-19 pandemic cripples nations worldwide, China has opportunistically pursued its strategic goals, carrying out combat drills in the South China Sea and arresting activists in Hong Kong. At the same time, the pandemic has further exposed the failings of United States (US) leadership as the politically-divided country looks inward and grapples with the world’s most severe outbreak.

This continuing trend of an assertive China and a US withdrawing from the world stage places increasing pressure on Australia and other middle powers to provide for their own security and band together where possible.

In recent years, this need for multilateralism has helped popularise the regional conception of the “Indo-Pacific”. As opposed to the “Asia-Pacific”, this grouping includes India. Beijing views this shift in terminology as an attempt at containment by co-opting its populous neighbour and reducing China’s regional centrality.

Following the 2016 Defence White Paper, the Indo-Pacific is now a crucial part of Australia’s foreign policy. Australia envisions a stable Indo-Pacific region as part of a global rules-based order that helps support its interests. It relies on the US to remain a significant regional player and places high hopes on India.

But other countries have differing expectations for the Indo-Pacific in terms of its scope and the role of China – something that could hinder effective regional cooperation. The US is primarily concerned with balancing against China, Japan sees the concept as a way of building regional relationships beyond its bilateral alliance with the US, and India appreciates its inclusion but values its strategic autonomy.

ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific signals broader acceptance of the term, but an even greater variety of interests and priorities.

A common thread is a desire for a free and open Indo-Pacific where conflict is resolved peaceably. However, as China continues to aggressively push its territorial claims, it is apparent that a shared aspiration for stability and a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific will face great challenges.

Shrewd diplomacy and economic ties will not be enough to counter these destabilising acts. Military capability and commitment need to be demonstrated to deter aggression and prepare contingencies. To help achieve this, Australia should establish new joint-military exercises and broaden existing ones.

Military exercises and training between Indo-Pacific middle powers are already becoming more frequent. In Contest for the Indo-Pacific, Rory Medcalf writes that this increase is “the most tangible manifestation of the diplomatic trend towards coalitions and collective self-help.”

These deepening defence relationships are clearly something China views as a threat. Beijing is particularly concerned by the re-emergent “Quad” grouping between Australia, the US, Japan, and India.

In 2017, India refrained from allowing Australia to participate in its Malabar exercise with Japan, fearing Chinese reprisal. Australia itself has declined to participate in exercises in the South China Sea alongside the US for similar reasons.

Policymakers have wrestled with the risk of needlessly antagonising China and the need to deter it from taking Taiwan or other similarly calamitous acts.

If Australia’s vision for the Indo-Pacific is to prevail then deterrence is key. Australia and other Indo-Pacific powers need to signal their collective commitment to uphold regional stability. Beijing will continue to push where it feels limited resistance and resolve. The possibility of protracted conflict will give Xi pause.

Joint-military exercises and crisis simulations will be crucial in preventing aggressive actions and testing interoperability and the new operational concepts required as military technologies advance.

To this end, high-level talks are needed between Indo-Pacific powers to clarify expectations and establish redlines. Australia needs clear communication as to the extent of the US alliance but also needs to enhance defence relationships with other regional players. To do so, it must highlight convergences of interests and appeal to their Indo-Pacific aspirations.

For instance, Indonesia is a major regional player, yet Australia’s defence relationship with its neighbour nation is lacking. Evan Laksmana notes that Australia’s defence relationship could be improved by linking maritime exercises to President Joko Widodo’s ‘maritime fulcrum’ concept.

Military exercises can also help Australia improve its standing as a regional leader. A central premise of Hugh White’s How to Defend Australia is that enhancing our military capabilities and increasing our defence budget will help us by making us a more appealing partner and less vulnerable to coercion.

An issue, of course, is cost. The United States Studies Centre’s ‘Averting Crisis’ Report recommends winding down counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East and diverting the funds to the Indo-Pacific. This rebalance would much better serve Australia’s security interests.

All of this should be part of a broader assessment in a new Defence White Paper.

Ultimately, middle-power joint-exercises and emerging coalitions may not be enough to prevent China from expanding. But at the very least they can buy countries time. China’s power relative to the region may have reached its apex as surrounding nations modernise their militaries and develop their economies. Military exercises can help Australia both prevent and prepare for catastrophe and establish itself as a valuable regional partner.

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