Australia’s Changing Strategies and New Security Concept in the Indo-Pacific 

MDN Editör

The current use of the Indo-Pacific as a geopolitical concept began in the Indian strategic policy community, but Australia was the first country to use the broader concept to frame the region in a government policy document with the 2012 report ‘Australia in the Asian Century’. The idea of the Indo-Pacific has since become a reference point for Australian governments to define the country’s foreign and security policy interests. The acceleration of globalization of capital and labor and the strong growth momentum in Asian economies have also affected Australia, which can be defined as a central Indo-Pacific state.  

The 2012 report presented the Indo-Pacific as an economically dynamic region with China at its center, with opportunities to be seized through diplomatic and strategic engagement, supported by local education and economic reforms. Later, climate and demographic changes also came to the fore in shaping new global balances of power. The threats emanating from North Korea should not be ignored. International institutions and rules are insufficient to maintain world peace.

Although the United States of America is the most prominent state globally, it is difficult to talk about a single pole in the world anymore. All these developments have brought about significant changes in Australia’s foreign policy. 

General Evaluations

In Southeast Asia and many parts of the Indo-Pacific, China’s power and influence are on par with, and in some cases even exceed, that of the United States. The balance of power in the future of the Indo-Pacific region largely depends on the actions of the great powers – the United States, China, Japan and India. China is the most important trading partner of most of the region’s economies and the largest investor, including in infrastructure. China’s military modernization is rapidly increasing the capacity of its armed forces. It also has Asia’s largest navy and air force and the world’s largest coast guard. As China’s power grows, it also risks more direct competition with the United States. But most countries in the region, including Australia, continue to see the US role in the Indo-Pacific as a clear stabilizing influence. Japan and India, large economies and military powers in their own right, are also playing stronger roles in Indo-Pacific security and political affairs and seeking to influence the balance of regional order. In this environment, maritime and land border disputes continue to create new frictions. The region’s seas and airspace are increasingly contested, with freedom of navigation threatened in some parts. 

While the military arms race in the region is not about Australia, it is indirectly relevant to Australia in many areas. The quality and quantity of missile forces in the Indo-Pacific, including ballistic missiles, are increasing. More submarines and advanced fighter aircraft, more powerful surveillance and reconnaissance systems are emerging. 

Australia is not indifferent to military developments in its region. The Australian government continues its efforts to strengthen the Australian Defense Force (ADF). In particular, they want to modernize maritime capabilities and make the ADF capable of applying force more quickly and effectively. Despite these developments, the Australian government recognizes that its interests lie in a stable and lasting peace. Therefore, it prioritizes trade, investment and economic relations with the region to ensure a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific region. It does so through active diplomacy, promoting economic reform and social stability through development cooperation.

The alliance with the United States is central to Australia’s security and at the heart of its strategic and defense planning. Australian policymakers are developing policies to broaden and deepen cooperation within this alliance and to encourage the strongest possible US economic and security engagement in the region.

At the same time, the Indo-Pacific democracies of Japan, Indonesia, India and South Korea are of prime importance to Australia, both as major bilateral partners in their own right and as countries that will influence the shape of the regional order. Japan, for example, is the world’s fourth largest economy, a cornerstone of global value chains and one of the largest sources of foreign direct investment in Southeast Asia. It remains the catalyst for much of Australia’s economic development.

Until recently, Australia has sought to meet its security needs primarily through its mutual defense treaty with the United States of America (USA), the 1951 Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America Security Treaty (ANZUS) and the ‘Five Eyes’ signals intelligence sharing agreement with the USA, the United Kingdom (UK), Canada and New Zealand. 

The State of the Indo-Pacific from a Military and Geo-Political Perspective

“Quad”, short for “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue”, which brings together Australia, the United States, Japan and India, is not a formal treaty or agreement, but a framework of sorts for joint military exercises and coordination on responding to common regional challenges, including pandemics, climate change, critical and emerging technologies, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and disaster relief and recovery. It is supported by bi-monthly meetings of foreign ministry officials and annual meetings of foreign ministers. The “Quad” is perceived as a response to China’s growing power and assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region and is described by China as a kind of ‘Asian NATO’, although unlike NATO, there is no mutual defense treaty. 

The “Quad” was first proposed in 2007 by the government of Japan’s then prime minister Shinzo Abe and thus predates Australia’s 2016-2020 strategic update. However, after a period of diplomatic stagnation in 2008, triggered in part by Australia’s preference for closer economic and strategic ties with China at the time, the “Quad” was revived in October 2017, again at the urging of Abe’s Japan and the Trump administration in the US. At this point, both Australia and India had experienced a deterioration in their bilateral relations with China and were therefore more open to the idea of ‘Quad 2.0’. On January 6, 2022, the prime ministers of Australia and Japan signed the “Japan-Australia Mutual Access Treaty”, a bilateral security and defense agreement that allows each side’s armed forces mutual access to the other side’s territory.

On September 15, 2021, one day before the 2021 annual AUSMIN meeting and nine days before the “Quad” leaders gathered in Washington DC, the leaders of Australia, the US and the UK announced the establishment of a new trilateral security partnership called “AUKUS”. While the EU’s strategy does not include any military hardware procurement arrangements with regional partners, it aims to support EU Member States’ efforts to contribute to maritime security in the region. The cornerstone of the agreement is for the Royal Australian Navy to procure at least eight nuclear-powered submarines, with the US and the UK selling and helping to build them. Australia will also purchase long-range missiles and the military hardware part of the deal is intended to promote joint capability and interoperability.

In a press release issued on September 16, 2021, Australia’s prime minister, foreign and defense ministers stated that ‘AUKUS will complement Australia’s network of strategic partnerships, including with our ASEAN friends, Pacific family, Five Eyes partners, Quad and other like-minded partners’. One partner not explicitly mentioned in this list was France, with whom Australia announced an enhanced strategic partnership in March 2017, following its 2016 agreement with French DCNS (now Naval Group) to supply 12 diesel-electric powered Shortfin Barracuda submarines. The AUKUS announcement necessitated the cancellation of this purchase agreement. France reacted to this news by recalling its ambassadors to Australia and the United States.

Reactions of Australia’s other neighbors to the nuclear submarine element of the NPT have been mixed. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia expressed concern about the possibility of a regional arms race and reacted ‘cautiously’ by urging Australia to abide by its non-proliferation commitments. In October 2021, Indonesia announced that it would seek a review of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which aims to prevent non-nuclear-weapon states such as Australia from acquiring nuclear propulsion technology. Malaysia has also stated that it is ‘concerned and anxious’ about the risk of nuclear proliferation, as well as its implications for ‘ASEAN centralism’ and the associated Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN). Reactions from the Philippines, a treaty ally of the United States and host to US forces but which has strategically distanced itself from the United States since 2016, have been mixed but ultimately positive. Reactions from Singapore and Vietnam have been ‘measured’, while those from Thailand have been ‘cautious’.  In the South Pacific, New Zealand has welcomed increased international engagement in the region, while at the same time confirming that nuclear-propelled vessels will continue to be banned from its waters, while some other Pacific island states, such as Fiji, have expressed concern about the implications for the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty (SPNFZ).

Indo-Pacific from a Geo-Economic Perspective

Asian countries are expected to provide nearly two-thirds of global growth by 2030. The lion’s share of this will, of course, belong to the Indo-Pacific countries. In the next 15 years, four of the world’s five largest economies in purchasing power parity terms are likely to be in Asia: China, India, Japan and Indonesia. This will provide Australia with many opportunities. Australia’s economy is projected to continue to strongly complement the growing Asian economy. It should not be overlooked that Australia will be one of the largest suppliers of goods to China as it seeks to shift its economy towards a more sustainable model based on domestic consumption. China is also at the industrial heart of the region, having become an urbanized manufacturing hub. Its mega-cities such as Beijing, Chongqing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Tianjin are highly populated. 

Millions of containers are shipped each year through the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits a few hundred kilometers north of Australia. Singapore, at the entrance to these straits, connects tens of millions of containers annually to hundreds of ports in 120 countries. Asia’s people are also constantly on the move, with 1.5 billion passengers traveling in or through the region each year. By 2030, the region is expected to produce more than half of the world’s economic output and consume more than half of the world’s food and nearly half of its energy. It is also expected that more than 600 million more people will be living in the region’s cities by then. 

Despite all this, many countries in the Indo-Pacific region need difficult-to-implement reforms to move to the next stage of economic growth. Australia, with a track record of economic reforms that have delivered growth and jobs, can lead the way. Australia is also funding initiatives in services, investment, competition policy and intellectual property to support the development of the ASEAN Economic Community, and is building its engagement with the region to support an increasingly prosperous, outward-looking, stable and resilient Southeast Asia. 

What started as a ‘pivot to Asia’ under President Obama, backed by the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade agreement, turned into a full-blown US-China trade war and strategic rivalry when President Trump withdrew the US from the TPP.

Australia has also begun building a network of ‘comprehensive strategic’, ‘special strategic’, ‘enhanced strategic’ or simply ‘strategic’ partnerships to regulate its bilateral relations with its neighbors, starting with Japan and China in 2014 and including Singapore (2015), France (2017), Indonesia (2018), Vietnam (2018), India (2020), Papua New Guinea (2020), Thailand (2020), Malaysia (2021), ASEAN (2021) and Germany (2021).  Other important developments include the quadrilateral strategic dialogue with the US, Japan and India, which was launched in 2007 and reactivated in 2017, followed by the announcement of the AUKUS partnership with the US and the UK in September 2021.

Maritime Security

High seas routes connect the Pacific and Indian oceans, enabling the trade in goods and energy that has driven the region’s growth. The region’s major economies are particularly dependent on energy transported through the Indian Ocean. Australia is naturally connected to the world through our maritime lines of communication. 

Australia is increasingly investing in maritime security capacity building in Southeast Asia.  It is also seeking to strengthen the focus on maritime issues in regional forums, including EAS and IORA.

In addition, as a member of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), Australia has long provided development assistance and security support to its South Pacific island state neighbors, including New Zealand, the United States, Japan, France and the EU. 

The South China Sea is home to rich natural resources and trade routes. For years, it has been a sensitive point in China’s relations with neighboring states and the United States. China claims sovereignty over almost all South China Sea islands and adjacent waters. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that most of China’s claims in the disputed sea were illegal. Another goal of China’s foreign policy in the region is to seize Taiwan. 


Australia’s foreign policy has been undergoing a sharp transformation, especially since the early 2010s. One of the most important aspects of this has been the authorization and even encouragement of a rapid increase in the American military presence on Australian soil. Australia’s view of the United States has not changed, on the contrary, it continues to strengthen; it sees the US commitment to Asia as a guarantee of regional security and prosperity. For example, starting in 2012, it has sought to facilitate the rebalancing of the US military to Asia by hosting the US Rotary Marine Force in Darwin. In 2021, Australia and the United States committed to “significantly advance” force posture cooperation in the air, sea and land domains. The first two practical manifestations of this policy were the expansion of the Tindal airbase in the Northern Territory to enable the regular deployment of US B-52 bombers, and the use of HMAS Stirling in Western Australia to host a rotational presence of nuclear-powered submarines from the United States. 

Another situation that points to a new balance of power in the region is the territorial claims of China, which has been conducting military exercises in the South China Sea. China continues to make extensive claims in these areas, which according to international law belong to neighboring countries. 

Australia’s changing approach to the Indo-Pacific is undoubtedly underpinned by a shift in its perspective towards China. However, many states in the region believe that the US military presence in the region, in particular, is not a net positive and does not guarantee regional security. As can be seen, there is a divergence between Australia and the countries in the region. Australia’s policy of pointing to China’s unilateral actions as a potential source of regional instability is the clearest manifestation of this. Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarines are also seen to disturb some countries in the region. 

Apart from this, a strong Australia is important for the Washington administration as the US hopes to strengthen its position in the region and gain an alliance-based advantage in the face of the growing power of the Chinese navy. While Japan is stabilizing the situation in the north of the region, Australia aims to do the same in the south. The position of these two US-backed countries is aimed at containing the rising Chinese threat in the South China Sea.

The development of the situation and security situation in the Indo-Pacific will be one of the main determinants of the future of the world and the distribution of power between the two rival superpowers.

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