Why Australia is Critical to the Free World - 100 Years of Mateship
The Unbreakable Alliance - SecDef Lloyd Austin
With the return of great power competition, Australia’s importance to the global strategic picture has increased for four reasons. Geography, economics, diplomacy, and military capability.
Geography - Redoubt of Last Resort
There are three main routes from North America to Asia. From shortest to longest, they are the northern, central, and southern routes. The southern route is by far the longest and Australia is still quite far from Asia. However, from the perspective of an allied coalition, this path is ideal for numerous reasons. First, it is the most robust from an infrastructure perspective. Australia and New Zealand are first world economies. Additionally, the French territory of New Caledonia lies along the route, pulling an important NATO ally into any potential effort.
Second, Australia lies outside the range of the vast bulk of current Chinese and Russian missile systems. Even those systems able to range Australia cannot provide persistent firepower coverage, only episodic. This makes Australia an ideal sanctuary from which to base theater headquarters and sustainment capabilities which are soft, vital, and difficult to protect.
Third, the state of Western Australia is ideal for submarine operations, just as in WWII. This geographic reality lies at the heart of the AUKUS nuclear and conventional submarine cooperation agreement. Ports such as Perth/Fremantle are within distance of all critical choke points across the Greater Sunda Islands without being too close for comfort. These choke points form the series of interlocking pathways which surround Singapore and the vital maritime commercial routes connecting Asia to the rest of the world.
Economics - Continental Cornucopia
Australia is a continent unto itself, with all of the economic abundance that comes with it. In the mining sector, Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of iron ore, gold, silver, lithium, copper, bauxite (aluminum), rare earths, and uranium. There are plenty of other critical minerals that are easy to miss such as antimony, critical in the manufacture of night-vision devices, armor-piercing ammunition, and nuclear weapons. Australia and Bolivia are the only countries in the world friendly to the US with at least a small production operations. The antimony market is unfortunately dominated by China, Russia, and Tajikistan.
With domestic sources of energy including oil, abundant natural gas, and massive coal deposits, Australia would not be heavily reliant on non-US energy exports in the event of a breakdown of maritime commerce. The US oil industry and increased Australian drilling would likely be sufficient to cover Australian needs during wartime.
This mineral and energy wealth is key to the manufacture of modern war material. Canberra and Washington need to have serious discussions about integrating defense industrial bases (DIBs) and communicate these plans to the other two members of the Quad (Japan and India) as well coordinate within AUKUS (the addition of the UK). Luckily, The Australian Defence Force already employs many different types of US weapons systems, but greater integration will be required.
Critically, abundant local agriculture and phosphate mining for fertilizers allows Australia to feed herself and export surplus food. In fact, Australia has one of the highest food self-sufficiency rates in the world, along with the US. The same cannot be said of US allies and partners like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, and even the UK. If China unleashes war in Asia, it will almost certainly become difficult to move food throughout the region. The crisis in Asia would then directly compound any actions taken by Russia in Europe. If the Ukraine war is still slogging on (or potentially spawns another war), two of Europe’s largest food exporters (Russia and Ukraine) will still be offline or mostly concerned with domestic food security. Historical experience suggests that food security can be a major global problem in wartime, even if it is unlikely to affect the US or Australia.
The solution is to begin preparing early. Australia and the US need to jointly approach France (a nation with over 1.5 million citizens living throughout the Indo-Pacific) to discuss the execution of a wartime Allied food plan across Europe and Asia. France also has a bountiful agricultural sector and high food self-sufficiency. Canberra, Paris, and Washington, by trilaterally harmonizing wartime food production policies, can create a strategic advantage against China and Russia. Any holes in the Allied harvest can be plugged by trilateral approaches to Argentina and Brazil, both massive food exporters with relatively secure shipping routes to trading partners.
Diplomacy - Oceania King Maker
Australia lives in a strategic neighborhood and has great influence across the south and central Pacific. Canberra maintains key relationships with Pacific Island Countries (PICs) and has established embassies in all Pacific Island Forum member countries. Each of these PICs are critical to the supply lines required to move US combat power westward into Asia. China understands this and has been attempting to diplomatically pull many of these countries away from Australia for years.
Canberra and Washington are much stronger speaking together to countries such as Solomon Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and others.
Military Capability - Aussie Grit
An intangible of paramount significance is that Australia and the US have fought shoulder to shoulder in every major war together for more than 100 years. This battle forged relationship first began when elements of the 33rd Division, American Expeditionary Force, were placed under the command of the innovative Australian LtGen John Monash during the Allied Hamel Offensive of 1918. In a war known for stalemates, Monash’s combined arms plan achieved victory in a stunning 93 minutes, with Hamel back in Entente hands.
Unlike many other Western countries, both Australia and the US have maintained an admirable track record of supporting serious military innovation and a tradition of lethality on the battlefield. Both sides have supported each other through thick and thin, and the alliance is etched deeply into the character and culture of each nation.
Strategically, the US and Australia are tied to the UK and New Zealand through the AUKUS and ANZUS treaties. Australia is also a member of the Five Eyes (US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Australia), the most powerful intelligence sharing alliance in the world. Through AUKUS, Australia will also become one of only 8 nations operating nuclear submarines in the world.
What Australia and the US Can Improve
The US must support Australia in reasserting itself throughout Oceania. The Solomon Islands fiasco was squarely a failure on the part of Australia and New Zealand to police their own sphere of influence and a lack of US diplomatic attention given to the region. As Australia builds back its influence with the Pacific Islands Countries (PICs), particular attention should be given to the construction of port infrastructure throughout the region to facilitate the movement of humanitarian and military logistics.
The US and Australia need to develop and implement smarter trade and investment policies. Since the ‘90s, the US has purchased minerals critical to military munitions and equipment from China and Russia. The situation is so terrible that the DoD has become near 100% reliant on these adversaries in recent years. This was an inexcusable decision that needs immediate reversal. Australia and the US should jointly reduce regulations and red tape in this sector while developing incentives and a plan for developing a robust domestic supply chain of critical defense industrial base raw materials.
In terms of investments, Chinese companies should be categorically barred from strategic industries like lithium, uranium, and rare earths mining. Investments in strategic infrastructure also need to be barred and rolled back. In a particularly glaring example during the Obama administration, Australia and the US developed a combined military base in Darwin, Australia’s northernmost strategic deepwater port. Unbelievably and inexplicably, the Australian local government then made the decision to lease Darwin’s port for 99 years to a Chinese company that offered to pay far more than any other bidder. Vermilion assesses there is a slightly better than even chance that Canberra desires to be seen as a serious partner and will nationalize the port. If this is not the case, it is highly likely that a domestic Australian company will be given the task of developing a parallel military port.
The Australia United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) should also be deepened and expanded to include Taiwan at a minimum. Eventually, the agreement should be expanded into a common Pacific market excluding China.
Finally, both sides must deconflict and understand expected roles during a Taiwan crisis or war. It is highly likely that major US forces will be based in Australia. It is also possible that during a war, US forces (bombers) would shoot at Chinese forces shortly after leaving Australian bases. Coalition warfare under conditions of extreme time constraint will break down unless the parties have diligently worked out these issues beforehand. And there is certainly much to work out.