Australia plans for a ‘less certain’ future in Asia — one where the US may not remain the dominant force

<span>As Australia lifts military spending, defence minister Richard Marles is calling for a ‘sustainable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific – a balance where no state is militarily predominant’.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP</span>
As Australia lifts military spending, defence minister Richard Marles is calling for a ‘sustainable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific – a balance where no state is militarily predominant’.Photograph: Richard Wainwright/AAP

Australia’s defence overhaul has accelerated some projects and cut others and has already prompted a plea from China to abandon a “cold war mentality”.

But as the dust settles on a plan to increase overall military spending, the Albanese government has also sent some significant signals on how it sees the future of the Indo-Pacific region – and these aren’t exactly how Australia’s top security ally, the US, might see things.

The defence minister, Richard Marles, also has a new answer to a persistent question about claims from some western analysts that Beijing may seek to seize Taiwan in the next few years, and where Australia finds itself in that scenario.

Related: Plans for new fighter jets on back burner despite Labor’s $50bn boost to defence spending

The question goes like this: if the region is as dangerous as the government suggests, and Australia no longer can rely on a 10-year warning before major conflict breaks out, how can we wait until the 2030s and 2040s for nuclear-powered submarines? Of the government’s promise to spend an extra $50bn on defence over the next decade, why is only 10% in the first four years?

Marles’s answer is to imply the Australian defence force wouldn’t play a decisive role in a US-China war. He insists Australia will still work with the US and others to deter such conflict, but is “trying to solve a different problem”.

In his National Press Club speech and in a round of interviews afterwards, Marles takes aim at commentators who “talk about our defence force needing to acquire everything yesterday in case of the worst-case contingency that might be experienced in terms of great power contests in the next few years”.

Marles reasons that a medium power like Australia is “never going to bring to bear the kind of military capability that exists in the United States or China” and must be “really clear-eyed about the fact we are not trying to be a peer nation to the United States or China”.

In no way should his comments be seen as ruling Australia out of committing military forces in the event war erupted – there would probably be huge institutional pressure to join the US – but equally Marles is playing down the practical impact of such a contribution.

In Marles’s narrative, “the next decade and beyond” looks “precarious and less certain in every respect”. He says “the strategic problem that we are trying to meet” is to ensure that in the face of that uncertainty “we are able to resist coercion and maintain Australia’s way of life”.

Left unspoken is the fact this remains Australia’s focus regardless of the level of future US military engagement in the region – and a “less certain world” doesn’t presuppose who would emerge as victor in any great-power contest in the meantime.

According to the national defence strategy released on Wednesday, the effects of China’s military buildup are “occurring closer to Australia than previously” and Australia must project power further from its shores to discourage “a potential adversary from taking unwanted actions”.

Australia’s defence planners regard a physical invasion of Australia as unlikely because it would be an easier task to disrupt shipping or to launch cyber-attacks.

Resisting coercion means preventing a country – China – from being in a position to pressure Australia by physically blocking fuel imports from South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore. China was, however, able to cause economic disruption through a series of tariffs and trade actions against key Australian export sectors at the height of the diplomatic dispute in 2020, something that did not involve any military action or counteraction.

Even though senior US officials talk about the Aukus security pact as “binding” the allies for decades to come, Marles says Australia must become “a much more capable self-reliant country”. That’s the official justification for increasing defence spending to 2.4% of economic output within 10 years (up from 2.1% now).

Marles is also explicit in calling for “a sustainable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific – a balance where no state is militarily predominant”.

This elaborates on what the foreign minister, Penny Wong, has said about the US being “indispensable to balance in our region” but that “the nature of that indispensability has changed”.

Australia’s National Defence Strategy devotes just two paragraphs to US engagement in the Indo-Pacific, including one welcoming Washington’s efforts to deepen its ties with partners and allies because “collective approaches are crucial” to maintain the regional balance. Australia’s security “will continue to be underpinned by the strength of our partnerships with regional countries and our alliance with the US”.

The Australian government’s emphasis on no one state being militarily predominant does tend to clash with the idea of the US maintaining “primacy” in east Asia – an idea that continues to have strong ideological appeal in Washington.

While the US president, Joe Biden, has proclaimed “competition not conflict” with China, he has also played to domestic sensibilities by rebuking claims that “China is on the rise and America is falling behind”. Biden retorted in his latest State of the Union address: “America is rising.”

In the latest edition of the Foreign Affairs journal, two former US officials with possible sway over the next Republican presidential administration call for “a generational effort” to “restore US primacy in Asia” rather than aiming “for a stalemate”.

Related: Prominent Australians urge Albanese government to adopt activist middle power role to head off war between US and China

Matt Pottinger, a former deputy national security adviser to Donald Trump, and Mike Gallagher, the former chair of the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist party, firmly reject the idea of trying to achieve a stable and durable balance of power, or détente, with China.

They scoff at the idea of “managing” competition with China or seeing dialogue as an end in itself. Instead, Pottinger and Gallagher demand a rapid increase in US military capabilities “to achieve unmistakable qualitative advantages over Beijing” as part of a strategy of “owning” and “winning” the new cold war.

Such calls are hard to reconcile with Australia’s stated goals: a more “stable” relationship with China, dialogue to reduce the risk of dangerous miscalculations, and a regional balance where no one power dominates.