Future of US–Australia Strategic Cooperation: Implications for Western Australia

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Caption: Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Australian Chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, meet with their staffs at Australian Navy base HMAS Watson in Sydney, Australia, Feb. 23, 2015. Source: DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen/Released

Key Points:

  • The rise of China and the spread of its political, economic and military influence throughout the Indo-Pacific region has accentuated the strategic utility of WA to the future of the US-Australia alliance.
  • Located astride the Indian Ocean littoral, WA is increasingly integral to future Australian defence and strategic initiatives that seek to maintain and strengthen favourable partnerships among Indo-Pacific countries.
  • Over the long-term the US Navy in particular is bound to take a stronger interest in WA, where it can capitalise upon the State’s secure strategic location and advanced industrial capabilities to strengthen its foothold in the increasingly contested Indo-Pacific region.

Just before I left the Department of Defence in December 2011 after two fascinating years as Director, Strategic Advice within the Strategic Policy Division at Defence, I (with the assistance of my then-colleague Liam Nevill) published in the Australian Defence Force Journal an article entitled, What’s Next in the Indian Ocean? It opened with a prescient quote drawn from a 1976 Parliamentary Paper (Number 330) by Australia’s Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence: “Only now Australians are turning their attention to the Indian Ocean and its littoral…and the significant natural resources that exist not far inland from our sparsely populated coast”.

Given all that had occurred in the Australian economy since 1976, especially in the mining sector, we then need to ask the question, “What can Australia expect to encounter in the Indian Ocean in the 21st century?”

Despite having been absent from Australia for over six years, I have paid attention to developments in the defence and economic sectors and I now know the simple answer to the question above: a lot. This is especially so with an energetic China and the advent of the present US Administration and its focus upon allies and partners pitching in more resources towards the common interest.

But no matter how one might parse that answer, it has become even clearer since that time – even to one not presently living in Australia – the road to any such answer lies through Western Australia.

One need only consider these much-studied lines from the unclassified summary of the 2018 US National Defence Strategy:

  • Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security;
  • China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbours while militarising features in the South China Sea;
    ‘Defence objectives’ of:


    • Maintaining favourable regional balances of power in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the Western Hemisphere;
    • Defending allies from military aggression and [emphasis mine] bolstering partners against coercion, and fairly sharing responsibilities for common defence.

In pursuit of these, the strategy further calls for the expansion of Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships to a networked security architecture of bi-lateral and multi-lateral security relationships with key countries. The final point emphasized above would seem to call for a deepening of the mutually beneficial US-Australia defence relationship while also requiring a greater share of defence resources from Australia. This will require an Australian rethink of how it desires to distribute and employ its present defence capabilities, especially given the recent change of the US Pacific Command’s title to US Indo-Pacific Command (in consonance with that term being used within the Defence White Paper).

Australia is, to state the obvious, a key country. In fact, in the Indo-Pacific given both its economic relationship with China and long history of defence cooperation with the United States, it might even be considered the indispensable country to such a strategy. The 2018 WA Defence Industry Capability Directory, which describes in detail presently available and potential defence capabilities, makes clear what WA has to offer. Moreover, the recent study Security and Defence in Western Australia: An Economic Perspective ties both the economic and defence facets together, making it clear that Western Australia is in turn indispensable to any potential Australian national strategy acting in concert with that of the US.

If that’s what’s intended. I don’t envy the policy challenge facing Australia. Guns or butter? The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper contains language apparently designed to mollify both China and the United States. Therein lies the rub, as Greg Colton of Lowy has so correctly pointed out in his article The US National Defence Strategy shows Australia Can’t Have It Both Ways.

But no matter Australia’s strategic choice, Western Australia and its natural resources, ever-increasing intellectual, professional, and technical expertise, and infrastructure for both defence and non-defence requirements ensure that it will have a key part to play. As such, US strategic planners would do well to continue to closely examine Western Australia’s indispensable geography as they seek to engage with their strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Their naval grandfathers and great-grandfathers in World War II certainly recognized it.

Australia will, in the end, make the right choice. Portraying the United States as some sort of fading 1914 Ottoman-like power may make an attractive discussion topic for a think-tank seminar, it might sell foreign policy essays, it might attract media attention, and it might even be satisfying to tweak the present US Administration’s nose. But I expect to someday see US Navy ships homeported once again in Western Australian ports, rather than simply as liberty ports or convenient locations for ‘sea swaps’ (rotation of crew). A new generation of American servicemen will realize just why Australia, and in turn Western Australia, is indispensable to a developing US strategy in the Indo-Pacific.

About Charles Ikins

Charles IkinsCharles G. Ikins is a former foreign affairs specialist within the US Office of the Secretary of Defence, as well as a retired Colonel from the United States Marine Corps Reserve. He holds an MA International Affairs (Development) from Ohio University as well as an MA, Military History from the University of New South Wales at the ADFA, Canberra.