OPINION | How the US and Australia can be real partners in the Indo-Pacific grey zone

Photo: Australian Department of Defence

The United States rightly considers itself a “Pacific nation.” It has been engaged there almost since its founding—and the US west coast stretches to Guam.

Today, the US is indispensable to the region’s security. Remove it and see what happens. No single nation or combination of nations can withstand domination by the People’s Republic of China. The American presence also keeps certain other nations from going for each other’s throats.

But the US is dangerously overstretched militarily and, in locations such as the South China Sea, it’s overmatched.

Some sobering data: the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has about 350 ships, though it’s 700-plus if you include China’s coast guard and maritime militia, which PLA planners undoubtedly do. The US Navy has just under 300 ships to cover the entire globe. And the PRC is launching four ships for each the US Navy builds. Play this out over a decade (or less) and, unless something changes, the PLA will be operating in force well beyond the so-called first island chain.

The US needs more ships and aircraft, operating from more places, and more missiles to counter the PLA’s massive rocket force. But even then, America wouldn’t be able to handle China by itself.

It’s not enough to beef up numbers. The US needs real partners that can operate with its forces and are willing to fight if necessary. That requires choices that regional nations deeply linked to PRC markets and scared of Beijing have been loathe to make.

The US can make the choice easier. It’s a major economic player but seldom uses this power to pressure adversaries, or to support friends. It had better start doing both.

“Without political and economic efforts, military progress won’t make much difference.”

Similarly, the US has scant physical commercial presence in much of the region, particularly in Central and South Pacific nations. These aren’t huge markets but, from a strategist’s perspective, they occupy key terrain. If you’re not there, you’re not interested, and the locals know it.

America’s political warfare (politely called “strategic communications”) is abysmal. Its diplomatic presence is limited—or non-existent—in too many places that matter. And even when US diplomacy is present, political warfare seems not to be part of anyone’s job description. Beijing is running circles around Washington.

So, while the US has a base to work from, if it’s serious about remaining a Pacific nation, much less a Pacific power, it needs to get its military in order with appropriate funding, size, capabilities and locations; marshal and deploy its economic and commercial power; relearn political warfare; and sell itself and its influence (demand for US ‘green cards’ suggests this shouldn’t be hard). And it needs to do of all this with real partners. Australia, are you ready?

To politically and economically reinforce each other and the region, the US and Australia, in parallel or in tandem, should:

  • relearn and conduct political warfare. If you must ask what political warfare is, I’ve made my point.
  • introduce an “economic Article 5” akin to the NATO provision that an attack on one member is an attack on all. So, when China imposes economic sanctions on Australia, the US provides immediate economic support and takes other measures to defend its ally, demonstrating that it’s a real partner. Then expand the economic Article 5 to like-minded nations.
  • kick the addiction to the China market. Australia knows the vulnerabilities all too well. In the US, Wall Street and much of the financial and business classes are pouring money, production and technology into the PRC, a totalitarian country that wants to displace the US and dominate the Indo-Pacific. Boeing’s chairman recently declared that he wished human rights could be separated from trade relations.

Such shortsightedness makes detoxing the US economy harder than it should be. I suspect things are only a degree different in Australia. If business and financial types can’t figure out which country’s name is on their passports or recognise that forced organ removals and concentration camps are bad, perhaps regulatory encouragement is required.

To thwart Beijing’s plans, the US and Australia could:

  • lead a serious export control effort along the lines of the old Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls
  • support Taiwan, starting with free trade arrangements, liaison officer exchanges and joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training. If Taiwan falls to Beijing, the US will be hard-pressed to maintain its position in the Indo-Pacific. And if the US can’t hang on, Australia’s chances are slim.
  • as part of a systematic positive political warfare effort, put together a serious public–private infrastructure development scheme for the Central and South Pacific. That effort could also include Japan and, where appropriate, India, reinforcing the Quad. Current efforts aren’t working, as evidenced by the Solomon Islands’ and Kiribati’s “flipping” to the PRC from Taiwan in 2019. For countries to feel they have a real alternative, assign outreach and implementation people who know what they’re doing, and hold them responsible.
  • work with India on defence and economically.
  • search the whole Indo-Pacific map, looking for places to engage, without shirking responsibility. Given the embedded layers of PRC penetration, seeming redundancy of outreach helps ensure that vulnerabilities and opportunities aren’t overlooked. The Pentagon and State Department tend to look at much of the map and say, “The Australians (or Kiwis) have that part (so we’ll do nothing).” Kiribati, the Solomons and other nations where Chinese inroads are causing headaches suggest that leaving things to others isn’t the best approach.

Now some military initiatives. It’s no coincidence that these come second. Without the political and economic efforts, military progress won’t make much difference.

The US and Australia could establish a joint multinational amphibious task force in the Northern Territory, perhaps in Darwin. It needs to be standing and not ad hoc or temporary. Consider the difference between getting together for a party and living together; they’re two very different relationships. Bilateral and multilateral exercises are good parties, but a permanent taskforce allows partners to really coalesce.

They should also pay special attention to Japan and the Japan Self-Defense Forces. Without a capable JSDF (which it currently is not) solidly linked to partners, our prospects are dim. Australia should assign an air force squadron to Japan, perhaps to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. The Japanese navy and army should be brought into the amphibious taskforce.

For the PRC, the political and economic realm and the military realm are fused with grey-zone activities, military and paramilitary. Then there’s the full range of economic, political, diplomatic and psychological activities that push one country’s interests at the expense of an adversary or enemy.

The PRC’s pulling nations away from Taiwan, planning a fishing port in southern Papua New Guinea and encouraging “independence: movements in New Caledonia are all grey-zone operations. They’re as calculated as the PLA Air Force’s practice-bombing runs against Taiwan.

China has considerable success in the grey zone because there’s little to challenge it. Too often our response is to stare, semi-hypnotised, as at a cobra. That’s Beijing’s goal.

“The sooner we push back, the better our odds.”

To break the spell, you must ignore the legal sophistry that claims China’s fishing fleet (and any Chinese company) isn’t part of the Chinese state, or that the maritime militia is a figment of the imagination.

Make it clear that you’ll push back, that you have the means to do so and, ideally, that you have friends who have your back. Have American and Australian (and Japanese) fighters accompany Taiwan Air Force jets to intercept PLAAF aircraft flying around Taiwan. This requires a willingness to take risks rather than just fret that Beijing might get angry.

As China gets stronger, the risks will get bigger. The sooner we push back, the better our odds.

Also, grey-zone assaults should not necessarily be matched act for act. If 500 Chinese fishing boats show up in the Torres Strait, don’t send 500 Australian boats (if they exist) to joust with them. Your counter will be more effective if it applies pressure where it will be felt.

You might suspend the Bank of China from the US dollar system, cancel residence permits and put liens on bank accounts of relatives of Chinese leaders—and expose and trumpet to high heaven those complicit in Chinese Communist Party corruption.

And don’t just be reactive. The US and Australia should conduct grey-zone activities together.

Addressing representatives from Central Pacific nations, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticised the PRC’s coercive lending practices—but he didn’t offer an alternative. That tells you plenty about where we are when it comes to addressing Chinese grey-zone actions, and the political warfare of which they are a part.

So, what are the odds of America maintaining its Indo-Pacific role 10 years from now? Maybe 50–50—and I never thought I’d say that in my lifetime. However, if Washington girds its loins and collects its wits and works with Canberra, Tokyo and New Delhi as real partners, the odds improve considerably.

But this will be, to borrow the Duke of Wellington’s reflection after Waterloo, “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.”

Article reprinted with permission from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s analysis and commentary site The Strategist.

Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He is a retired US Marine Colonel and lived in Japan for 20 years, also serving as a diplomat assigned to the US Embassy, Tokyo and working in the private sector.