• Toby Irwin

Australia: The Counterweight to China in the Asia-Pacific?

Between 2018 and 2028, Australia is expected to spend around $150 billion on new military hardware. This would be the largest such spending programme in the country’s peacetime history. Australia is already a significant geopolitical actor in its region, though with an increasingly assertive China it is unsurprising that Canberra have taken these steps (1).

Australia, alongside other traditional Western allies Japan and South Korea, has been pushing for a more sophisticated Blue-water navy in recent years. Australian defence spending is currently fifth in Asia at $26.6 billion. It lags behind India (2nd) at $57.9 billion, Japan (3rd) at $47.3 billion and South Korea (4th) at $39.2 billion. That said, all of these powers are dwarfed by China’s defence spending of $168.2 billion, which represents 40.1% of all Asian spending. Australia has benefited from accelerated economic GDP growth recently – increasing from 2.2% to 3.2% - and is likely to see this translated into greater investment into defence (3).

Even as far back as 2008, analysts were noting the decline of US influence in the region and the need for Australia to adjust its own strategic capabilities to match the changing environment (2). Donald Trump has been particularly vocal about NATO spending responsibilities and is equally keen to cut the costs of upholding Asian securities wherever possible. This is why Peter Jennings of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has set out some plans for ensuring regional security (4).

1. He recommends increasing defence spending from 2% to 2.5% or 3% of GDP. 2. Australia must start to take a more prominent role in spearheading Asian security. This would be achieved through looking towards NATO partners other than the US, which is becoming increasingly isolationist. Most importantly, this would involve forming strategic partnerships with France and especially the United Kingdom.

“These groupings can’t replace an isolationist United States, but they are the core of the democratic, rule-of-law supporting countries. As the saying goes, we will hang separately if we don’t hang together.”

3. Australia should look to Indonesia and India as potential partners for offsetting Chinese influence. 4. Australia should step up its diplomatic and military presence in the Pacific Island theatre. Here, China is increasingly offering security and money to the island nations of Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu and other microstates; the consequence often being that corruption is becoming rampant and Beijing is finding easier to manoeuvre and control those maritime areas. 5. Australia should invest in nuclear powered submarines to allow greater projection to the north. 6. Australian navy should be equipped with long range cruise missiles to counter a growing Chinese navy. 7. Acquisition of long-range bombers. 8. Focus on technology and innovations. 9. Invest in cyber warfare capabilities. 10. Grow the Australian Defence Force from 58,000 to 90,000 personnel.

Many of these steps seem ambitious, though with a growing economy and an increasing set of risks in its region, Australia may need to be steadfast in these commitments. All of this is connected to the wider balance of power in Asia, which will only become more volatile as the United States continues to withdraw.


(1) https://www.ft.com/content/4492a134-9687-11e8-b67b-b8205561c3fe

(2) International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Military Balance 2009.

(3) International Institute for Strategic Studies. The Military Balance 2019.

(4) https://www.aspi.org.au/opinion/trump-means-we-need-plan-b-defence

At the time of writing, Toby Irwin is a second year student at the University of St Andrews. He is studying Modern History and International Relations. Areas that interest him the most are UK defence strategy and foreign policy.