On Monday, the prime minister and defence minister unveiled what they have billed as the biggest shake-up of Australia’s defence policy since World War II.
There’s probably little in the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) which would shock countries around Asia and the Pacific.
It’s certainly less of a thunderbolt than the startling AUKUS announcement in 2021, when then-prime minister Scott Morrison revealed Australia would seek to build nuclear powered submarines with US and UK technology.
That declaration drew a furious response from China and a deeply uneasy one from some South-East Asian nations like Indonesia and Malaysia – in part because the secret had been so tightly held that it caught many of these countries by surprise.
While the DSR has big implications for Australia’s defence, nothing in it will catch other nations nearly so off balance.
But the federal government – keenly conscious that it needs to continually reassure friends and allies about Australia’s strategic intentions – will be monitoring the regional response very carefully.
So, what have Australia’s neighbours and countries further away had to say about the DSR so far? Have any of those reactions been surprising? And what might we see over the coming weeks and months?
Given that China fuels much of the strategic anxiety and uncertainty driving the shift in Australia’s posture, there has already been plenty of focus on what Beijing has to say about the DSR.
The declassified version of the review doesn’t canvass what role Australia might play in a regional conflict with China, although it’s likely the classified version does.
But even the public version of the document is fairly blunt about why Australian officials are worried about China and its trajectory.
The DSR calls China’s military build-up “the largest and most ambitious of any country since the end of the Second World War” and says it’s occurring “without transparency or reassurance to the Indo-Pacific region of China’s strategic intent”.
Australia will also build up its capacity to project power further from its shores, including through purchasing more long-range missiles.
Analysts say the intent here is clear: the government wants to make sure it can keep any potential major power adversary (read: China) at bay.
It also wants to contribute to a collective regional approach – including with key allies — to deter any potential Chinese aggression at key flashpoints.
Still, China’s initial response to the document has been relatively measured and predictable.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning insisted that China’s strategic policy was “defensive” and the country was committed to peace.
“We do not pose a challenge to any country,” she said.
“We hope certain countries will not use China as an excuse for military build-up and will refrain from hyping up the ‘China threat’ narrative.”
Chinese state media has struck a similar tone. A few outlets have published pieces on the DSR quoting Mao Ning – as well as Chinese scholars scolding Australia along similar lines.
But as one Australian government source said, these are all “pretty standard talking points”.
For now, you certainly don’t get the sense that Beijing is mounting a concerted campaign across state media and international diplomatic bodies to attack the document, as it has done with Australia’s nuclear submarines plan under AUKUS.
There’s a broader pattern here: Beijing’s responses to recent Australian government announcements it dislikes (including the TikTok ban for government phones and a decision to block a rare earths investment) have also been comparatively understated.
That seems to indicate China is still intent on normalising ties with Australia (“stabilising” is the word preferred by Penny Wong) under the Labor government, particularly in the wake of the Bali meeting between Anthony Albanese and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
United States and Japan
Both Washington and Tokyo quickly issued statements in the wake of the DSR release, praising the new strategy and Australia’s response.
US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said it was the “latest example of the pivotal role Australia plays in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific”.
“The DSR demonstrates Australia’s commitment to being at the forefront of incorporating new capabilities for the Australian Defence Force to better enable Australia to meet regional and global challenges, as well as to our unbreakable alliance, which has never been stronger,” he said.
Japan’s Defence Ministry also issued a statement, saying it “welcomes” the release because it would “contribute to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region by strengthening Australia’s deterrence capabilities.”
This isn’t surprising. Both Washington and Tokyo are keen to see Australia build up military capability, and the capacity to project power further in Asia.
Some analysts argue both the DSR (and the Defence Strategic Update that preceded it in 2020) also send a clear signal that Australia will no longer automatically sign up to American military campaigns far afield in places like the Middle East.
The government’s announcement that it will scrap hundreds of high-tech army vehicles and howitzers might send a similar message.
Australia is willing to pour more money into collective efforts to deter China in Asia, but the main game for Australia is now the region, and the defence of the nation.
And if that shift is indeed under way, the statement from Austin suggests the US defence establishment is at ease with that bargain.
Japan will also be happy to see Australia’s focus on the region, particularly as Canberra and Tokyo rapidly strengthen defence ties in the wake of signing a landmark security agreement earlier this year.
From Seoul there has been public silence since the government’s confirmation that an anticipated lucrative second order of South Korean-designed self-propelled Howitzers will no longer be assembled in Geelong.
The South Korean defence manufacturer Hanwha is also bidding to build Australia’s new state-of-the-art Infantry Fighting Vehicles, a project that’s now been reduced from 450 units to just 129.
Still, South Korea is likely to be at ease with the broad strategic direction of the DSR – even if some of the procurement decisions leave officials fuming.
South-East Asia and Pacific
So far, South-East Asian nations have remained basically silent on the DSR. None have yet issued any public statements about the review or the shift in Australia’s posture.
Again, this stands in stark contrast to the AUKUS nuclear submarines announcement. Indonesia was particularly angry that it had been blindsided, while Malaysia warned that Australia risked fuelling a regional arms race and undermining stability with its submarines push.
Since then, Australian diplomats and officials have worked intently to calm anxieties in South-East Asia about Australia’s military aims, trying to contextualise the government’s military ambitions and hammering home the message it has no desire to obtain nuclear weapons.
Some elements of the DSR will make easy reading for South-East Asian nations. The document continues to stress the importance of defence diplomacy in the region, emphasises multilateral cooperation and says ASEAN will continue to play a “critical” role in Australian engagement across South-East Asia.
But it also calls a spade a spade, declaring there is no “established regional security architecture” in Asia, which feeds into the broader strategic uncertainty Australia is grappling with.
Officials say the South-East Asian nations most ill at ease with AUKUS are the same countries likely to be most wary of Australia acquiring new capabilities, and which are most likely to worry about it fuelling broader tensions with China.
Other South-East Asian nations that were relatively relaxed about Australia getting nuclear powered submarines (even if they publicly said little) are likely to be fairly comfortable with this document, too.
Australian diplomats explaining the new defence posture might have to work harder in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia than in nations like, say, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore.
And the Pacific response? So far, there has again been silence.
The federal government seems fairly confident nothing in the DSR will touch a raw nerve in the Pacific in the way Australia’s nuclear submarines announcement did.
But those Pacific nations deeply uneasy about the way many countries – and not just Australia – are racing to ramp up their military capabilities, are unlikely to draw much comfort from this document.