China has stepped up its encroachment in the Asia Pacific (APAC) region, penning a security deal with one of Australia’s closest neighbours. The deal, which could allow the Chinese military near-unfettered access to the Solomon Islands – including the stationing and replenishment of Chinese warships – is what Retired US Marine COL Grant Newsham sees as the first whiff of China’s growing military influence in APAC. After having steadily built commercial and political groundwork over the last three decades, military influence is the third and final piece of the PRC’s regional domination toolkit, he warns.
In response, he suggests free nations develop a powerful and immediate response, extending their own considerable (“though not always effective”) regional outreach and influence efforts. Such a response could take many forms, but should include a focus on training with other free nations in Australia’s northern territory (NT). This is the APAC regions’ best ‘site for combat preparation and skills development, COL Newsham argues.
“Darwin and the NT has everything going for it. It’s easy to get to and is big enough for military forces to perform just about any task,” he said. “You can shoot anything, fly anything, and use the electronic spectrum without getting in anyone’s way. All of that in a tough, challenging environment that allows forces to exercise every skill they need to for combat readiness; particularly joint training – an aspect of warfare that should never be overlooked.
“Nothing in the region is really comparable,” he added. “The US has the Marine and Army desert training areas in Southern California but they are smaller than the NT’s and a lot further away from Asia.”
The United States is already active in the NT, with the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) regularly seconding troops to train alongside the Australian Defence Force (ADF). In total over 10,000 US marines have so far travelled for the six month training rotations, which serve to strengthen interoperability, and ties with allied nations.
However, COL Newsham believes invitations should be more broadly extended; and would like to see countries like Japan taking fuller advantage of the broad desert terrain and expansive air space.
“I hope to see Australia inviting other free nations to show up and train and get a better handle on their own defence. A country like Japan could really benefit from the NT’s environment,” he said.
While Japan and Australia recently signed a reciprocal access agreement making it easier for both parties to operate in each others’ territories, COL Newsham believes more frequent and more realistic bilateral training would further cement the relationship. It could also improve Japan’s operational capabilities, to include multi-service and combined arms operations, which he says are a weakness for the JSDF.
“It’s great that both parties can now operate together without having to undergo onerous procedures. But Japan’s military requires a lot of work. On paper it is impressive buts it’s undersized and needs real world training opportunities,” he said.
“The Japanese Airforce and Army need more practice in realistic environments where they can really challenge themselves, and the NT would be perfectly suited to that. One hopes NT training opportunities stay robust and are not gradually whittled down by unnecessary safety and environmental restrictions. Otherwise you’ll pay that price in lives,” he added.
Beyond just training, the NT could be exploited for its proximity to Indo Pacific countries who have yet to take any sides in the geopolitical power struggle between the PRC and free nations.
“It’s important that Australia is not just a training location, but rather a base from which to operate and influence in Southeast Asia and the broader Pacific,” COL Newsham said. “It can influence ‘inwards’ by inviting partners to Australia, and by making Darwin a regional education centre for amphibious and HA/DR training. NT could also be a place from which to dispatch forces and move throughout the region.
“I recommend a multinational amphibious force – comprised of say, Australian, Japanese, and US for starters. This could be based in Darwin and sail through the region performing exercises that local militaries find useful; delivering humanitarian assistance; and dispatching small permanent advisory teams. This would be a great way for the free nations to establish a consistent presence and make “friends” with Indo Pacific nations. In doing so it could get in and show them that their military and political classes have an alternative to this Chinese juggernaut,” he added.
Time to act now
COL Newsham says the window for establishing a suitable defence posture is closing, with the Solomon Islands deal a revealing sign of what it to come.
“Unfortunately, this is just the start of what we will see as China extends its influence throughout the region. China has always looked at APAC covetously, reflected in its acquisition of real estate (much of it dual use and suitable for PLA use), and the associated commercial influence. Now it is making headway with a permanent military presence in the Solomon Islands and I have no doubt it will look to insert itself elsewhere.
“After years of enjoying freedom of manoeuvre, suddenly Australia finds itself with an adversary that has the ability to reach out and employ long range missiles and otherwise employ force with much greater efficacy than if shooting or launchng from its home soil.
“Australia should be concerned.”
COL Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine and Senior Research Fellow for the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He recently spoke at Australian Defence Magazine’s Northern Australia Defence Summit, hosted by Informa Connect. Register your interest in next years’ event – and other ADM Conferences – here.