On Tuesday 3 December, the Perth USAsia Centre hosted a roundtable with the authors of the recent report published by the United States Studies Centre, ‘Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific
’. Ashley Townshend
, and co-authors Brendan Thomas-Noone
and Matilda Steward
led the roundtable, while the Governor of Western Australia, His Excellency the Hon Kim Beazley AC, provided the opening remarks at this important and timely roundtable.
The Averting Crisis report
is based on the premise that when examining defence strategy and spending, analysts in Washington DC tend to look at Indo Pacific countries, especially South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. This report was a project in turning this view around to look at the United States, and how the current budget would impact effective implementation of its defence strategy.
The authors argue that United States defence strategy in the Indo-Pacific is an unprecedented crisis, and that this is due to an imbalance between the available means and the strategic ends it seeks to achieve.
This crisis is the result of several enduring factors.
Firstly, defence resources are overstretched by Washington’s liberal-order agenda. This includes two decades of counter-insurgency wars in the Middle East. An outdated superpower mindset has prevented Washington from scaling back its global commitments, limiting its ability to for high-intensity deterrence and war-fighting tasks should there be a confrontation with China. This is in addition to China’s strategic deployment of counter-intervention systems that undermine the United States’ military primacy.
Secondly, domestic political challenges in the United States mean that Congress has not delivered a defence budget that meets the needs of this expanding global strategy. Compounded by growing polarisation both between and within the Republican and Democratic parties, political consensus has been difficult to achieve and inhibits any real growth in defence expenditure. This results in an inability to implement the National Defense Strategy
Thirdly, any necessary modernisation priorities to maintain the United States’ standard of armed forces, has largely been inhibited by the protracted combat operations, budget challenges, ageing equipment, and increasing cost of maintenance.
Despite these trends, the United States does continue to have the world’s most sophisticated armed forces. However, the ability for the United States to deliver on its strategic priorities independently of other states is under duress.
To address this challenge, the authors argue that Washington should engage in collective regional defence with other like-minded states in the region including Australia and Japan. Aggregating defence capability would offset shortfalls in the United States’ capability, especially in the context of conflict with China.
Finally, the authors suggest that for Australia, which is particularly dependent on a stable regional order, it is within our interests to work with the United States on collective defence.
During the roundtable, participants and authors unpacked these key arguments further. In particular, it was discussed what it would mean for Australia and other regional players, such as India and Indonesia, to participate in a pooling of defence resources in the Indo-Pacific. This was extended further, with the suggestion that a collective defence strategy could be applied to other key actors in the Indo Pacific region, including Singapore, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
The Averting Crisis report
and this roundtable were timely and thought provoking in terms of United States’ defence capability, further implementing the concept of the Indo-Pacific, and the opportunity for building new defence relationships in the region.