A range of speakers convened in Perth at the WA Indo-Pacific Defence conference this week to cover the role the state has to play in meeting Australia’s future strategic challenges and industry needs.
ADM spoke to two of those speakers, Dr Lynn Kuok of Cambridge University and Rear Admiral Lee Goddard, head of Maritime Border Command, about the broader geopolitical challenges facing the region and how they will impact ADF assets in the west.
According to RADM Goddard, one of the major regional challenges is depleting fish stocks, which could lead to increased piracy and criminal activities in the seas east of India.
“There’s challenges in the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea - depleted fish stocks, for example, which potentially can lead to other types of criminal activities. People involved in illegal fishing can gradually become bolder and progress to more risky criminal acts such as piracy or the smuggling of narcotics,” RADM Goddard, said to ADM.
“They can move into Australia’s immediate area of operational interest. So we are watching that very carefully.”
Of course, one of the largest challenges comes from China’s actions in the region. According to Dr Kuok, China remains principally responsible for undermining a rules-based international order, not least by its actions in the South China Sea, but the Trump administration must also take some share of the responsibility as its trade war hurts the rules-based trading system and isolates its allies and partners.
“The trade war is deeply undermining the US’ reputation in the region and giving pause to countries who might otherwise be more willing to support the US,” Dr Kuok said.
Dr Kuok also argues that the future of the Indo-Pacific order is not just a matter of which side is able to wield the biggest stick; it is a question of how great powers compete with each other.
“My concern is whether the US-China strategic relationship takes place within the broad framework of international law or whether it’s a no-holds-barred contest,” Dr Kuok said. “The world would look very different if the latter is the case—we are already seeing signs of how that can really hurt interests on all fronts.”
Interestingly, Dr Kuok notes that the same international order China is attempting to undermine in the Indo-Pacific is actually in its own interests, and holds hope that the country’s leadership will come to reach this “enlightened position”.
“The maritime rights and freedoms Beijing is pushing back against are actually in its favour; they will help it protect its overseas economic and military assets,” Dr Kuok said.
Dr Kuok references the example of the Soviet Union, which came to support maritime rights and freedoms as its navy transitioned from a coastal force to a blue-water fleet.
“When the Soviet Union had a small, reactive coastal navy, it was very much against maritime rights and freedoms. As its navy grew and became a more proactive, outward reaching blue-water navy, it actually aligned itself with the US to press for maritime rights and freedoms to be enshrined in the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea,” Dr Kuok said. “If China were to adopt a more enlightened view, it would similarly move in that direction as well.”
Dr Kuok believes that Australia can do more to convince China that a rules-based international order is in its own interests.
“Engagement with all countries and regions is absolutely critical,” RADM Goddard agreed. “Countries like Japan and China and India, we are continually building personal relationships and professional relationships and talking about common challenges at sea.
“Through UN conventions we have very clear regulations about how a nation flag state should behave at sea and I think our continual engagement and to remind each of that is very, very important.”