• An Australian MRH-90 lands to deliver polling boxes in the Solomon Islands.
    An Australian MRH-90 lands to deliver polling boxes in the Solomon Islands. Defence

Australia’s Pacific relations took a hit last week after it was reported that the Solomon Islands Government is leasing the island of Tulagi to a Beijing-based company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

As part of the Tulagi lease, China’s Sam Group will be able to survey the island for oil and gas developments, contravening many Pacific island nations’ demands for global climate action to protect their pristine environment and quality of life.

A recent New York Times article quotes local Tulagi resident Michael Salini as saying “everyone is really scared about the possibility of China turning the island into a military base. That is what really scares people — because why else do they want to lease the whole island?”

Many experts expect Chinese backed developments in the Solomon Islands, and elsewhere along their One Belt One Road, are primarily “for military rather than just commercial purposes.”

With the Solomons and other Pacific islands swapping diplomatic recognition away from democratic Taiwan towards China, the argument for Australia to bolster its soft power projection and stabilising influence across the Indo Pacific has never been greater.

It was at this time that an unassuming but highly experienced man quietly slipped into Sydney from East Asia. US Marine Corps Colonel (Ret’d) Grant Newsham may now be retired from the Marines but is as committed and active now as he was nearly a decade ago when he was appointed the first US Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. It was in this role that he was instrumental in developing the Japanese Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB). Nowadays, among other activities, Newsham is conducting research on a Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellowship – considering how to improve the island's defence capabilities.

I asked Newsham if he wouldn’t mind spreading his knowledge and wisdom to our amphibious group at Fleet Headquarters. Both sides agreed.

Whilst amphibious operations are not new to the ADF, a dedicated amphibious force was only recently established with full operational capability coming on line in the last few years. Australia’s Amphibious Task Group, although young, is professional and formidable. It operates from the Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD), comprises professional soldiers primarily from 2 RAR and rotations of Special Forces. In a short amount of time it has proven it can mix it up with the best in the business.

In this year’s Talisman Sabre exercise, we saw the Australian Amphibious Task Group undertake an amphibious assault alongside US, UK, Japanese and NZ forces. For the first time both of the RAN’s LHDs employed their extensive amphibious capabilities together. This is important because successful amphibious operations entirely depend on cooperation and coordination.

As Newsham stated: “When it comes to amphibious operations, you either cooperate or you fail.”

A pleasing development to Newsham and all participants of Talisman Sabre was the participation of the Japanese ARDB aboard the JMSDF ships JS Ise and JS Kunasaki. In an uncertain and increasingly unstable Indo-Pacific, expect to see more joint operations occur between Australia, Japan and the US, according to Newsham.

Amphibious operations are also very useful in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) crises. For instance, in February 2016, HMAS Canberra deployed to Fiji after Tropical Cyclone Winston severely damaged the island chain and provided much needed assistance to local communities.

With the Australian Government’s Pacific Step Up policy now in its third year, increasing the number of joint training exercises and port visits by the ADF to Pacific island nations, especially the Solomon Islands, is more important than ever. Sustained, regular engagements help create a positive image of Australia while also demonstrating to local communities that they are our friends, treated as equals.

Strong arguments could be made for increasing the scope of Australia’s amphibious operations, including acquiring a number of smaller amphibious ships that will enable the ADF to cover more territory with smaller units. This would be especially useful when setting up a network of smaller, dispersed units armed with long-range precision weapons, according to Newsham.

However, on the whole he has been very impressed with our amphibious capabilities and professionalism displayed by our soldiers, remarking “going from a standing start to a decent amphibious capability in such a short time is no small feat.”

His final remark to me was: “The problem with the Australians is that there aren’t ten times more of them.”

Note from the Editor: The Solomon Islands Attorney-General has just ordered the termination of the Tulagi island deal due to 'legal defects'.

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