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Building Relationships in the Indo-Pacific within a Framework of Deterrence

Private Zed Barrett (left) and Private Luke Smith (centre) assist a member of the Vanuatu Mobile Force with the unloading of dignity kits for local Vanuatu communities in Port Vila during Operation Vanuatu Assist 2023.

Over the past decade, the Australian Army has established itself as the ‘preferred partner’ within the Indo-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific region covers the area from India to Papua New Guinea, extending to North Korea in the North, our greatest footprint landing within the archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean north of Australia. The importance of maintaining or gaining the ‘preferred partner’ status with the countries in the region is highlighted by the meagre 800km stretch of ocean that separates the northern shores of Australia from our nearest strategic partner of Timor Leste. In a strategic military context, deterrence takes the form of denying access to people, infrastructure or information. Army contributes to Australia’s wider deterrence objectives through its presence, commitment and consistent contribution to train, advise and assist missions within the region.

In recent years, significant military interest and investment from China has reinforced Army’s efforts to cement regional partnerships and to facilitate the independent growth and development of friendly militaries across the Indo-Pacific. While not without their challenges and faults, the enduring friendships and strategic relationships that have been built through these efforts are a tangible metric of our commitment to deterrence strategy. Importantly, they ensure that lines of communication remain open between militaries even if political relationships become strained.

The current Australian Army international engagement programs, including the mobile training teams (MTT’s), the well-established program of Rifle Company Butterworth (RCB) rotations, and the enduring Defence Cooperation Programs. These programs offer Australian Army personnel, from Private to Brigadier, the professional opportunity to work, live and socialise with the militaries, non-government organisations and affiliated civilians of host nations within the Indo-Pacific, providing a unique opportunity to build professional relationships, comradery and mateship.

This engagement is not restricted to Army’s dealings with host nation militaries. Among others, the United States Armed Forces, the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force, as well as members of the New Zealand and British Defence Forces often accompany and enhance Australian Army missions within our region. By engaging with such military partners, our own Army personnel generate the confidence and skills to strengthen relationships from the tactical to strategic levels. Capitalising on the opportunities to impart knowledge and share training resources, we generate combined understanding and mission objectives, test our capacity to operate within international (eg. NATO) standards, while simultaneously building self-sufficient capabilities among regional militaries.

By augmenting partner forces with Army’s tailored capabilities (eg. peace keeping operations, health care assistance, and humanitarian and disaster relief support), we transition from the ‘teach’ phase of assistance to the ‘demonstrate’ phase. In this way we empower host nations to achieve their own military objectives. Army’s willingness to consistently ‘turn up’ when needed further cements its reputation as reliable and dependent, worthy of preferred partner status.

A key benefit of Australian military participation in regional train, advise and assist missions is that they provide the opportunity for Australia to exercise disproportionate geopolitical influence. On matters of international significance, the provision of military support provides Australia with a platform from which to provide its own strategic perspectives and to highlight issues of national interest both within the region and further afield. Further, by providing prolonged support to host nations, not only do we enable and empower them, but we also further cement Australia’s position as a preferred partner. Building from this advantageous position, we can leverage existing relationships to further shape our strategic interests. While Australia does not expect to operate within the region to ‘the exclusion of all others’, as a reliable and predictable training partner, Australia gains the benefits of early warning, consultation and deterrence, to name a few.    

In an uncertain strategic climate, Australia’s interests are served by the establishment of a regional buffer against external influences that may be unfavourable to our own national interests. Army contributes to this outcome by its ongoing presence, its reputation for professionalism, and its willingness to engage and empower countries within the Indo-Pacific region. The impact of the Australian Army’s efforts to build and engage with these host nations’ militaries, through short term and enduring partnerships, training programs and assistance missions, should not be understated. As a contribution to Australia’s broader objective of strategic deterrence, such efforts are an easy way for Army to maintain situational relevance and primacy in the Indo-Pacific region.

This article is a submission to the Winter Series 2023 Short Writing Competition, 'Army’s Role in Train, Advise and Assist Missions'.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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