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Collective deterrence and the prospect of major conflict

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The US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue, which convened more than 40 American and Australian practitioners and experts, recently yielded a comprehensive report. Co-authored by David Santoro, President of Pacific Forum, in collaboration with the US Studies Centre (USSC) National Resilience Foundation’s Ashley Townshend and Toby Warden, the latest report offers valuable insights into how quickly Washington & Canberra are embracing a collective deterrence approach. This dialogue focused on generating practical insights and recommendations for the US-Australia alliance’s strategy, covering aspects such as collective deterrence, force posture integration, extended nuclear deterrence, and strategic interaction with China.

The following text is excerpted from our partner’s website, where you can read the full report that we collaborated on. 

 

Foreword

Amid rising concern about the United States’ ability to deter Chinese aggression and uphold a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, Washington and Canberra are working to accelerate a strategy of collective deterrence. At its core, this strategy requires a major transformation in the character and purpose of the US-Australia alliance — one that will see Australia play an increasingly central role in bolstering the United States’ forward military presence and, if necessary, supporting high-end US military operations.

This bilateral agenda forms part of a wider regional push to modernise and network US alliances and partnerships as a deterrent vis-à-vis China. Yet, the scale and pace of change in the US-Australia alliance sets it apart from parallel efforts by Canberra and Washington with security partners such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and India. This is a relatively new development.

Just five years ago, the bilateral policy conversation on collective deterrence and defence was embryonic, particularly in Australia where thinking about deterrence and major conflict had steadily atrophied since the end of the Cold War. Despite the 2018 US National Defense Strategy’s refocus on China, significant disagreement continued in the US national security establishment over the extent to which Washington needed to rely more heavily on its allies to fulfil key deterrence and war-fighting roles in the Indo-Pacific; and there was no consensus in Canberra around reorienting Australia’s defence policy and alliance settings to pursue a strategy of collective deterrence.

 
Strengthening independent and collective efforts to deter Chinese aggression is now the organising principle of strategic policy in both Canberra and Washington.

In the past few years, however, alarm over China’s fast-growing military heft and coercive efforts to remake the Indo-Pacific order in its image has set the US-Australia alliance on an unprecedented trajectory. Strengthening independent and collective efforts to deter Chinese aggression is now the organising principle of strategic policy in both Canberra and Washington. Developments since mid-2022 illustrate just how quickly Washington and Canberra are embracing a collective deterrence approach.

The Biden administration’s 2022 National Defense Strategy depicts allies and partners as “the center of gravity” in US strategy, vowing to “incorporate [them] at every stage of defence planning.” The 2022 US Nuclear Posture Review mentions Australia for the very first time in the context of a need to “leverage ally and partner non-nuclear capabilities that can support the nuclear deterrence mission.”

Meanwhile, the Albanese government’s 2023 Defence Strategic Review puts “collective security” at the heart of Australia’s regional defence strategy and calls for greater focus on “deterrence by denial” in Australia’s immediate region. Australian, British and American leaders unveiled the optimal pathway for the AUKUS submarine partnership in March 2023, which included an ambitious combined forces construct, Submarine Rotational Forces-West, that will see attack submarines from all three countries operate from HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. Crucially, the Albanese government also formalised a new suite of bilateral force posture initiatives that will pave the way for larger numbers of US forces to be deployed to Australia as a regional hub for operations, logistics and maintenance.

 
Developments since mid-2022 illustrate just how quickly Washington and Canberra are embracing a collective deterrence approach.

There is nonetheless still a lot to do to prepare the alliance for a strategy of collective deterrence. Though Canberra and Washington have closely aligned national strategies, they have yet to develop the institutions, processes and alliance management mechanisms that characterize tightly integrated alliances like NATO or the US-Japan and US-South Korea alliances. Nor have the two countries sufficiently addressed how they will navigate the thorny requirements and risks of greater strategic and operational integration, such as escalation management, rules of engagement, the growing integration between conventional and nuclear forces, and the delineation of alliance roles and missions.

Faced with a great power threat that Canberra and Washington have concluded will leave them with no strategic warning time ahead of a major conflict, these alliance challenges must be prioritised today. To advance policy debate on these critical issues, the United States Studies Centre and Pacific Forum hosted the fourth Annual Track 1.5 US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue in Washington in June 2023. As in past years, the dialogue convened over 40 American and Australian practitioners and experts from a range of government and research organisations for a frank conversation held under the Chatham House rule.

This year’s theme was “Collective deterrence and the prospect of major conflict,” with a focus on generating practical insights on, and recommendations for, the alliance’s approach to collective deterrence, force posture integration, extended nuclear deterrence and strategic interaction with China. Both institutions would like to thank the Australian Department of Defence Strategic Policy Grants Program and US grant-making foundations for their generous support of this activity.

This outcomes report reflects the authors’ account of the dialogue’s proceedings. It does not necessarily represent their personal views or the views of their home organisations. It seeks to capture the key themes, perspectives and debates from the discussions; it does not purport to offer a comprehensive record.

Nothing in the following pages represents the views of the Australian Department of Defence, the US Department of Defense or any of the officials or organisations that took part in the dialogue. We hope you find this a constructive summary of some of the most pressing deterrence and defence challenges facing the US-Australia alliance.

 


About the Authors

David Santoro Co-Chair, US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue President and CEO, Pacific Forum

Ashley Townshend Co-Chair, US-Australia Indo-Pacific Deterrence Dialogue Non-Resident Senior Fellow, United States Studies Centre Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace