Australia is being propelled into taking a more active strategic role in the Asia-Pacific, a power-projecting gambit that is driving a massive overhaul of its naval capabilities.

The Royal Australian Navy is now preparing and re-equipping in the midst of its largest refit since World War II, a modernization drive that will see it take delivery of a new ship every 18 to 24 months over the next two decades.

The naval vision: a modern fleet of amphibious Landing Helicopter Dock ships, destroyers, frigates, offshore patrol vessels and 12 new future submarines. The Navy has already replaced and upgraded all of its three helicopter types over the last five years.

Under the 2017 Naval Shipbuilding Plan, Canberra is committed to invest around A$90 billion (US$65 billion) in new ships and submarines, another A$1 billion (US$723 million) in modern shipyard infrastructure, and up to A$62 million (US$44.8 million) to develop a trained shipbuilding workforce.

With that fast and expensive build-up, Australia’s strategic objectives and interests are under rising scrutiny.

Faced with US President Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and China’s perceived expansionist intent, most notably in the contested South China Sea, Australia is filling at least some of the strategic vacuum created by Trump’s ambiguous commitment to the region’s security.

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Royal Australian Navy Collins class submarine HMAS Sheean passes the US Navy’s Iowa-class battleship USS Missouri at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2014. Photo: Royal Australian Navy

Australia’s defense alliance with the US is still strong, to be sure, but Trump’s conflicted statements and fast-shifting policies have somewhat turned that dynamic on its head.

Instead of providing support to the much stronger and better-equipped US Navy, Australia is now being cajoled to act on Washington’s behalf as a check and balance on China’s rising maritime ambitions.

The shift has generated a measure of controversy in Australia, particularly among the strong pro-China lobby, which has questioned Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government’s apparent decision to take America’s side in its intensifying economic and strategic rivalry with China.

None of that dissent, however, is likely to halt the naval build-up. Indeed, there is another strong lobby group which believes that the Australian Navy needs to be even larger, and that the much vaunted shipbuilding program is politically important to shore up declining manufacturing jobs.

Proponents of a larger Navy say that even with the new ships and equipment that Australia’s posture will remain defensive, though it should be able to deliver forward defense and project Australian power into the region when necessary.

This will require increasing defense spending from the current 2% of gross domestic product (GDP), a proposal that is gaining support both within government and opposition.

Australian warship and crew take part in a naval review and maritime parade in Sydney Harbor. Photo: AFP
Australian warship and crew take part in a naval review and maritime parade in Sydney Harbor. Photo: AFP

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott has often found himself out-of-step with prevailing opinions, but his recent comments that the Australia’s Navy should be “enlarged and strengthened” have struck a chord.

Abbott foresees a world in which Australian ships and submarines spend time operating from Singapore “if they are more readily to be where they could be needed” and has urged the rapid enhancement of the existing submarine force. Australia, he says, can’t afford to wait 15 years to get its budgeted 12 new “future submarines” into service.

The Future Submarine Program, outlined in a 2009 Defense White Paper, aims to provide Australia with a new and more potent defense with greater range, longer patrol endurance and increased capabilities – including anti-submarine warfare, surveillance and reconnaissance, and electronic warfare – beyond its current Collins Class submarines.

Given that the Australian government is now largely committed to siding against China in the South China Sea and wider Pacific, there is a clear role for the Navy in maintaining a regional presence while reminding small nations lured by China’s Belt and Road Initiative that there is still a need for balancing of powers.

It is a highly fluid situation, to say the least. In April, three Australian warships were challenged in the South China Sea as China conducted major naval maneuvers. Australia has lent diplomatic support to the US’s freedom of navigation operations in the area.

Yet this month it was announced that China was invited to send ships to participate in Australia’s premier Kakadu multilateral naval exercises, apparently to the US’s chagrin.

China is expected to participate in a range of activities including passage exercises, inter-ship communications and replenishment activities and sea-training maneuvers, but not live-fire drills, according to a statement from Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne.

It is yet to be seen if this is sign of an Australia-China bilateral thaw, or rather a case of keeping potential enemies close to observe their hardware and capabilities. Payne said China and Australia have built a “productive” defense relationship that “facilitates transparency and builds trust.”

Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer
Warships and fighter jets of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy take part in a military display in the South China Sea, April 12, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Stringer

Twenty-six nations will take part in the exercises later this month off Australia’s strategic northern coast.

Australia’s recent Defense White Paper makes the point that by 2020 China’s Navy will have more than 70 submarines, and that in the next two decades half of the world’s submarines will be operating in the Asia-Pacific.

That puts some of Australia’s recent strategic decision-making in context. A fleet of 12 Future Submarines is twice the size of its current Collins Class fleet. Australia has just announced a A$35 billion (US$25.3 billion) investment in the British BAE Type 26 frigate, viewed as one of the most capable anti-submarine ships in the world.

While these ships might be extremely capable, Australia will not have enough of them to seriously counterbalance China, which is why regional defense alliances will become even more important.

Australia’s Navy is accustomed to exercising in task force groups with the US Navy, but it has less experience in doing so with regional allies where it may be required to take the lead in future.

Perhaps this is something Australian politicians might consider as they ponder the implications of Trump’s policy, and what that means for how they deploy and develop their Navy.