As China Looms, Australia’s Military Refocuses on Pacific Neighbors

SYDNEY, Australia — For years, the graduating classes of Australia’s military training programs studied Dari and Pashto, the languages of distant war-torn lands, eschewing the Bahasa and the Pijin of Asia-Pacific nations close to home.

But as Australian forces wind down their presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, where they have served alongside American troops since the early 2000s, they are renewing their focus on Australia’s island neighbors, which have become a different kind of battleground as China seeks to expand its influence in the region.

Australia has always tried to maintain military forces near home strong enough to deter any potentially hostile power from moving into the South Pacific. But in recent decades, it has not faced such a challenge in the region, and instead has sent its troops again and again to support the United States in faraway conflicts.

Now, with China’s rise, Australia faces a new calculation. On one side is the United States, with whom it has a formal military alliance. On the other is China, a country that is largely seen as crucial to Australia’s economic future. China and the United States increasingly view each other as geopolitical rivals.

Beijing’s reach — and its challenge to America’s dominance in the Pacific — was on vivid display last week as three Chinese warships powered into Sydney Harbor, surprising many Australians.

It was not the first time China has made such a military visit, but it was larger than previous port calls. And the Australian government had kept the vessels’ arrival secret, making no announcement beforehand. The timing raised eyebrows, too: The ships docked as the world outside China was marking the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison played it down as a “reciprocal visit” and a sign of “the relationship that we have.” National security experts, however, called it a show of force by China and a double-edged reminder of Australia’s longstanding relationship with China and its growing military ambitions.

“No Australian government is willing to risk relations with China by siding too overtly with Washington,” said Hugh White, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. “This has become more and more clear as U.S. rivalry with China has become more overt.”

Mr. White said Australia had waning confidence that the United States — a reduced presence on the global stage under President Trump’s America First policy — would prevail over China in their strategic contest.

“That’s because China is far stronger than any previous rival, and America, especially under President Trump, looks weak and unreliable, despite the tough talk,” said Mr. White, who recently published a book titled “How to Defend Australia.”

As part of its efforts to reacquaint itself with its neighbors, the Australian military just wrapped up an 11-week mission at sea during which its forces took part in exercises with counterparts in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam and India.

Australia’s defenders argue that it never fully left the region, and that its military partnerships endured wartime deployments. But John Blaxland, a military historian who is a professor at the Australian National University, said that “there’s a recognition that we dropped the ball and we need to reinvest.”

The Australian military is scheduled to grow by several thousand members, to 62,000. Under a $62 billion program, Australia is building 54 naval vessels, including 12 attack-class submarines, which would double the size of the fleet. And it has purchased 72 F-35A joint strike fighter jets.

The trouble, said Sam Roggeveen, director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, a research foundation in Sydney, is that “because the government insists on building all 12 new submarines at home, they will enter service too slowly — we won’t get the first one until the mid-2030s.” And, so far, just two of the F-35s have arrived in Australia.

When the Chinese ships sailed into Sydney Harbor, Mr. Morrison was engaged in a foreign policy exercise of his own. He was in the Solomon Islands, an ally in the Pacific, making his first foreign trip since his election last month and the first visit to that nation by an Australian prime minister since 2008.

The stopover was intended to signal that Mr. Morrison’s conservative coalition will continue to make a priority of what it has been calling its Pacific step-up — an effort to increase engagement within the region.

Australian officials have spent the year visiting and bolstering ties with countries like the Solomons, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga. While in the Solomons, Mr. Morrison promised a $175 million investment in infrastructure in that country, where from 2003 to 2017 the Australian military was part of a peacekeeping effort that cost billions of dollars.

But the trip was not just a friendly get-together. China loomed over Mr. Morrison’s every move.

The Solomons is one of six Pacific nations that have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing considers Chinese territory.

China’s lack of formal relations with those nations has frustrated its efforts to expand its political and military clout in the region. The Solomons is feeling pressured to shift allegiance to China, its biggest trading partner. The country’s leaders have said they are weighing such a move, as well as whether to sign on to Beijing’s global Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Despite pressure from the United States, Mr. Morrison said he would not use his influence to try to ensure that the Solomons remained an ally of Taiwan. While the United States itself has formal diplomatic relations with China and not Taiwan, it sees a self-ruled Taiwan as a valuable check on China. Last week, the Trump administration said it would sell more than $2 billion in arms to Taiwan.

The Australian prime minister has also been determined not to weigh in on the deepening trade war between the United States and China, even as it emerged this month that the Trump administration considered imposing tariffs on Australian aluminum. The administration backed down amid pushback by the State Department and Pentagon officials, who feared damage to the military alliance with their most important ally in the Pacific.

At the same time, Australia has looked on with worry, and pushed back at times, as China has pursued a military buildup in the South China Sea aimed at asserting itself on matters of territory, navigation and resources.

As 1,200 Australian service members were conducting their recent outreach in the Asia Pacific, Australian warships were trailed by Chinese Navy vessels as they traversed the South China Sea. Australian pilots were also reportedly targeted with lasers while flying over the region; while initial suspicion fell on China, it was not clear who was behind the incident.

China now has the world’s largest navy, and is able to field more vessels to more seas, even if its fleet is inferior to America’s. It has ventured into waters near Taiwan and Japan, and has drawn objections from Vietnam and the Philippines with territorial claims in the South China Sea.

It is attempting to build ports in Papua New Guinea, and is increasing surveillance around Manus Island, where the United States and Australia are developing a naval base.

Mr. White, the emeritus professor, said Australia’s fears were compounded by doubts over whether the United States would fight China if pushed, or if it would withdraw from the region if it could not find a way to contain China.

“This is a very hard question for Australians, because we can hardly imagine what it would be like to be without America as our major ally,” he said. “But the unthinkable is now being thought about much more seriously than at any time since at least the end of the Vietnam War.”

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