Maritime security in Southeast Asia is a hot topic in international affairs. And there’s no shortage of maritime security issues to be addressed. An increasingly assertive China is enforcing its claimed seven-dash line in the South China Sea, despite competing claims to the area. As a result, many ASEAN states are rapidly building up their naval capacities in what some commentators are calling an arms race. Often ignored in these debates is Australia’s role in these emerging security challenges.  As a self-described middle power, what is Australia’s role in the ongoing naval build-up in Southeast Asia?

Image courtesy of Hpeterswald, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Hpeterswald, © 2014, some rights reserved.

The most obvious way of answering this question is to actually compare the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) to the navies of other states involved in the build-up. Directly, this is hard to do: the best information on Australian defence acquisition will be found in the as of yet-unreleased 2015 Defence White Paper. But conveniently, a recently released RAND report makes some crucial suggestions regarding Australia’s two ongoing shipbuilding programs, the second Canberra-class landing helicopter dock and the Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyer, as well as the planned Collin-class submarine replacements and the future frigates program. Clearly the Australian navy plans to expand from its current 48 commissioned warships, increasing its power projection, anti-submarine warfare, and anti-air capabilities.

Three other ASEAN navies come close to comparing to the RAN in capabilities: those of Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. Indonesia operates two submarines, with another three on order—less than Australia’s six Collins-class attack submarines. Vietnam operated three Russian-built Kilo-class and has three more on the way. Singapore comes closest to Australia’s capability with six Swedish-built submarines modified for the tropics, but several of the submarines are older. Moreover, the planned size of the Collins replacement fleet is twelve submarines, suggesting that Australia will retain submarine superiority for the foreseeable future.

In terms of surface warfare, Australia also leads the way. It currently competes with Singapore for the most advanced surface fleet, but will surge to the forefront of capability as soon as the first Hobart-class air warfare destroyer is completed in 2016. Similarly, the RAN’s helicopter carrier/landing ship, the HMAS Canberra has few regional peers in terms of capability. The Royal Thai Navy operates the HTMS Chakri Naruebet, a Spanish-designed small aircraft carrier. But the wing V/STOL aircraft for which the carrier is designed is much diminished and the ship spends the vast majority of its time in port, so is not an asset comparable to the Canberra and its upcoming sister ship.

However, much of these capabilities are static. Naval acquisitions are planned years in advance, and many of the described projects commenced before the beginning of the alleged naval arms race. It is difficult to determine which projects were created in response to naval build-ups. We can, however, look at changes in total defence spending in the relevant countries. To do so, we can use the Stockholm International Peace Research (SIPRI) military expenditures database to look at changes over time. The following graph shows clearly that there is a clear upward trend in military expenditure amongst ASEAN states and Australia (not including Myanmar because of unreliable data), with the arms expenditures of many states peaking in recent years. Nevertheless, Australia remains the clear top spender in the region.


The data also does not tell the whole story. Naval acquisitions are often imported: Australia, Myanmar, and Malaysia are the only ASEAN states whose navies are partially native built; of those, only Australia’s fleet is mostly native built (and the aforementioned RAND report calls the future of that policy into question. Thus, a better metric might be the respective countries expenditures on arms imports.  So once again we turn to SIPRI, this time to the international arms transfer database. The following graph shows arm imports to the ASEAN countries plus Australia.

Arms_Transfer_Graphs (1)

Similarly to total military expenditure, there is an increase in arms imports after 2007; dissimilar to total military expenditure, Australia is not consistently in the lead, being eclipsed in several years by other states. However, given that Australia has a more robust domestic shipbuilding industry, this is not surprising, and does not contradict the hypothesis that Australia is the regional leader in military acquisition.

However, in both cases, increases in Australian acquisitions are part of a long-term trend; there are no sudden spikes, as there are with many other ASEAN states in response to a more assertive Chinese presence in the South China Sea. We can now begin to answer the question we started with: what is Australia’s place in the naval build-up in Southeast Asia?  Australia remains a regional power and the RAN remains one of the most potent forces in the Asia-Pacific.

But what does that mean for Australia the middle power? First we need to decide what a middle power actually is.  For this, we turn to the seminal work on the subject: Cooper, Higgot, and Nossal’s Relocating Middle Powers: Australia and Canada in a Changing World Order. The authors define a middle power as a state who engages in middle power diplomacy—in other words, a middle power exercises its clout via multilateral institutions where it can get the most bang for political buck. Unlike a superpower, a middle power cannot unilaterally enact change in the international system, but can help to bring about change when it manages to rally enough support when it operates via multilateral institutions.

Putting Australia’s relative naval capabilities and its middle power status together, the natural implication is that Australia should strengthen regional defence cooperation. It is already involved in a number of alliance structures. ANZUS, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand Security Treaty requires cooperation between the three (separately) on security issues worldwide. Similarly, the Five Power Defense Agreement (FDPA) between the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore requires the five to consult in the event of external aggression against Malaysia or Singapore.

What remains necessary is a strengthening of ASEAN-Australia defence cooperation. Australia has bilateral security arrangements with many of these states, such as Indonesia—and that is a good thing. But Australia is likely to be drowned out when it attends the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus, which will also include representatives from the United States, China, and Russia. More opportunities for ASEAN-Australia cooperation are necessary.

So what is Australia’s place in the ongoing naval build-up in Southeast Asia? The RAN remains one of the most capable forces in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly with its expanding force projection capabilities. It does not, however, possess an overwhelming advantage. Thus, as a middle power, Australia ought to make sure it is well represented in the evolving security architecture of the region, particularly via multilateral approaches. Even if Australia cannot stabilise the region by itself, that is no reason to not participate in regional institutions which can resolve outstanding maritime security issues.