US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (L) at a news conference at the White House in Washington, February 23, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (L) at a news conference at the White House in Washington, February 23, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Donald Trump is pressuring Australia to lift its military presence in East Asia and the Pacific as Washington turns the screws on China and North Korea. But some are questioning how much more Canberra can offer.

Trump made clear during a weekend summit with Australian leader Malcolm Turnbull at the White House that he expects America’s allies to shoulder a bigger share of the region’s defense, echoing his complaint of America’s disproportionate contributions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato).

Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Australia are in America’s crosshairs in Asia. It is unlikely the Japanese will want to take on a more bullish security role, even if constitutional blocks are removed; Singapore has the will but not the capability; South Korea already has enough on its hands with it nuclear neighbor.

That leaves Australia, which is already walking a tightrope in its relations with China.

The Pentagon has made three key demands on Australia’s small but relatively powerful armed forces: support the escalation of US forces in the Western Pacific; help enforce tougher sanctions against North Korea, including new sanctions targeting North Korean shipping; and mount freedom-of-navigation operations in the territorial zones that China claims in the South China Sea after militarizing a string of islands and features.

It is already a done deal that the number of US Marines rotated through a base in Darwin will increase by 250 to 1,500 this year, thus accelerating a schedule that will eventually take their strength to 2,500. They will be supported by 10 Osprey planes and — perhaps more controversially — F-22 Raptor jet-fighters that some speculate could soon follow.

A US Air Force F-22 Raptor fighter flies over a military air base in Siauliai, Lithuania, April 27, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Ints Kalnins

At this point the agreement is that Raptors will be sent only to exercise with Australia’s air force. But the most potent aircraft in the US’ defense arsenal is seen as a fulcrum of the power that Washington wants to project as it moves to reassert its hegemony over the Asia-Pacific. The question now is whether Canberra is willing to risk the wrath of Beijing.

More of the same can be expected from China if Australia sends ships to stop commodities reaching North Korea and then diverts them to the South China Sea. But it may all be academic: over-stretched and midway through a shake-up, Australia’s navy probably lacks the ability to respond.

Ranked the fifth-biggest naval force in the world at the end of the Vietnam War, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was downsized in the 1970s as military planners grappled with how to defend a coastline of 36,735 kilometers on an island continent then with only 12 million people.

“Australia’s strategic thinking has long been polarized between continentalist and expeditionary schools of thought. According to these contrasting views, Australia’s defense strategy should be built around either protecting the Australian continent and the nation’s air-sea gap or contributing to multilateral missions abroad,” Captain Michael McArthur, director of RAN’s sea power research center, wrote last year.

“The first strategy would reorganize the RAN to … focus its assets on defense of Australia’s maritime approaches, while the second would redesign the RAN to supplement US-led international coalitions and would force Australia to piggyback off US capabilities for its own defense.”

American aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk receives fuel from a Royal Australian Navy auxiliary oiler replenishment ship during a joint exercise. Photo: US Navy via AFP

With continentalists holding sway, the RAN was reshaped as a self-defense force based around coastal patrol boats. Only about a dozen large surface ships were kept; the RAN’s last aircraft carrier was scrapped in the 1990s.

However, changing political realities have forced a new mindset, and the RAN is belatedly being restructured as a two oceans fleet — Indian and Pacific — with a forward deployment capacity.

The biggest recapitalization since World War II will add nine frigates with an anti-submarine capability, 12 diesel submarines (doubling the current strength) and 12 offshore patrol boats. Three more destroyers have also been commissioned.

Two Landing Helicopter Dock ships have come into service since 2015. They can be used by vertical/short takeoff jets, but have been designed to deploy Marines, light landing craft, armored vehicles and a range of helicopters. Their potential won’t have escaped the US Pentagon’s attention.

By the time the last ships are delivered in the 2040s, the RAN will be one of the most modern and best-equipped fleets in the region, though its strength will be roughly the same: most vessels will only be replacement stock, so the navy will remain strongly dependent on US support.

An Australian Navy band plays on the HMAS Adelaide in Sydney, December 19, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed

Already heavily committed to coastal and offshore operations, the RAN will struggle to meet Trump’s demands unless the blue-water component of frigates and destroyers is greatly enhanced. Ships are now deployed to the Middle East and Afghanistan as part of NATO contingents and play a key role in Australia’s coastal surveillance operations, mostly in the north.

Australia provides naval cover in much of New Zealand’s thinly-secured maritime waters and is responsible for monitoring 10% of the world’s ocean surface under search and rescue covenants. It also has periodic naval patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea as part of Operation Gateway, a defense agreement with Southeast Asian nations.

Turnbull has backed sanctions against North Korea and appears to be taking a harder line on China’s militarized ambitions in the South China Sea. Yet his own National Security Committee can’t decide whether the country should pin its flag to Washington’s new Cold War mast or play the role of regional moderator.

While Defense Minister Marise Payne is staunchly pro-American, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop advocates a more independent stance that reflects Australia’s strong economic reliance on China. Turnbull has been talking tough, but is not known for taking big decisions on security, or anything else for that matter.

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