I would like to thank Mr. Jonathan Longhurst, counsellor to Defence, International Policy Division, for providing direction and insight, and above all, academic mentorship without who I would not have been able to successfully navigate my research on this topic.


In a contested Indo-Pacific environment, the effectiveness of Australia’s alliances and partnerships will be critical to ensuring a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific region. To enable success, Australia will need to understand how current alliances are responding to a complicated and challenged region and whether they are destined to succeed in the future.

This paper briefly examines the issue at hand and offers a perspective for a framework for alliances and where they need to be positioned for a successful and stable Indo-Pacific region. The solution for forming alliances may not be as simple to implement as proposed, and this paper aims to examine the feasibility, in the Australian context, of seeking new alliances for a ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific region and proposes a model framework for those alliances.

This paper is an abridgement of my Staff College research thesis. All opinions expressed are my own.


The Indo-Pacific region is contested. It is an area of significant strategic change as emerging nations – such as China, India, Indonesia, and others – position their geopolitical muscles within the global architecture to mark their growing economic power.

In his keynote address at the Aspen Forum on Security in 2020, under the banner of “Tomorrow in the Indo-Pacific”, the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “The jungle is growing back, as Robert Kagan observed. And we have to do the gardening. A key priority is to build a sustainable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region. We need like-minded nations to act more consistently, systematically and frequently. To align.” [1]

Given these words, should Australia’s response be to find new like-minded partners to offset the decline in the relative dominance of the United States and be able to deter any risks posed by nations? [2] Or is it to deepen the partnerships Australia already has?

The 2020 Defence Strategic Update[3] states that “... cooperation in the Indo-Pacific is being challenged, leading to uncertainty and complicating security partnerships. This is why Defence will continue to work to strengthen defence and diplomatic ties with the countries in Australia’s immediate region, working alongside important partners such as the United States, Japan and New Zealand.”[4]

Again, this is a relatively straightforward statement framed about building diplomatic alliances and strategic partnerships, with an emphasis on modernising or strengthening Australia's existing relationships. However, the geopolitical intent of these statements raises concerns about their viability in the future, because it is necessary to consider who Australia's true allies are in the Indo-Pacific region. Moreover, the complex nature of regional state relationships makes it difficult to build simple one-dimensional alliances or partnerships.

Each of the countries in the South-east Asian region have different views of the other nations. Therefore, the geopolitical interests and vulnerabilities of the different countries in the Indo-Pacific region must be taken into consideration by Australia[5]. It is important to deepen and enrich relations in all areas. However, this is not entirely clear because Australia is an island and does not physically share a border with China, India, or Vietnam.

Moreover, when the COVID-19 outbreak occurred, the Australian Prime Minister tried to support an independent investigation into the origins of the virus by calling Donald Trump, Angela Merkel, and Emmanuel Macron – but he did not call any head of state in Asia[6]. As a result, it will not be easy for Australia to find partners and form new alliances in its endeavours for regional security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. And given that each country in the region has unique interests and qualities, the definition of "similar" interests will likely be tested to its possible interpretations.

At first glance, Australia's Asian neighbours appear to be promising partners, where even existing alliances present an opportunity or opening for other nations. Asian nations, like the rest of the world, have complicated inter-relationships which mean that "alliances" – which by definition are quite "black and white" – are a challenge to engage.

A Framework Proposal for Australian Alliances

Building the kind of relationships that result in effective mutual engagement requires a long-term diplomatic campaign, something that has not been seen for a long time in the Australian capital. Australia should strive to create as many links as possible with countries, the countries whose strategic interests most closely converge with Australia's and who can help Australia the most in the future. This is essentially the keystone of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update's factor of shaping the region.

In addition, all of Australia's close neighbours are island nations, like Australia. As a result, they all depend on maritime forces, particularly a military capability to deny hostile air and sea approaches. Of these, the countries closest to the South-east Asian maritime region stand out, notably Indonesia. Its location, size, and proximity make it the most promising strategic partner and its strategic interests likely converge with Australia's, as a threat to one increases the risk to the other. Its economic strength also makes it a viable strategic contender. Realising this potential with Indonesia would require a great deal of work. It is therefore clear that Australia needs to work in partnership to achieve its national goals.

While it is important to deepen and enrich relations in all areas, Australia also needs to strengthen its security relationships in the region. To do this, it could lay the foundation for future cooperation and mutual support by establishing an alliance framework based on the three elements of 'Shape, Deter, Respond', as outlined in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. This model framework aims to build a number of different types of security and diplomatic alliances and partnerships. The aim should not be to build a treaty-based alliance. Indeed, the relationships should be looser and more fluid, more like temporary alignments, like between the European powers in the turbulent political times of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries[7]. Moreover, Indo-Pacific nations prefer collaborative problem solving. The aim should be to take some of the closer regional and operational partnerships and alliances to higher, strategic and/or national levels.

A model framework could therefore be characterised as follows:

  • Shape: Working with all states to contribute to a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, while offering different choices in all areas (economy, security, technological advancement, medical research, education, etc.) and building the capacity of local forces to improve their resilience. This level of partnership would be built with whomever. Europe, including France, could play a key role here as a highly influential economic and soft power. This is the space in which Quad (short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising of a geopolitical engagement between Australia, Japan, the US, and India) is currently taking place and where many of the existing security frameworks in the region remain or can be extended and improved, for example, 'Quad + one'. Despite the cancellation of the 'contract of the century' with France, Australia should continue and advance diplomatic and defence engagement with France on security issues, particularly with a renewed focus on operations in the Indo-Pacific, while expanding the circle of 'like-minded' multilateral partners, as well as maintaining military interoperability for an uncertain future. This may mean a greater engagement of the military and diplomatic network. The Quad presents such an opportunity.
  • Deter: This is the 'next' level of partnership, which involves military and more complex collaboration. These are the types of partnerships that involve closer information sharing and a willingness to manage collectively on security issues. This level of partnership presents opportunities for enhanced alliances with India, Indonesia, and Japan. Australia is now seen to have this type of relationship with the Five Eyes framework and the AUKUS (a tri-nation framework comprising of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States – through which Australia can share technical and capability information on nuclear propulsion technology for submarines). Alliances forged at this level would help augment established capabilities within the Australian Defence Force, allowing Australia to make a major contribution to the defence of the Indo-Pacific region and executed through large-scale bilateral and multilateral exercises such as Exercise Talisman Sabre. In addition, the consideration of positioning the new AUKUS alliance submarine fleet could make a major contribution to the defence of some Indo-Pacific nations. It also allows Australia to 'go it alone' and assume responsibility for its own security on the basis of its autonomous military capability.
  • Respond: This is the most rigid level, where alliances and partnerships are about high-level military collaboration, war fighting, and preparation for coalition operations. Australia is present in this area with the Five Eyes and ANZUS agreements, and only in the Indo-Pacific with the US and New Zealand, and perhaps soon with the UK, through the AUKUS. Japan, as one of the four Quad members with Australia, is seen as a likely candidate at this level[8].

This model framework has beneficial outcomes not only for Australia, but also for the nations of the Indo-Pacific region, as it simplifies the complex nature of the Indo-Pacific states' relationships with each other while encouraging multi-dimensional alliances or partnerships at a tiered-level. For Australia, these are essentially partnerships to better facilitate and ensure security in the region in the future. Of course, each of these factors would require different structures and frameworks, and each would involve different categories of partners and different expectations.


The Indo-Pacific is a region of many states whose competitive jostling is increasingly impeding economic progress[9]. It is clear that the world is concerned about increased competition in the Indo-Pacific region, but it is even more difficult to understand what Australia’s neighbouring countries are prepared to do about it. Australia needs to bring these countries into its 'orbit' through alliances while being aware of their delicate inter-relationships.

There is a real need for a tailored, tiered, multilateral initiative that brings together the key players to focus on the welfare of the region. Near SE Asian countries, including China, Vietnam, and Indonesia, should certainly be included in this dialogue, in the sense that Australia has a better chance of limiting competition and strategic confrontation through discussion and engagement, rather than through any efforts to contain them.

So the solution is, as always, diplomacy. Having one or many of the Indo-Pacific countries participating in consultation with the Indo-Pacific region and its future, employing a layered approach of Shape, Deter, Respond to alliances is far preferable to the traditional use of bilateral diplomacy.

A “Quad +” is a coalition that agrees to work jointly while ultimately retaining different levels of strategic autonomy and flexibility. Thus, Australia's commitment to alliances in the Indo-Pacific region should advance security and diplomatic engagement, while expanding the circle of 'like-minded', 'convergent' multilateral partners closer to the region, such as Indonesia and Japan.

Nothing that Quad or AUKUS stands for can replace robust national security, a strong multilateral alliance, patient multilateralism, and careful engagement with SE Asian countries because – in short – these are Australia's closest allies.