Australia and NATO deepen cooperation with focus on the Pacific region (code for addressing ‘the rise of China’)

On the 7 August 2019, Australia and NATO signed a new "enhanced partnership agreement" with a greater focus on the Pacific region.

During a two-day visit to Australia, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg signed the agreement, which is renewed every two years, with Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds. "We are looking at new areas to work together in the Indo-Pacific," Reynolds told reporters after signing the deal. The focus on the Indo-Pacific region was outlined in an Australian Defence White Paper released in 2016, which also commits the government to restore defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2020-21. On the 12 August, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced a $500 million funding boost to Australia’s special forces, the first stage of $3bn over 20 years that has been earmarked for the elite forces.

NATO and Australia are strengthening relations, building on dialogue and cooperation that have been developing since 2005. In a joint political declaration in June 2012, NATO and Australia signalled their commitment to strengthen cooperation, and since February 2013, work has been taken forward through an Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programme.

The United States has called on NATO to recognize and adapt to new emerging threats, including China, and this US-led agenda is clearly influencing Australia-NATO cooperation. “This is not about moving NATO into the Pacific, but this is about responding to the fact that China is coming closer to us”, Stoltenberg told Reuters in an interview in Sydney. “So all of this makes it important for NATO to address the rise of China, and we do that not least by working closely with our partners in this region – Australia, New Zealand, but also Japan and South Korea”, Stoltenberg said.

Australia currently contributes around 300 personnel to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Australia and NATO are also planning to work more on issues such as access to rare earth elements, critical for military technologies. Stoltenberg said the agreement is "a framework" for future joint efforts and cooperation.

Stoltenberg also said that NATO member states were "concerned" about Iran's activities in the Strait of Hormuz and watching the situation closely. "All our allies are concerned about the destabilising activities of Iran in the region - its support for different terrorist groups and its missile programmes," Stoltenberg told reporters.

Australia is considering sending military vessels and aircraft to the Gulf amid escalating United States-Iran tension in the region. Only the United Kingdom has so far committed military forces in support of the US deployment.