Although global COVID-19 restrictions had an impact in 2020, Defence continued to strengthen and deepen its engagement in the South-West Pacific, South-East Asia, North-East Asia and the Indian Ocean region. This has occurred across multiple functional domains, including military exercises; bilateral and multilateral dialogues; personnel training and exchanges; information sharing; capability development and cooperation; infrastructure development; defence industry, science and technology; and women, peace and security. The links between military forces were strengthened through other national forces deploying to Australia to help with Operation BUSHFIRE ASSIST 2019–2020 in January 2020.
Some Defence Cooperation Program activities were disrupted by COVID-19. Defence Cooperation Program funding was reallocated to assist Pacific and South-East Asian responses to the pandemic, including provision of air and sea lift to provide medical and food supplies to vulnerable populations, and support for defence organisations in South-East Asia to contribute to their national COVID-19 responses.
In the South-West Pacific, Defence focused on advancing the Government’s Pacific Step-Up initiative, including through ongoing investments in infrastructure development in Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, both in response to bilateral
security requests and to support the rollout of the $2 billion Pacific Maritime Security Program. Defence delivered new Guardian class Patrol Boats to Samoa, Solomon Islands and Fiji. These vessels are being used, alongside contracted aerial surveillance, to enhance regional maritime security.
In South-East Asia, Defence advanced key relationships in significant ways. Australia set out its vision for engagement with ASEAN at the inaugural ASEAN–Australia Informal Defence Ministers’ Meeting in February 2020. Australia and Indonesia expanded information sharing and exercises and agreed to a UN peacekeeping co-deployment.
Australia and Singapore signed a treaty on military training, which underpins the largest training arrangement Australia has with any country beyond the United States. Defence enhanced cooperation with the Philippines to support vital counter-terrorism efforts; boosted regional peacekeeping capabilities, including through training and airlift support to Vietnam; and increased personnel exchanges with Malaysia.
In North-East Asia, Defence increased bilateral cooperation with Japan, including via major precedent-setting activities such as the first-ever Australia–Japan fighter jet exercise, Bushido Guardian, held in Japan in September 2019. Such activities have added another pillar to enhance interoperability and ultimately improve our capability to respond to regional contingencies. Defence also maintained its contribution to multilateral enforcement of UN Security Council sanctions with respect to North Korea’s illegal nuclear weapons programs; and deepened bilateral cooperation with South Korea, including contributing to the inter-Korean peace process through support activities in the Demilitarized Zone.
In the Indian Ocean region, Defence made significant strides in expanding bilateral ties with India via agreements to expand cooperation in the areas of information sharing, defence industry, access, and defence science and technology.
Defence deepened regional alliance cooperation with the United States. In major activities like the Marine Rotational Force—Darwin, we were able to modify the deployment to mitigate COVID-19 risks and send an important signal about the alliance’s firm commitment to regiona security. Such activities have enhanced our forces’ abilities to confront shared challenges alongside our allies and partners. We conducted the first-ever defence strategy and policy talks as part of a restructured and regularised senior policy dialogue to better inform the annual ministerial-level US–Australia consultations (AUSMIN).