ADVOCACY / CURRENT ACTIVITIES
A strategic, geopolitical pivot is underway, fuelled by global factors beyond any one nation’s control. 60% of the world’s population lives within the ‘Asian Time Zone’ (2 hours either side of Perth), making Western Australia and the Pilbara at the centre of a massive shift in global strategic weight.
As the strategic centre of gravity in the Indo-Pacific shifts south west along a curve stretching from China through to India, the nations of the Indian Ocean Rim, their port infrastructure, their offshore assets and their capacity to act will become more important as the world becomes more connected as well as uncertain.
The region contributes more than $27 billion in Gross Regional Product or 1.68% of Australia’s total Gross Domestic Product from 0.2% of the population, with a total of $179 billion in resource projects. It accounts for approximately 20% of Australian exports, 96% of Australia’s iron ore, 97% of Australia’s petroleum and 70% of Australia’s Liquid Natural Gas. Offshore ventures in the waters off the coast of the Pilbara are some of the largest in the world. The Gordon LNG Project ($52 billion), Wheatstone ($29 billion), Pluto ($14.9 billion), and the North West Shelf North ($5 billion) are significant and strategic assets, with critical infrastructure supporting their value.
The economic contribution of the people of the Pilbara to the rest of the nation is unparallelled. The region has a per capita Gross Regional Product of $465,173 compared to nation-wide per capita Gross Domestic Product of just $76,943 (just under 6 times higher contribution per capita).
Most recently, Shell’s floating LNG facility Prelude ($12.6 billion) has arrived off the coast of the region. This asset is literally a floating, flammable, 488-meter long platform with five-times the displacement of a US aircraft carrier and five-times the steel of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, operating within in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone to provide energy security to our economy and export capacity to our nation. Prelude also plans to extract and offload LNG at sea to LNG carriers, and thus its protection at sea is critical to national security.
Whilst the protection of critical infrastructure, sea lines of communication, trading routes and resource assets are of significance to the economic security of Australia, the latest Defence White Paper makes clear Australia faces real external threats such as the expansion of Daesh into South East Asia, rising likelihood of humanitarian crises from climate change, and the modernisation of regional navies such as those from India, China, Iran, and Pakistan. A greater Defence presence in the north west would act as a deterrant, an essential posture shift for the future.
The Indo-Pacific is a complex strategic environment, and by 2050, almost half the world’s economic output is expected to come from this region. The White Paper realises this region is central to our national economy and whilst direct attack by another country is remote, the White Paper makes clear Australia cannot be complacent, and must be ready to deal with quickly changing circumstances where our interests are threatened.
There are five key pull factors that the Pilbara believes should act to incentivise greater Defence presence:
Defence sets itself the challenge to deter incursions into Australia’s air, sea and northern approaches and to build the effectiveness of regional operations to address shared security challenges. The Pilbara is physically proximate to Indo-Pacific, North West Shelf, and Christmas Island, and is exactly half way between HMAS Stirling (Perth) and HMAS Coonawarra (Darwin). Its geographical location positions it like no other region as the natural ‘middle ground’ for additional naval presence in the region, as well as a northern staging ground for joint special forces training exercises or activities.
Strategic land at Lumsden Point is also proximate to strategic land at the Port Hedland airport, which has a runway suitable for all RAAF planes, as well as the Russian Antanov An-124 – the second largest plane in the world. This aligns well to the Port Hedland International Airport master plan to invest in becoming a major freight hub. Discussions in the past regarding a Pilbara Economic Zone have included both the Airport and Lumsden Point. The Defence Posture Review also stated that should a Common User Facility be approved in Port Hedland, this ‘could provide additional options for sustaining our maritime presence in the North West.’ Major resource companies understand the importance of these facilities for regional logistics; Woodside delivered 48 tonnes in one An-124 flight from the United Kingdom in just 2 days.
This existing major industry base has led to a significant investment in both government and private sector funded major road and rail, power and water infrastructure. Over the years, these major players have expressed their concerns about the lack of Defence presence in the region. Given the new United States Administration’s policy of keeping partners to account for their contribution to regional security arrangements, and with several major players being American corporations, there is an ever-increasing imperative to invest in north-west defence.
Connectedness to global markets and logistics networks (Singapore via Karratha International Airport and Denpasar via Port Hedland International Airport) is also a crucial component of what the region has to offer. This is aligned to the White Paper’s new imperative to focus on ‘enabling and integrating systems’ such as facilities and workforce to maximise performance and potency of joint combat effects and interoperability of the ADF with key strategic partners like the United States.
The Pilbara has strong base of key skills and supporting industry such as in maritime services and heavy manufacturing. These people and industries are crucial to supporting a defence force presence in the Pilbara. The cost of living pressures and liveability concerns about the region have subsided since the Defence Posture Review, with housing availability and rent levels normalised (weekly rent average in Karratha has fallen from just under $2,600 per week in 2012, down to just above $500 in 2016).