Australia’s National Security Paper: A Case of Lost Opportunities?

View underneath helicopter

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivered a statement about the country’s national security policy to a carefully selected crowd of defense, public service, and academic personnel at the Australian National University late last month. The 58-page paper entitled ‘Strong and Secure: A Strategy for Australia’s National Security’ supersedes the last one given by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd back in 2008 and it is considered a supplement to Australia in the Asian Century, a white paper presented by Premier Gillard last October.

The paper outlines the country’s assessment of priorities, risks, and capabilities.

The four major espoused objectives are: to protect and strengthen sovereignty; to ensure a safe and resilient population; to secure the nation’s assets, infrastructure and institutions; and to promote a favorable international environment.

Although no specific risk analysis was outlined in the paper, the seven identified key risk areas were: espionage and foreign interference; instability in developing and fragile states; malicious cyber activity; the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; serious and organized crime; state based conflict or coercion affecting Australia’s interests; and terrorism and violent extremism.

The national security policy rests upon eight pillars: countering terrorism, espionage and foreign interference; deterring and defeating attacks on Australia and Australia’s interests; preserving Australia’s border integrity; preventing, detecting and disrupting serious and organized crime; promoting a secure international environment conducive to advancing Australia’s interests; strengthening the resilience of Australia’s people, assets, infrastructure and institutions; the Australian-US alliance; and, understanding and being influential in the world, particularly the Asia-pacific.

What immediately becomes apparent is the reliance of the National Security Strategy on hard power options of border security, the Australian Defense Forces, and intelligence infrastructure, at the expense of an array of soft power options that could supplement, complement, and enhance Australia’s policy pursuits.  In addition, apart from Premier Gillard’s announcement of the formation of a national cyber security centre by the end of 2013, there are few new commitments to new security infrastructure.

What immediately becomes apparent on reading the text of the paper is the naivety of the Canberra defense Tai-Pans in some of their security assessments. The authors have been looking too much at what the US is espousing and not at what the US is actually doing in the Asia-Pacific. Most tensions between the US and China seem to be smoothly dispersed and resolved through very subtle diplomacy, such as the deal done about the fate of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, who took refuge in the American Embassy last year. This is something that the paper does not seem to be sensitive to, and unwilling to make overt, something that is already happening covertly in the China-US relationship, probably at a cost to Australian interests as long as this diplomatic sensitivity remains unacknowledged.

The paper still struggles to define a unique Australia-China relationship and it is also unwilling to accept new economic realities. Australia seems to be waiting for the incoming United States Secretaries of Defense and State to define the new relationship with China. Consequently, Australia still feels the need to work with the US for security in the region due to hesitancy to read the situation independently. Australia has still not come to terms with its largest trading partner, major investor, and rising military power China. The irony here is that most of Australia’s business community has already done this, putting the Australian Government out of step with business opinion on the matter.

This may strategically put Australia at a disadvantage to countries like Indonesia which have embraced the doctrine of China and US co-existence in the Asia-Pacific region. There still appears to be a lingering anxiety of attachment to 20th century thinking and hesitancy in progressing into the 21st century with some sense of independence. From the ambiguity of the paper, Australia still appears to be locked into the US alliance dilemma and will no doubt come under much pressure from National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to toe the line in renewing their pledge of allegiance to US presence in the Pacific later this year.

Another misconception that Canberra has towards the Asian region is the belief in the architecture of regional groupings. Although there is some importance in strong regional groupings, these may take much more time to fully develop as many nations, especially those within the ASEAN region are in deep economic and political transitions.

To Canberra’s credit, the paper emphasizes the importance of bilateral relationships with Indonesia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and the other ASEAN and regional nations. However, this is only imitating what the US is doing and it is difficult to see within the present Austro-centric paradigm that Australia views the region, what, if any special leverage Australia can develop over others seeking to engage the region. A lot of what happens here will hinge upon how well the US and European nations, as well as China and other East Asian Nations fare.

Australia’s bilateral future with the Asian region could potentially be the a great strength, but the overall rhetoric of the paper still doesn’t fully visualize this opportunity, especially with the large number of Australian expatriates that are now living in Asia, who collectively have a much better understanding than those in Canberra.

Another one of Australia’s great assets that could be utilized in regional engagement is the diverse multicultural make-up of the country’s population, which has been ignored. Multiculturalism in Australia is something very powerful which could be utilized in cultural engagement with the region.

One enormous gap in the paper is the absence of any mention about Islamic issues. There are both a number of threats and opportunities stemming from the Islamic world today. The influence of Islam spreads from Morocco down to our nearest neighbor Indonesia, and the spread of Islamic jihad doctrines has potential effects on events in Russia, China, and even Indonesia. The aspiration of various Muslim communities, the growing influence of Islam on politics in the region, and the implications are very important.

On the opportunity side, this rise in Islam will become a very important economic grouping which is ignored by the paper. Growing Muslim affluence will have very major effects upon supply chains, of which the Asian region is preparing for. Australia has already encountered supply chain issues with Indonesia over the export of live animals. It is interesting that this has been left out, as the protection of supply chains is one of the major strategies of the paper. Whether this was just a plain oversight or the matter was intentionally ignored is not known by the author, but these issues have grave influence upon many security related issues in the region. This is a major shortcoming of the paper.

On the positive side, Australia recognizes climate change, demographic change, increasing urbanization, cyber terrorism, organized crime, and corruption as security threats. But with the exception of cyber terrorism, little in the way of remedies are actually suggested.

There are two grounds to be suspicious of the documents as being a political instrument. Firstly, the paper was announced at a time of reduced government spending on defense in the quest to balance the national budget, which is politically important in this election year. This cut in Australian defense spending has already attracted back-room criticism in the State Department in Washington. However the narrative of balancing the budget has much more immediate political importance than national security narratives in Australia at present, barring any unforeseen episode arising later this year such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack. Certainly the paper doesn’t outline to any great extent a wish list for better and improved security resources to achieve the paper’s objectives.

Secondly, the paper seems to fit well within the Australian political agenda with the coming election, surprisingly announced in advance by Premier Gillard, in what could be a very difficult election for Labor to win. However the current opposition led by Tony Abbot doesn’t appear to have any drastically different alternative view to the world that would warrant any changes in policy, should a Liberal coalition come to power.

It is unfortunate that the Australian-US alliance is still mentioned in such a prominent way throughout the paper, in fact forming one of the pillars of Australia’s national security strategy. The comments pertaining to Australia’s place in the world reflect a general insecurity and lack of confidence about Australia showing the way forward as a truly independent country. The narrative of Australia’s national security transformation tends to be ‘war on terror’ obsessed and dwells on the initiatives of long gone past Australian Governments.

Ironically the paper highlights the role China played in keeping Australia out of recession during the 2008 financial crisis, yet goes little way in recognizing China as an opportunity for fruitful security engagement. Some paper recommendations seem to be cloning the US security decision making apparatus with the announcement of the appointment of a National Security Advisor.

The paper can also be seen as being almost totally utilitarian in its approach where the cultural aspects of Australian security and engagement with the region ignored. On the whole, the paper is narrow, relaying on military, border security, and formal groupings to achieve objectives. The appointment of an Ambassador to ASEAN has actually already been announced months ago in the Australia in the Asian Century paper.

What is most sad is that many soft power options have not been canvassed. Aid and trade are not seen as potential strategy pillars in the emerging national security environment. Trade and economic integration is fundamental to the China-US relationship which appears to be unrecognized in the paper. China utilizes aid as a major lever around the world in building up and cultivating relationships. This is also unrecognized in the paper.

It is credible that efforts will be stepped up in the anti-terrorism and espionage. But with no plans to upgrade the military in the immediate future, there is indeed a risk that Australia’s military comparative advantage in the region will further decline vis-a-vis other middle powers in the region over the next few years.

Most ideas for engaging the Asian region are biased towards upper levels of government and regional groupings through diplomacy. Very few grassroots initiatives have been canvassed as possible strategies.

Consequently the paper appears very establishment, unrepresentative of the potential creativity Australia could have applied to national security and unleashed in the Asian region to its own benefit.

Did the national security paper amount to lost opportunities?

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