An annus horribilis and Australia’s conduct less than distinguished

Dec 18, 2023
Canberra, Australia - June 28, 2016: View of The Commonwealth Coat of Arms, the formal symbol of the Commonwealth of Australia, in bronze outside the old Parliament House.

For those who had hoped Australia might bring a more constructive approach to issues of peace and security, year’s end cannot come soon enough.

2023 has seen a succession of armed conflicts – from Ukraine to Nagorno-Karabakh, Sudan, Myanmar and Israel-Palestine – and countless humanitarian crises fuelled by civil war, insurgencies, and the ravages of climate change. With this has come the displacement of peoples on an unprecedented scale, now estimated to be in excess of 114 million.

This is also the year that has witnessed the almost complete collapse of global arms control, a trend in the making over the last 20 years, beginning with the US decision in 2002 to withdraw from the landmark Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, followed by reciprocal Russian announcements.

In 2019 the Trump Administration withdrew the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that banned ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,000 kilometres, thereby eliminating an entire category of nuclear weapons. Since then, the New START, CTBT, Vienna Document and Open Skies treaties have been derailed, suspended or discarded.
Australia’s response to these perilous trends has been conspicuous by its absence. Our political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence elites have instead chosen to pursue outdated policies, if anything with renewed vigour and hyperbole.

For the last 18 months Labor’s focus, as with previous coalition governments, has been on the dangers posed by China’s rise, its territorial ambitions, its militarisation of the South China Sea, its unwavering commitment to reunify Taiwan, and its rapidly increasing economic and military presence in the South Pacific.

Some headway, it is true, has been made to stabilise the parlous state of relations with China, especially through the resumption of ministerial visits between the two countries, which eventually led to Albanese’s visit to Beijing in November.
But there is little evidence to suggest that Australia under Labor is seeking to develop a comprehensive and mutually beneficial security dialogue with China. The overwhelming emphasis has been on protecting trade interests, and persuading China to lift the trade sanctions it had imposed in 2020-21 on several Australian products ranging from coal to beef, wine and barley.

When it comes to security matters, the overwhelming priority has been to preserve the military alliance with the United States. If “strategic competition” has become the new mantra of Australia’s security policy, it is because of an abiding wish to preserve a regional and global order in which the United States retains undisputed military supremacy.

And so, the China threat scenario continues to be more subtly, but no less assiduously, orchestrated. Yet, China’s expanding military capacity pales in comparison with America’s regional and global power projection.

The ensuing appeal to the public’s phobias has in turn helped to justify a rapidly expanding and costly security establishment. For 2023-24 the budget allocation for defence and the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) is $52.6 billion, up from $21.7 billion in 2009-2010. To this must be added the recently announced nuclear powered submarine program expected to cost some $368 billion.

As for the other security agencies, ASIO’s total budget currently stands at $573 million, up from $352 million in 2009-10.

Over the same ten-year period the budget of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has risen from $1.5 billion to over $2 billion, and that of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) from $247 million to $641 million.

Nor does the politics of slavish entanglement with US strategic priorities stop there. Other noteworthy developments include:

  • Increasingly high levels of interoperability with the US military
    • Rapidly expanding joint military exercises with the US, Japan, and the Philippines
    • Establishment of the AUKUS security partnership – a vivid reminder that policy elites still see Australia as located largely within the Anglosphere
    • Increasing support for the Quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD) which links Australia, India, Japan and the United States
    • A sprawling US military footprint across northern Australia, and
    • Frenetic efforts to ensure the Pacific Islands remain firmly within the US/Australian strategic orbit.

Complementing and reinforcing the underlying strategic confrontation with China, are ever closer links with NATO and an instinctive compulsion to toe the line on Ukraine, Israel-Palestine, and other major conflicts.

With so much rhetoric, money and institutional energy directed to the tightening of the US alliance, it is little wonder that Australian diplomacy has lost whatever freedom of action it once had. The timidity of Australia’s response to war crimes and likely genocide in Gaza is but the most glaring instance.

Not so surprising then that more than 18 months into Labor’s term of office neither prime minister nor foreign minister has seen fit to address the nation on the precarious international situation.

As the UN Secretary-General has stressed with increasing urgency, our world is presently buffeted by an unending series of humanitarian crises, armed conflicts aided and abetted by great powers, spiralling military budgets, gross human rights violations, mass displacement of peoples, growing signs of environmental collapse, technological innovation fast running out of control, a glaring deficit in institutional capacity at all levels of governance, and in the face of all this the global and accelerating rise of extremism, often verging on fascism.

Individually and collectively these trends pose a far greater threat to Australia’s security than the putative Chinese peril. Yet no attempt to form a coherent assessment of these trends, let alone suggest what constructive steps might be open to us
When it comes to reviving the disarmament and arms control agenda, strengthening the global human rights regime, pressing for more effective environmental regulation, or advocating for desperately needed reform of the UN and other global and regional institutions, the Australian government’s response has been one of deafening silence.

The US alliance may not offer adequate protection in the hour of need. But more problematic is the fact that it forecloses here and now the possibility of effective international citizenship.

Can this be in Australia’s national interest?

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