Australia’s National Security Strategy

Feb 8, 2023
Asia and Australia flags map symbols in 3D Image: iStock

To paraphrase former US President, Theodore Roosevelt, Australia’s national security is best achieved by talking softly while carrying a formidable stick as a deterrent. 

For decades following World War II, American leadership provided both security and economic order for the Indo-Pacific region. This rules-based system underpinned stability and unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in our region.

But inevitably this economic growth has also led to a reshaping of power in the region impacting both the security and economic orders. As Foreign Affairs Minister, Penny Wong, has stated, we now:

“face the most challenging strategic circumstances in the post-war period. The region is home to the largest military build up anywhere in the world … with limited transparency and reassurance. We are seeing the region become more dangerous and volatile.”

In response to these new challenges, Australia’s national security strategy needs to be based on a combination of “Soft” and “Hard” power, as provided by diplomacy and military capability respectively. In short, as Minister Wong also said, “greater military capability is a prerequisite, but not enough to keep us safe”. Both forms of power are needed to ensure our national security, and they should reinforce each other.

Today, this article, the first in a series of four, discusses how best to build and use our soft power.

But as explained in the second instalment of this series, soft power must also be backed by security arrangements with other countries as well as by hard power. Accordingly, in the second, third and fourth articles in the series, which follow in P&I over the next three days, we will discuss consecutively:

  • Alliances with other countries to deter military aggression from a common potential adversary, which can be seen as an extension both of diplomatic soft power and hard power
  • Australia’s own self-reliant military capability to deter aggression
  • the role of nuclear powered submarines in Australia’s future defence.

Both alliances and independent military capability are typically closely related as they often serve a common purpose. It is, however, convenient to discuss them separately so tomorrow Part 2 of this series will focus on the role of alliances in our national security strategy. The next day in Part 3, we will discuss how best to build Australia’s own hard power by ensuring the necessary self-reliant military capability to provide a conventional (non-nuclear) defence. And finally, in Part 4 we will consider the critical importance of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia’s future military capability and some of the key factors to be weighed in their acquisition.

Part 1: Speaking softly: the role of soft power and diplomacy

Soft power is the ability to achieve preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion. It relies on building cooperative relations with partner countries with a focus on common interests and thus gaining their respect.

Unfortunately, in the last decade, under the various Coalition Governments, the importance of soft power was neglected to a significant degree. While there were some useful achievements, particularly forging a closer relationship with Japan and helping to resuscitate the QUAD, the security services appeared to play a much greater role in Australia’s foreign policy, to the detriment of the ongoing diplomacy in the region undertaken by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Combined with a disposition to allow domestic political considerations to influence our diplomatic posture – such as openly talking of war with China and blaming that country for the pandemic – the consequent emphasis on a more muscular approach to relationships with our neighbours may well have contributed to many of our recent problems.

Most importantly, there was a major shift in Australia’s foreign policy following the release by the Trump Administration of a New National Security Strategy (NSS) for the US at the end of 2017. This new strategy of ‘geographical competition’ with China not only aimed to contain China militarily, but also economically, with the US withdrawing from regional economic partnerships that it had previously proposed.

As Geoff Raby, Australia’s former Ambassador to China, noted in 2020: “From this time, the weight of Australia’s foreign and strategic policy began shifting from cooperation with China to pushing back against it. … Since then, Australia has had a fundamental contradiction at the heart of its foreign policy. It talks the talk of engagement … but walks the walk of competition and containment as stated so baldly in the NSS.”

Apart from its futility, the idea of seeking to contain China appears to be at odds with our heavy investment in trade with a rapidly developing Chinese economy that has made Australia one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Ironically, while the US claimed to “have Australia’s back” as China shut down elements of our export trade, American industry was happy to fill the gap.

Since its election last May, however, the Albanese Labor Government has sought to re-engage with the region and chart a course through the complex web of international rivalry between China and the United States.

As Minister Wong put it in a recent speech in the US: “We want to live in a region that is open, stable, prosperous and respectful of sovereignty.” This is the best foundation for the region’s security, and thus for our own security. Likewise, the region has benefited enormously from China’s phenomenal economic growth as China is Australia’s and most other regional countries’ biggest trading partner.

Accordingly, the Australian Government is returning to the table, re-opening the dialogue with China, and supporting the region’s aspirations for economic development, critical infrastructure, and clean energy transition, and playing a constructive role on climate change.

As Kevin Rudd has said, Australia and China should maximise bilateral economic and people-to-people engagement to the benefit of both countries, and they should also collaborate in all forums of global governance on issues such as climate change, pandemic management and global financial and trade relations. Equally Australia should be seeking opportunities to strengthen multilateral engagement with Southeast Asia and our support for the island countries in the Pacific and Indian oceans should not just be grounded in our security fears.

Importantly, the Government recognises that economic security and prosperity is a critical foundation of national security in Australia, as elsewhere. As Minister Wong says: “We need to show our partners that we want to do business and create wealth with them.”

In this regard, Minister Wong sees the QUAD as an economic partnership, “working alongside ASEAN and other regional architecture to advance our shared interests with the countries of Southeast Asia”. She also thinks that America needs to do more to improve its economic engagement with the region, and that their absence from the CPTPP (which it initiated) continues to rankle with some countries.

A core Australian foreign policy priority, therefore, is to support enhanced American economic engagement in the Indo-Pacific. Unfortunately, while the US was the leading nation in establishing the post-war rules-based system of international trade, in terms of its domestic politics it is now divided on its policy position on the rules and protocols oversighted by the World Trade Organisation and, indeed, on the WTO’s funding. It has taken significant actions in relation to trade with China. The Coalition was silent on this issue, as it habitually was on any matter that might involve making even the slightest waves in Washington. There is now a possibility of the world being divided into trading blocs, a change that the US may do little to prevent and may even support. This is definitely not in Australia’s national interest.

At the same time the Government recognises that many countries in our region are not enthusiastic about great power competition and don’t want to be forced to take sides. Australia will be most effective in the diplomatic sphere if it does more listening rather than lecturing and seeks to create choices rather than demanding that our neighbours take sides between the US and China. This approach, which is both more realistic and constructive, appears to have characterised the recent meetings between Minister Wong and the island states of the South Pacific.

This represents a return to our former position where Australia made it clear that we didn’t wish to become involved with other countries in the way they balanced their interests between the United States and China. But under the Morrison Government, Australia was so often seen as a mouthpiece for America that it weakened our credibility within the region just when we needed it most.

As the distinguished scholar and former Singapore diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani has said, ASEAN countries want to have good relations with both America and China, and the wisest policy for Australia is to align ourselves with the ASEAN position where we can. That way we could play a significant bridging role between Beijing and Washington. Indeed, as Minister Wong has said, “the value of our engagement in the region is central to the value we add in our alliance with the United States”.

Of course, Australia is not a non-aligned country and will need to push back when its interests and values are challenged. Yet as Geoff Raby suggests, Australia should learn the Asian way of discriminating between different issues and thereby being able to walk both sides of the street. According to Raby, “few countries have a more fractious relationship with China than Japan, but normal, cordial diplomatic relations are sustained, while the economic relationship goes from strength to strength.”

Australia needs to work with other nations on specific issues of national interest, even where they are not like-minded in terms of adherence to liberal values, including respect for human rights. One example is Vietnam, where Australia appears to be developing a mutually beneficial relationship based on similar economic and national security objectives.

Our ability to push back should our values be threatened will be enhanced if we have an ongoing dialogue, especially with China. For example, the renewed discussion at ministerial level has meant that issues that offend Australian values – unexplained detention of Australian citizens in China, human rights matters including Xinjiang and Hong Kong, press and religious freedoms – can now be raised and discussed at senior government levels.

Furthermore, as Geoff Raby says, “an inclusive framework of norms, rules and habits of consultation which include China and of which it is an author [our emphasis], will be the best means of constraining bad behaviour”.

In conclusion, it is important to emphasise that Australia’s foreign policy and diplomatic objectives are not identical with those of the United States. The Albanese Government is right when it says in relation to China, that: “We will cooperate where we can, we will disagree where we must, and we will engage in our national interest.” But it is important that the US understands that our strategic position is different from theirs simply as a result of our respective geography. The US is a global power situated half a world away from this region in which we live. Inevitably, Australia’s priorities in our relations with neighbouring countries will not always be the same as those of the United States.

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