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 titled 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 is considered a supplement to the White Paper, Australia in
the Asian Century presented by Premier Gillard last October.
The paper outlines the country's assessment of priorities, risks, and
The four major espoused objectives are; To protect and strengthen sovereignty;
To ensure a safe ad resilient population; To secure the nation's assets,
infrastructure and institutions; and To promote a favorable international
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; Proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction; Serious and organized crime; State based conflict
or coercion affecting Australia's interests; and Terrorism and violent
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 the cost to Australian interests while this diplomatic sensitivity
is not acknowledged.
The paper still struggles to define a unique Australia-China relationship and is
still unwilling to accept the 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
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
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 within the paper about
Australia's place in the world, show undertones of 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?