Australia Plans for Sustainable, Collective Security in the “Asian Century”

Sydney, Australia

Sydney, Australia. Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

In October, the Australian Government released its much-anticipated white paper entitled Australia in the Asian Century.  A collaborative work with public input and stakeholder engagement, the white paper aims to describe the rise of Asia and offers a strategic framework to guide Australia through the ‘Asian Century’ (or least as far as 2025). While much of the paper focuses largely on prospects for improving economic gains, education and cultural ties, I will examine the lone chapter on security entitled “Building sustainable security in the region.”  Australia takes a refreshingly broad view of security which includes traditional as well as nontraditional threats to collective, national and human security.  From the outset, the white paper demonstrates the Australian government’s commitment to focus on more than just hard power, seeking collaborative solutions and understanding the interconnectedness of regional and national issues.  As a public document, the white paper is a way for Australia to clarify its position on the rise of China and India, the increasing competition for natural resources, and the strategic rebalancing of the US in Asia.  

 By taking a comprehensive approach to security, Canberra seeks to mitigate new challenges brought on by the rise of Asia including competition over resources, military modernization by China, India and other middle powers of Asia, and empowerment of non-state actors. The significant focus devoted to transnational threats such as territorial disputes, weapons proliferation as well as human trafficking, terrorism, water and food security, energy security and the effects of climate change shows the importance of regional issues to Australia over domestic security concerns.  Indeed, Australia imparts its knowledge from encounters with water scarcity and resource management, trafficking, irregular migration and terrorism, to assist its neighbors in Asia.  The South Pacific, much like other parts of the Asia-Pacific region, will be at the forefront of effects of climate change; Australia has already worked with Pacific Island states to provide funding for environmental and sustainable development projects.

 The government’s most common answer to current and future threats is international cooperation through a rules-based order.  The primary foreign policy goals established by the white paper include: supporting regional security mechanisms, including equal participation of China and the US in international institutions; and broadening and deepening bilateral relationships.  According to the white paper, “Australia’s longstanding commitment to active middle-power diplomacy, with its focus on practical problem solving, effective implementation and building coalitions with others, will continue to drive [the country’s] approach.” 

 As a newly-elected non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council from 2013, Australia’s commitment to regional issues and a collective approach cannot be overstated.  In congruence with statements from US officials, Australia welcomes a rising China and hopes it will participate more fully in international institutions.  At the same time, Australia lobbied for the US and Russia to join the East Asia Summit, and sees the EAS as a “critical regional institution.”  The November meeting in Cambodia is likely to be a further launching pad for Australia’s goals.  Additionally, the white paper mentions Australia’s strong support of India’s desire for international engagement, particularly with Australia as a future chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation in 2014-15 and the country’s participation in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium.

 Finally, Australia’s aid program is a central way that the country supports human development and human security in Asia. In 2010, 58 percent of Australia’s “aid budget was expended in Asia, the second-highest proportion among all OECD Development Assistance Committee donors, after South Korea.”  With a booming economy that relies increasingly on the purchasing power of the burgeoning middle classes and construction and energy projects throughout Asia, Australia has the financial stability to promote human security projects that also build bilateral trust.  In 2010, Australia signed a 5-year agreement with the International Labor Organization to support programs that “promote sustainable development and fair work, such as improving conditions for factory workers in the garment industry in several Southeast Asian countries.”  With a proclaimed high level of transparency, the Australian government aims to be the world leader in aid effectiveness.  East Asia and the Pacific are Australia’s primary aid focus, and over the next four years Australia plans to become the largest bilateral grant donor to East Asia by increasing assistance by around 48 percent (from $1.32b in 2012-13 to $1.95 by 2015-16).  Australia has as much to gain as China or the US in supporting such development projects; building relationships and supporting developing countries improves Australia’s soft power and the purchasing of Australian goods and services.

 Geopolitical changes and economic advancement in Asia are driving global attention to the region.  Before this white paper was launched, however, Australians had already begun their ‘engagement’ with Asia; former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating even wrote a book on the subject.  With the US ‘rebalancing’ to the Pacific, and all eyes on China during their November leadership transition, Australia appears to be towing the line of both powers to promote a sustainable and prosperous Asia-Pacific.  With improved communication technologies bringing their populations closer than ever before, the collective approach by Australia that seeks improvements in economic and security relationships, cultural exchanges, and protection of human security in more ways than one “Australia is located in the right place at the right time.”

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