Australia’s National Security Strategy: Opportunity is What Labor Makes of It

“To focus only on dangers in the world would be to neglect the opportunities to improve our security environment and shape our strategic landscape. It is as important to seize these opportunities as it is to address threats.” (Commonwealth of Australia, 2013)

Australia’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) was launched on January 23, 2013, just a week before the Labor government announced the next election date. As a follow-up to the 2008 National Security Statement, the NSS cohesively lays out Australia’s national security objectives, risks, outlook and priorities.  A critical part of the strategy is describing Australia’s vision for security, including the “Pillars of Australia’s National Security.” While the document reminds us that the international political environment is in a stage of transition due to the rise of China and India, American ‘rebalancing’ to the Asia-Pacific, resource constraints and technological developments, it paints a rosy picture of the security landscape as something that Australia can – with the help of the United States – tackle; Prime Minister Gillard herself seems to be saying: no worries, mate, we’ve got this.  Rather than putting Australia on alert to mitigate current and imminent threats, the NSS much like the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper emphasizes opportunities that benefit national and regional interests.

Why does Australia need a National Security Strategy?

Australia’s foreign and defense policies depend upon the state’s identities and interests which are amenable to change. While the NSS took seemingly years to plan, it was launched at an appropriate time for Australia’s continued preeminence on the international stage. The NSS provides another avenue for Australia to proclaim that it is a responsible “liberal democracy with deeply held values” and to reinforce the state’s belief in shared laws and norms to organize international society. (p. 3) With the United States ‘rebalancing’ to Asia, including (but not limited to) the American military rotation in Darwin, Australia is arguably more critical than ever for the US in the Asia-Pacific. In contrast to America’s heavy usage of the word, the Australia NSS only mentions freedom once (on page 1) to describe the Australian “way of life.” Furthermore, Australia’s trade and development relationships with regional neighbors provide greater strength to the US as well as a platform for Australia’s interests.

Relatively unscathed by the global recession, Australia must deal with overall market volatility and the effects of resource scarcity. Australian living standards are high, the economy continues to expand, and New Zealanders continue to flock across the ditch to help meet labor shortages; financial success has been due largely to the mining industry boom led by the growth of China and industrialization of other developing countries in Asia and South America. It is discernible then that for Australia economic wellbeing and security are tightly linked. International interdependence through bilateral and multilateral trade and defense arrangements necessitated overlapping policies that seek both peace and prosperity. One aspect sorely lacking from the NSS, however, was a comprehensive section concerning water security given its severity in Australia and increasing significance in Asia.

Pillars of national security

With the release of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, restart of the Pacific Solution, and success of the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme among other policy moves, the Labor-led government is attempting to redefine the state’s role in Oceania as well as the Asia-Pacific. In fact, a significant and surprising pillar of national security is “understanding and being influential in the world, particularly the Asia-Pacific.” (p. 12) Deterring traditional security threats such as terrorism, attacks and organized crime align with pillars of maintaining border integrity, securing and strengthening resilience of Australia and the international environment.

According to the NSS, the US “remains an important anchor for peace and security in [the] region.” (p. 20) For American policymakers, the US is the most important anchor for peace and security in the region, and Australia helps to facilitate that role; the alliance allows for sharing of intelligence and defense technology, joint military exercises, regular dialogue particularly through AUSMIN and cooperative diplomatic efforts.

Prioritizing cooperation to meet national security needs

The NSS promotes a proactive and constructive approach to national security. The word opportunity was mentioned 32 times, and cooperation 36 times. Each section seemingly provided a glimpse of Australia’s desire to collaborate with the US and to strengthen regional organizations such as the East Asia Summit, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Pacific Islands Forum. As an illustration of regional dynamics and a comparison of the opportunities and existing partnerships, in the NSS the United States was mentioned 31 times and China 26 times. An assessment of Australia’s national security outlook delivers priorities that are consistent with the state as an emerging player in international affairs and a liberal democracy.

 The NSS identified the following three priorities over the next five years:

  • Enhanced regional engagement in support of security and prosperity in the Asian Century.
  • Integrated cyber policy and operations to enhance the defence of our digital networks.
  • Effective partnerships to achieve innovative and efficient national security outcomes.

The first and third priorities may appear to be duplicates as they utilize cooperation to secure Australia. However both bilateral and domestic partnerships and regional engagements play important roles depending upon the issue at hand. The NSS strongly advocates for improved cooperation among Australian government departments for pressing problems such as border security. Information-sharing is critical between departments and among governments in facing cyber security challenges.

While there were no specific opportunities identified in the “National Security Opportunities” section in the same way as threats and priorities were listed, the idea was reiterated throughout the National Security Strategy.  Rather, threats create opportunities for domestic collaboration among government departments and international collaboration among states to solve and mitigate challenges. With strong partnerships with neighbors Indonesia and New Zealand, and close ally the United States, Australia will not have to ‘drink with the flies’ (go it alone) when developing regional or global initiatives.   

Despite an overall positive tone that sees Australia shaping the region for the good of national and regional security, the section entitled “Deterring and defeating attacks on Australia and Australia’s interests” was fuel for criticism of Australia’s shrinking defense budget. The NSS acknowledged that because conflict could eventually break out in the Indo-Pacific region, it is necessary

“that we maintain the capacity to protect Australia’s sovereignty, assets, infrastructure and institutions from conventional armed attack, and to contribute to international security efforts where appropriate. The ADF is an essential part of our approach. Maintaining credible high-end capabilities enables us to act decisively when required, and deter would-be adversaries.”

To boast about high-end capabilities, a well-maintained ADF and to continue to pursue interoperability efforts, Australia should not be pursuing defense policies that worry its closest defense ally, the United States. During the launch of the NSS, Gillard misquoted Australian defense spending per capita and stated that Australia was second only to the United States; later the official website amended Gillard’s national security speech to compare Australia among G-7 countries and China, a significant difference. Nonetheless, Australia’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP is ranked 50th in the world.

For domestic security issues and regionally stability it makes sense for Australia to focus more efforts on aid programs and peacekeeping operations. The NSS cites operations in the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste as Pacific successes and missions in Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of extra-regional cooperation. With the “long-term shift in global economic weight from west to east,” (p. 7) resource scarcity and the effects of climate change will, in Australia’s view, create new opportunities as the country adapts to new risks and scenarios.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the Bali Process; the initiative combating people smuggling and managing irregular migration is no less relevant today as the Labor government continues to grapple with incoming ‘boat people’. As the cyber-security scene evolves and related agencies consolidate, Australia’s capabilities in this area will become a feature more interesting to the United States and New Zealand. By recognizing that the state’s national security interests will not necessarily lead to conflict but in fact provide opportunities for cooperation, Australia is conveying a welcome message in its first National Security Strategy. The state’s approach “reflects who we are and where we have come from” and hopefully represents the future of international relations. (p. 3)

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