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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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.”

Review of Pacific Plan Essential for an Effective Pacific Islands Forum

Between 31 July and 3 August, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat meetings in Fiji set a tone for the forthcoming leaders’ meetings in the Cook Islands at the end of August.  Much of the media focus surrounding the Pacific has centered on the US involvement in the dialogue as part of its rebalancing, and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand’s changing relations with Fiji.  As the Secretariat meetings have indicated, however, reforming the Pacific Plan to reflect the contemporary political, economic and security conditions in the Pacific will be critical for this year.  Issues of labor mobility and trade integration within the Pacific Islands region will be critical to the continued development and success of the Pacific Plan and the Pacific as a whole. 

A product of the 2004 Auckland Declaration, the Pacific Plan is a ‘living document’ that enables initiatives to adapt with the framework. The Pacific Plan has four pillars aimed at enhancing economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security of the Pacific through regionalism.  Securing actions at the national level has been a paramount concern given the diversity of states and disparity in wealth.

One goal in reviewing the current Pacific Plan should be to improve labor mobility in the region. This goal is steadily gaining traction, but policymakers need to take care to avoid some of the negative aspects of temporary migration and to provide more sustainability.  The Australian Pacific Seasonal Work Pilot Scheme and New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme have been workable models to increase remittances among the island states.  In fact, there are recruiting firms throughout the Pacific that promote workers for both New Zealand and Australian schemes (see, for example, http://www.workreadyvanuatu.com).    

However, the seasonal worker schemes create multiple dependencies on unskilled labor.  Horticulture, viticulture and other industries that have seasonal labor needs are more inclined to take on labor with less ability to make demands for rights and benefits; furthermore, migrant labor provides a pool of labor potentially unavailable or unwilling to do the grunt work required in those industries.  Migrants, on the other hand, become dependent on impermanent, unskilled and unpredictable work.  While remittances are highly valued as essential Pacific economies, the type of work created for seasonal workers is currently not the most sustainable either in terms of returning home as a skilled migrant or with a secure income.   

Such an exchange of labor could be expanded to all Forum Island Countries (FICs) in a way that encourages training and the exchange of skills. (See, for example, doctor exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba as a progressive idea; it hasn’t worked well in practice however due to strong ideological fervor among both states).  For a more skilled and sustainable Pacific economy, training is needed outside of the temporary program, and protections are needed against exploitation.  Migrants and temporary workers are typically the most disadvantaged in in terms of labor rights and the Pacific has the potential to produce a more equitable regional model.

Like the issue of labor mobility, creating a common market and pursuing free trade in the Pacific are goals that require careful attention.  Both Australian and New Zealand foreign ministries have explicitly stated that their approach to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus negotiations differs from their traditional approach to free trade agreements; rather than focusing solely on their states’ commercial interests, Australia and New Zealand aim to promote the development and capacity of FICs.  The two regional powers additionally must maintain competitiveness with potential trade agreements that FICs make with the European Union. 

With ever-increasing collusion among trade, development and foreign policies, taking steps toward free trade agreements is a precondition for aid and greater access to NZ and Australian markets.  The goal of PACER Plus is to start with free trade within the FICs to demonstrate their abilities to cope with such policies.  One problem encountered by the region is that the principles of free trade clash with certain traditional Pacific principles (e.g. property rights).  Regionally, community development solutions such as bulk purchasing invite avenues for creativity and take into consideration the nature and interests of Pacific Island states.

Globalization and the changing international political landscape are creating an increasingly competitive environment in the Pacific.  As the region draws greater attention from China and the US for its geostrategic position and natural resources, the Pacific Islands Forum and its member states should secure a more formidable voice, particularly on issues that impact the region.  An effective review and renewal of the Pacific Plan then must include two of the most noteworthy subjects for development, improved labor mobility and closer economic relations.