Australia’s National Security Strategy: it’s more than Asia
30 Jan 2013|

The release of Australia’s new National Security Strategy raises a number of issues, of which two seem preeminent. One is a growing gap between the opinions of the media and public and those of the small groups concerned with policy advice and policymaking. The other is an equally significant gap between policy guidance intended to seem stable and predictable over a few years and the realities of an increasing unpredictable and volatile international environment.

At first sight the paper seems carefully phased, largely appropriate and, as Michael l’Estrange has pointed out, even subtle. Its statement of principles seems obvious. Many of its views go, helpfully, far beyond the generalities of previous white papers. One example is the priority given to cyber security. That inevitably involves not just attention to countries in other quarters of the world but to a variety of non-state, criminal and mobile individuals and groups who might be located anywhere. They pose multiple threats; industrial espionage or the theft of patents, hacking into private email and other communications or penetration of government and intelligence agency computers. Some may even have no interest in Australian secrets per se but seek access to US or British intelligence or defence networks via Australian systems. The origins of such threats can’t be geographically defined.

Nevertheless, there’s much in this policy statement, especially in its generalisations, that is debatable. ‘Asia’, ‘the Asia-Pacific’, and especially the ’Asian Century’ are abstractions, not ways of describing reality. ‘Asia’ is not a unit economically, politically, demographically or in any other way. China and Japan are almost at daggers drawn, as are India and Pakistan. China is not within sight of matching the United States, militarily or economically, nor in innovation. Even if China’s GDP overtakes the US, that will be a mere statistical aggregate, bearing no necessary relation to global financial or military power, technological leadership or innovative capacity. Not for nothing has China in the last 30 years sent 2.5 million students abroad to developed countries.

The paper also assumes, as does the wider public, that serious dangers to Australia must stem from geographic contiguity. Hence ADF deployments are widely accepted for disaster relief at home or peacekeeping in the Solomons or East Timor, while deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan have been much more controversial.

It would be wise to pay more attention to our own history. The realities of power relate not only to military or political culture, economics or even geography, but to language, religion, race and sentiment. There’s a visible backlash against globalisation in the current reassertion of competition between nations. None of the major powers, singly or in combination, look in the least likely to succeed in imposing an effective global, or even regional, security system in Africa or Asia. Indeed, the world has entered, not for the first time—and surely not for the last—what the Chinese used to call a ‘time of troubles’.

For Australia, the reality is that there are few significant choices to be made between ‘our region’ and the rest of the world. The entire history of Australian interests and engagements, since before Federation, has been to do with global rather than narrowly regional and local involvements. Military activities have ranged from Southern Africa to France, Palestine, Afghanistan, Eastern Siberia, Korea and Japan. But, secondly and even more importantly, security issues and policies long ago ceased to be purely military matters. In the contemporary world they also have to do with disaster relief, aid programs of many kinds, commercial investment, financial loans and a host of other activities. Many of the security issues turn out to be stabilisation exercises in and with a civil society. Soldiers have had to learn to be not just skilled fighters but policemen, traffic wardens, aid givers, and even child minders.

A few other points illustrate the continuing global nature of Australian interests. The first is also the most obvious; Australia doesn’t have, and never has had, any possibility of maintaining its military or intelligence capabilities without foreign production, technology, weaponry and equipment, training and advice. Interoperability with allies is one of the main questions in all defence acquisition decisions. The so-called ‘Anglosphere’ continues to play a critical role in these matters.

Furthermore, there are obvious, major and continuing distant threats. Arguably the single most dangerous current conflicts in the world are the religious wars of the Islamic world. The most dramatic is probably that by jihadis fighting what they see as a defensive war against their Western, often Christian, enemies. But the more important is that between Sunni and Shia versions of Islam. Sunni Salafist extremists have been building their influence through the Islamic world for years, from Morocco into sub-Saharan Africa, through Libya, Egypt and Somalia and north through Syria and Iraq and beyond, into Afghanistan and the Russian Islamic republics. That’s why Russia continues to side with the Shia rulers of Iran and Iran’s pro-Shia allies in Syria fighting largely Sunni ‘rebels’ in a civil war. And it’s also why the US-led campaign in Afghanistan has, among other things, served the interests of a China anxious to avoid having such radicals penetrate the Muslim population of its vast Xinjiang province. Australia must be involved when its neighbour Indonesia is the most populous state in an Islamic world being rocked all the way from Morocco to Bali.

Nor is it likely that the constellation of global power will remain unchanged for long. For instance, while the major Australian media seem to have paid very little attention, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has laid down markers for a challenge to the shape and size of the evolving European Union. That accompanies moves to create a trans-Atlantic, US–European security grouping as well as a free trade area. It might within a few years create the most powerful military, technological and economic grouping in the world—and one with multiple links with Australia

In other words, it’s a practical and intellectual error to try to classify security-related issues or problems in terms of the security of the Australian continent or of their proximity to, or distance from, Australia’s shores. Our security will continue to be strongly influenced, even dictated, by geographically distant events and decisions, as it has always been.

Harry Gelber is emeritus professor at the School of Government, University of Tasmania.