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AUSMIN 2019 draws attention to growing challenges of ‘grey zone’ security challenges

Secretary Michael R. Pompeo makes introductory remarks at AUSMIN at the Parliament of New South Wales House Jubilee Room with Foreign Minister Payne, Defense Minster Reynolds, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Esper in Sydney (Source WikiCommons)

While much of the focus of the 2019 AUSMIN meeting was around the growing competition between the US and China, the growing challenges of ‘grey zone’ security threats – ranging from asymmetric challenges in the Persian Gulf, to the continued threat of violent extremists and rogue states, and the increasing politicisation of contemporary warfare – have figured strongly in the discussions between the two nations.

For both the Australian public and its policy makers, the rise of Indo-Pacific Asia is serving to exacerbate Australia's long-term identity crisis – while many comparable nations have embraced their geographic position and the wealth of the nation to chart a path towards a clear, concise and considered plan for national development and prestige. 

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Australia emerged from the Second World War as a middle power, essential to maintaining the post-war economic, political and strategic power paradigm established and led by the US. This relationship established as a result of the direct threat to Australia replaced Australia's strategic relationship of dependence on the British Empire and continues to serve as the basis of the nation's strategic policy direction and planning.

Now for the first time in nearly a century, Australia's benevolent 'great power' benefactor, the US, is being challenged by a series of ascending and resurgent peer and near-peer competitors, hell bent on eroding the global order and undermining the economic, political and strategic stability the US, UK, Australia and other allies established throughout the Cold War and into the new millennium.

The adversaries arrayed against Australia and its broader Western allies enjoy a number of advantages, namely the consistency of political leadership, long-term national ambition and a commitment to establish themselves as world leaders. Recognising this, many potential adversaries have sought to leverage political warfare as a potent form of coercion and influence peddling to limit the effectiveness of allied response. 

The latest round of AUSMIN meetings hosted in Sydney over the weekend have built on comments made by Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, AO, DSC at the recent 'War in 2025' Conference hosted by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – with 'grey warfare' figuring strongly on the radars of both nations as they respond to the rapidly evolving global and regional balance of power. 

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Freedom of Navigation and maritime access in the Indo-Pacific and Persian Gulf

With growing concerns around freedom of navigation and access to strategically and economically vital sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC), particularly in the Middle East and South China Sea, both Australia and the US identified the continuing value of the relationship between the two nations and the importance of expanding interoperability and the capacity for both nations to rely on one another to support the 'rules based order'. 

"The United States and Australia shared concerns about threats to freedom of navigation and the uninterrupted passage of maritime trade in the strategic sea-lanes in the Middle East, and noted that attacks on civilian shipping were of grave concern and a serious threat to the safety of navigation," a joint AUSMIN statement said.

"The principals underscored the crucial role that women play in peace and security work around the globe. Both nations remain committed to collaboration in protecting the human rights of women and girls in fragile and conflict-affected contexts and to promoting meaningful participation by women in conflict prevention, security responses, peace-building and relief and recovery efforts." 

The statement expanded on the growing concerns regarding access to the South China Sea in particular, stating: "The ministers and secretaries also expressed concern about disruptive activities in relation to long-standing oil and gas projects as well as fisheries in the South China Sea. They emphasised the importance of upholding freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the sea and of all states acting in accordance with international law.

"They called on all countries to make and pursue their maritime claims in accordance with international law, as reflected in the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS). The ministers and secretaries underscored the importance of the July 2016 decision in the Philippines-China Arbitral Tribunal’s Award, which is binding on the parties. They called for any Code of Conduct to: be fully consistent with international law, in particular UNCLOS; not prejudice the interests of third parties or the rights of states under international law; and support existing, inclusive regional architecture."

Responding to violent extremism in the Indo-Pacific

Despite the successful territorial defeat of ISIS in the Middle East, the insidious nature of violent extremist organisations and the asymmetric nature of these threats remains, particularly as they evolve and continue throughout the region – especially following Australia's leadership role in supporting the Philippines in its struggle against Islamic extremists in the southern Philippines. 

"Recalling the territorial defeat of ISIS (Da’esh) announced in March 2019, the ministers and secretaries reaffirmed their commitment to continuing co-operation under the US-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (Da’esh). Australia and the United States are also working with NATO to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a base for international terrorism. Both countries underscored the need to remain vigilant to the threat of the dispersal of foreign terrorist fighters across the region, including in south-east Asia," the statement declared. 

Countering rogue states 

This focus expanded to include a joint response to the continuing concerns surrounding the development of North Korea's nuclear capabilities and the threats presented by the growing number of rogue state actors: "Both countries reaffirmed the shared objective of North Korea abandoning all its weapons of mass destruction and missile programs as required by multiple UN Security Council Resolutions.

"Australian ministers welcomed the United States’ commitment to continue talks with North Korea toward the goal of final, fully verified denuclearisation of North Korea. The secretaries and ministers intend to continue to work together closely, and with other partners, to maintain pressure on North Korea, including by implementing all existing UN Security Council Resolutions."

Your thoughts

The ADF serves an important role within Australia’s policy making apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and while the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia’s commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.

The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of increasing both the budget and manpower available to the ADF in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

AUSMIN 2019 draws attention to growing challenges of ‘grey zone’ security challenges
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