While the global and regional period of strategic competition between the US and China is starting to enter a new phase, Australia is just beginning to grasp the importance of its role within both the broader 'rules-based' order established and led by the US since the end of the Second World War and increasingly within the prism of the Indo-Pacific's rapidly evolving balance of power.
The traditional methods of nations exercising their 'hard' and 'soft' power is one that has been heavily focused on and will continue to play an important role in understanding what many around the region and indeed the world are beginning to recognise as a potential second Cold War, however the advent of 'grey zone' tactics and asymmetric security challenges particularly those leveraged by totalitarian governments in Russia and China, have emerged as an area of challenge for Australia.
This unconventional approach to statecraft and the increasing politicisation of warfare and strategic competition has been recognised as one of the great tactical and strategic challenges of the modern era, with Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, in particular highlighting the importance of responding to such security challenges.
The adversaries array 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.
GEN Campbell identified not only the growing importance of political warfare, but also its invasive nature in his speech at the recent 'War in 2025' Conference, saying, "Political warfare subverts and undermines. It penetrates the mind. It seeks to influence, to subdue, to overpower, to disrupt ... It can be covert or overt, a background of white noise or loud and compelling. It’s not limited by the constructs or constructions of peace or peacetime. It’s constant and scalable, and most importantly, it adapts. Political warfare has a long and fascinating history."
Australia's universities and centres of higher learning have emerged as a key flash point in this ongoing global and regional period of strategic competition – widely recognised around the world as leaders in the research and development, commercialisation and knowledge sharing capability which has drawn the interest of foreign students and commercial entities.
Enter the the national security lens as both the Australian government and US counterparts have recognised the growing influence, potential and inherent vulnerability of Australia's centres of higher learning to foreign espionage and influence as a result of the increasing recognition and globalisation of the higher education sector.
US calling in a favour
Both the Australian government and the US Congress have recognised both the capacity of Australia's universities to be world leaders in critical research and development capabilities that may have national security implications, ranging from materials engineering, artificial intelligence, cyber security and warfare advanced aerodynamics through to hypersonics and human enhancing medical technology, and the inherent vulnerability of such institutions in a Western liberal democracy.
In response, the US Congress has begun debating a series of legislation to address concerns regarding the vulnerability of US universities and their potential exposure to foreign influence and intelligence gathering in sensitive areas that may directly impact and hinder critical national security – in particular, the PLA Visa Security Act which seeks to ban visas for "individuals who are employed, funded or otherwise sponsored by the Chinese People's Liberation Army" and also focuses on the Five Eyes alliance framework, including Australia.
This piece of legislation is further strengthened by the Protect our Universities Act, which heralds back to the early days of the Cold War where both sides closely guarded critical information, while protecting the innovative hearts of research and development institutions within American universities with a focus on additional extensive screening for foreign students – most notably, Chinese, Russian and Iranian students participating in "sensitive research projects".
Universities as a fundamental input for capability
Building on this, Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has initiated the the consultation with Australia's universities amid growing government and public concern about the vulnerability of Australia's academic and research and development apparatus to foreign influence, foreign interference, espionage and increasingly, concerns around financial dependence influence all of the above mentioned factors.
Australia's rapidly developing defence industry and more broadly the Australian economy has an important role to play in supporting and nurturing the next generation of Australian research and development academics, while also ensuring that leading-edge capability developments, combined with expanded commercial opportunities and national security remain paramount with a focus on keeping the capability local.
Former Commander, Forces Command, Australian Army, turned Adjunct Professor for Monash University and director of L3 Technologies Australia, Gus McLachlan, told Defence Connect, "The feedback from industry around the defence industrial capability plan from industry has been well received and it has made a real difference, the next question is how do we create that same level of engagement into our research and development sector, some of that will be the vibrant start-up companies, but some of that is our vibrant university sector."
"At the moment it is still relatively transactional out there, you bid on a funding proposal through the research council or the next-gen tech fund, I think the next-step in the maturity around that relationship will be multi-year partnerships with deeper funding. That is going to be necessary because there are very real requirements around security.
"The simple reality is that if Defence puts money into the research sector, it expects that it is the beneficiary of that material, which means data is protected, there is access control and we know who has access and is only capable with closer relationships."
McLachlan poses an important question around attracting Australia's young academics, research and development experts and innovative leaders to the national security space and the importance such relationships will play in furthering the nation's national security and the importance industry, government and universities can play in the future direction and security of the nation.
Whether Australia's political leaders and public will it, totalitarian regimes are becoming increasingly powerful and assertive, challenging the values and virtues for which the West stands. This rise of tyranny requires that Australia embrace what will become an increasingly important role in supporting the maintenance of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order the nation is an essential part of.
The nation's leading edge universities and research and development capabilities will play a critically important role in the nation's enduring economic, political and strategic national security – they also support the development of Australia's sovereign industrial capability and the nation's capacity to embrace next-generation technologies ranging from advanced manufacturing, through to quantum computing.
Accordingly, it is becoming increasingly important not only to help protect the nation's centres of higher learning and education, but also provide and nurture the links between Australia's academic institutions and the rapidly evolving and often world leading industrial capabilities to ensure a qualitative edge for the Australian warfighter, with additional national security advantages.