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Responding to ‘grey zone’ tactics with a values-based, national agenda

As the fabric of Australian and Western democracies come under ever increasing pressure from totalitarian governments, organised crime and violent extremism, how do we respond? Over the course of recent history, many Australian leaders – political, cultural, business and military – have called for a values-based, national response.

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. 

Defined by a series of 'common values', Australia, the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand in conjunction with broader global alliances and partnerships have long sought to maintain the post-Second World War neo-liberal, economic, political and geo-strategic order with varying degrees of success. 

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Repeated incursions in the Middle East, combined with regime change operations, political operations with former Soviet states in eastern Europe and parts of central Asia, as well as with disastrous engagements on the African continent, have yielded little-to-no longstanding benefit for the once victorious allies guided by the promise of egalitarian, neo-liberal, democratic ideals. 

In a bitter twist of irony for these nations, the emerging and resurgent peer and near-peer competitors, Russia and China, have responded in kind, embarking on a period of combined, 'hybrid' or 'grey zone' conflict and political influence peddling, across the Five Eyes and into Europe, the Indo-Pacific and Asia – challenging the values Australia and its allies pride themselves on. 

A period of disruption and Australia's role in the new balance of power 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has used repeated public appearances and state visits to reaffirm Australia's commitment to a global 'rules based order' one increasingly defined by the post-Second World War paradigm. 

Recently, Prime Minister Scott Morrison used a lecture for the Lowy Institute to articulate Australia’s interests in a world in transition – with a focus on external factors being largely responsible for the challenges facing the nation and its direction in the Indo-Pacific.

One of the Prime Minister's primary focuses was the period of immense disruption sweeping throughout the region and the broader globe, ranging from technological disruption, through to emerging political, economic and strategic competition in an increasingly 'multi-polar' world. 

"Australia cannot be an indifferent bystander to these events that impact our livelihoods, our safety and our sovereignty. We must, as we have done previously, cultivate, marshal and bring our influence to bear to protect and promote our national interests," Prime Minister Morrison said. 

"Tonight I would like to talk about the new and challenging world that Australia faces. And how my government is responding to these challenges. Ladies and gentlemen, we are living in a world in transition that former US Treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, has described as 'an unusually delicate moment in time'.

"A new economic and political order is still taking shape. We have entered a new era of strategic competition – a not unnatural result of shifting power dynamics, in our modern, more multi-polar world and globalised economy.

"It is a time of technological disruption, some of which is welcomed, some resented and feared. A time when global supply chains have become integrated to an unprecedented degree, and more of our economies are dependent on global trade than at any other time, including the major economic powers of the US, China, Japan and Europe."

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. 

Multiple battlegrounds 

Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, AO, DSC, has identified the growing complexity of the 'grey zone' battlespace, the contest of ideas and the unified response Australia and its allies will be required to embrace in order to respond to these emerging challenges – particularly from peer and near-peer competitors. 

"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."

This concept is something that was highlighted during the latest round of AUSMIN meetings hosted in Sydney in August 2019 – which saw Australia's defence and foreign ministers and their US counterparts, alongside their respective Chiefs of Defence, articulate the shared concerns: 

"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." 

Parry with a national plan and strategy

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. 

There are a number of recognised great powers within the context of contemporary international relations – with Great Britain, France, India and Russia recognised as nuclear capable great powers, while Germany, Italy, Japan and increasingly Brazil are identified as conventional great powers. 

The majority of these recognised great power nations have a history of embracing a unifying goal, a concept of 'manifest destiny', which plays a central role in directing the political, economic and, critically, strategic and military development of these nations and their position within the international community. 

By contrast, Australia's history of dependence on larger powers has hindered its ability to emerge as a great power.

This strategic dependence is further exacerbated by a lack of cohesive strategy and planning for the long-term development of Australia in the new regional and global power paradigm. Responding to this now century-long paradigm requires supporting the Australian public invest in the future of the nation and the role it will play in the rapidly changing Indo-Pacific order. 

Using elements of strength exhibited by potential state-based adversaries, namely the cohesive nature of their national identity – clearly defined, articulated and planned goals – further strengthen the domestic resilience in the face of hostile political warfare, while also ensuring that should the unimaginable of direct state v state conflict become unavoidable, the nation and its allies are well positioned to defend against the horrors of global tyranny. 

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. 

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 partisan and bipartisan agenda setting 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.

Responding to ‘grey zone’ tactics with a values-based, national agenda
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