The reality of COVID-19 has prompted Australia’s political and strategic apparatus to accept that the nation’s preparedness and resilience to an age of disruption in a globalised world is lacking. While the subject du jour – enhancing Australia’s national resilience, sovereignty and security – is alive and well, the debate means Australia will ultimately be the winner.
With each passing day the impact of the coronavirus upon global supply chains is becoming painfully apparent, with Australia’s economy teetering on the edge of disaster, national resilience declining and public support for a co-ordinated response growing.
However, viewing the impact of the pandemic in isolation to Australia’s broader national security and national resilience further exposes the nation at a point in time when such distinctions are increasingly blurred.
Australia is unlike virtually every other developed nation, it has enjoyed a record near three decades of economic prosperity and stability, buoyed by the immense mineral and resource wealth of the landmass and the benevolence of the post-Second World War political, economic and strategic order.
As a result, both the public and government are relatively unaccustomed to the economic, political and strategic realities of mass social isolation, a comparatively mild form of rationing and what seems to be a relatively low, albeit tragic body count, however, it isn't all doom and gloom as the COVID-19 predicament seems to have shaken the Australian public's confidence in the public policy status quo.
Across the Indo-Pacific, competing economic, political and strategic interests, designs and ambitions are beginning to clash, flying in contrast to the projections of many historians at the end of the Cold War – further compounding these issues is the continued instability caused by the coronavirus and concerns about ecological collapse.
Driven by an unprecedented economic transformation, propelling once developing nations onto the world stage, the region, the globe and its established powers are having to adjust to a dramatically different global power paradigm – one committed to undermining and influencing the fabric of Australian and Western democracies.
Without sounding like a broken record, in this era of increasing nation-state competition, driven largely by the great power competition between the US and China and the subsequent impact on nations, Australia is finding itself at the epicentre of the new global paradigm with unique economic, political and strategic implications for the nation’s national security.
This has prompted an increasing number of strategic policy experts, journalists and politicians to increasingly vocalise the growing demands from the Australian public to do more to ensure Australia's economic, political and strategic integrity.
Providing further insight in the swirling maelstrom of debate surrounding the development and implementation of a co-ordinated response to ensure Australia's long-term national resilience, security and sovereignty in an increasingly disrupted world, Paul Kelly has penned a piece drawing together the major players of the debate.
Understanding the difference between 'national security' and 'national resilience'
The increasing vulnerability and shortfalls of Australia's infrastructure networks, broad sectors of the national economy, environment and the population as a whole all serve as visible challenges to the nation's resilience and capacity to withstand not only increasing global and regional competition, but equally thrive in an age of disruption.
National resilience, as opposed to national security, takes on a more diverse array of challenges for national political and strategic leaders to accommodate, directly impacting the future stability and viability of nations and populations.
Accordingly, the subject of National Resilience and sovereignty has traditionally focused on the impact of natural disasters and similar national emergencies and the capacity of a nation to survive and thrive post-disaster.
Australia has recognised this factor, and formed the National Resilience Taskforce in April 2018 under the former minister for law enforcement and cyber security, now Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor, with the focus on "national direction needed to underline climate and disaster risk and improve national resilience across all sectors in Australia".
This taskforce identified key drivers impacting the nation's resilience, including:
- Natural hazards are more frequent and intense;
- Essential services are interconnected and interdependent;
- People and assets are more exposed and vulnerable;
- Disaster impacts are long-term and complex;
- The costs of disasters are growing; and
- The momentum to address the financial impacts of a changing climate is building.
It is clear that given the impact of Australia's cyclical droughts, monsoonal rains and ravaging bushfires, these natural disasters that would traditionally fall under the 'national resilience' category are equally important factors in maintaining long-term national security objectives.
Equally important factors that traditionally fall under the 'national security' category but would be equally at home in the resilience category are factors like energy, water and resource security, infrastructure and industry development, diversity and economic competitiveness and traditional 'hard power' concepts like defence and intelligence all serve as essential components for a nation's resilience and sovereignty.
Building on these overlapping factors, Kelly, speaking to former Department of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade and ASIO chief Dennis Richardson with both critical insights and sage advice to better prepare the nation and its policymakers for the challenging decades ahead.
"Richardson warns government cannot be turned over to a sweeping national security agenda fuelled by anti-China sentiment, pandemic-induced multiple security alarms, protectionist industry policy and changes to elevate security over economic and foreign investment necessities," Kelly states.
"He says reviews to enhance Australia’s resilience are necessary post-pandemic and backs an increase in defence spending beyond 2 per cent of GDP. But he delivers three stark warnings — self-reliance is counter-productive if it weakens the economy; substantial Australian self-reliance only comes with a high financial cost; and no justification exists for recasting foreign investment through a lens that prioritises national security.
"Richardson warns against a 'mono-dimensional view of government' when, by contrast, the success of Australia’s democracy has long been the balance it has struck across competing public needs."
Richardson spells out some points for consideration within the development of a broader, integrated approach to developing national security, resilience and sovereignty, stating, "A strong economy is foundational to national security.
"But when it comes to putting a whole range of things under the national security banner, my response is ‘no way’. First, it is unnecessary. Second, it would unduly hinder economic growth after the pandemic.
"You don’t want people with national security expertise to be put over and above economists when it comes to economic policy or above medical experts when it comes to pandemics. Putting most things under a national security umbrella would significantly dilute the quality of advice and expertise going to government."
Imagine the possibilities
Each of these factors is touched upon by respected strategist and policy expert Alan Dupont in a piece for the Weekend Australian, titled 'Coronavirus: Golden opportunity to broaden and strengthen our national security', in which Dupont sets the scene, stating: "Despite its terrible toll, the pandemic provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unite the country around a security agenda that will reshape how we live in a post-COVID-19 world.
"How this agenda will be constituted and implemented is for debate. But security experts increasingly believe national security policy should be more holistic, integrated and focused on making us resilient to such shocks."
Building on this, Dupont proposes a number of possibilities to both stimulate public debate and prompt Australia's political leaders into taking action at a time when the Australian public is demanding not only leadership, but also a plan to capitalise upon the immense opportunity presented by the rise of the Indo-Pacific.
"In recent weeks, there have been calls for 'smart' sovereignty, less dependence on global supply chains, rejuvenating our vanishingly merchant navy, building a non-military system of national service, hardening the nation’s infrastructure and adopting the idea of total defence," he articulates.
"All these ideas have merit, and bringing the best of them together in a revamped security strategy won’t be as difficult, or expensive, as traditionalists think. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, provided governments are willing to learn from our mistakes, build on the national security machinery already in place and work across the political divide to build a new strategic consensus."
These points are perfectly encapsulated by Richardson, who states, "Over the next 10 years we’re going to be faced with decisions either to cut back on the defence capability we require or to increase defence spending beyond 2 per cent.
"The classic trade-off between guns and butter will apply inevitably after the pandemic. But there are balances you need to strike. For example, if you want self-reliance and if you want everything to be Australian-made you’re going to need to increase the defence budget very significantly but you won’t get more capability for it because, by and large, what you get in Australia will cost more than what you can get elsewhere."
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Despite the nation’s virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, agricultural and industrial potential, there is a lack of a cohesive national security strategy integrating the development of individual yet complementary public policy strategies to support a more robust Australian role in the region.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?
Further complicating the nation’s calculations is the declining diversity of the national economy, the ever-present challenge of climate change impacting droughts, bushfires and floods, Australia’s energy security and the infrastructure needed to ensure national resilience.
Let us know your thoughts and ideas about the development of a holistic national security strategy and the role of a minister for national security to co-ordinate the nation’s response to mounting pressure from nation-state and asymmetric challenges in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected] or [email protected].