Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo levelled a stark and foreboding warning to Australia – Victoria’s pursuit of funding under the Belt and Road Initiative could severely jeopardise the linchpin of Australia’s strategic policy. This is a warning that shouldn’t fall on deaf ears, but it also provides clues that Australia needs to do more for itself.
Global history has been defined by the competing economic, political and strategic ambitions and the ensuing conflagrations of “great powers” as these interests bring them into direct, kinetic confrontation with one another.
These powers typically combine a range of characteristics that set them apart from lower-tier middle and minor powers, including an often complementary balance of hard and soft power dynamics, such as military and economic strength and diplomatic, humanitarian assistance and cultural influence.
Australia as both a continent and a nation is unique in its position, enjoying relative geographic isolation from the flashpoints of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century. Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and industrial potential, the nation has been able to embrace vastly different approaches to the nation’s strategic role and responsibilities.
The nation’s history of strategic policy has evolved a great deal since the end of the Second World War – when the nation was once directly engaged in regional strategic and security affairs, actively deterring aggression and hostility in Malaya during the Konfrontasi and communist aggression in Korea and Vietnam as part of the “Forward Defence” policy.
Growing domestic political changes following Vietnam saw a dramatic shift in the nation’s defence policy and the rise of the “Defence of Australia” doctrine – a doctrine that advocated for the retreat of Australia’s forward military presence in the Indo-Pacific and a focus on the defence of the Australian continent and its direct approaches.
This shift towards focusing on the direct defence of the Australian mainland dramatically altered the nation’s approach to intervention in subsequent regional security matters. These included Australia’s intervention in East Timor and later, to a lesser extent, in the Solomon Islands and Fiji during the early to mid-2000s.
Each of these missions were further followed by subsequent humanitarian and disaster relief deployments throughout the region, each stretching the Australian Defence Force’s capacity to juggle multiple concurrent operations.
Despite this rather stark course of evolution, the Australia-US relationship has served as the foundation of the nation's geopolitical, economic and strategic relationships, however, the rise of China and its own interests, coupled with the economic, political and strategic impact of COVID-19, has exposed the limitations of the US both in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly around the globe.
BRI could literally be the 'good intentions' the road to hell is paved with
Furthermore, domestic agendas across competing political jurisdictions have served to expose Australia to the mounting period of great power tensions and competition, as China flexes its increasing soft power and influence peddling, with Victoria's pursuit of infrastructure funding as part of Beijing's contentious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) serving as a key flashpoint.
Over the weekend, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a firm, concerning warning to Australia regarding Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' pursuit of BRI funding: "I don’t know the nature of those projects [Victorian infrastructure projects] precisely, but to the extent they have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens, or security networks for our defence and intelligence communities, we will simply disconnect, we will simply separate.
"We’re going to preserve trust in networks for important information. We hope our friends and partners and allies across the world, especially our Five Eyes partners like Australia, will do the same."
Nevertheless, US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse jnr moved to reassure Australia that the 'special relationship' between the two nations would remain firm and resolute, telling the ABC over the weekend, "The United States has absolute confidence in the Australian government's ability to protect the security of its telecommunications networks and those of its Five Eyes partners.
"We have made no secret of our concerns about 5G, and we commend Australia for its leadership on the issue. We are not aware that Victoria has engaged in any concrete projects under BRI, let alone projects impinging on telecommunications networks, which we understand are a federal matter.
"If there were telecommunications initiatives that we thought put the integrity of our networks at risk, of course we would have to take a close look at that, as the Secretary suggested."
Washington's emphasis on its national interests and national security shouldn't come as a shock, after all, the primary responsibility of any government is to ensure the safety, security and prosperity of its own people.
This becomes particularly relevant as Beijing's Global Times responded with goading words for both Australia and the US, stating "[Australia should] be well prepared to be abandoned at any time. Obviously, what is on the mind of Pompeo and his likes is only US self-interests, and Washington is not going to foot the bill for the lost Australian jobs."
So, with that in mind, how can Canberra, working collaboratively with the respective state, territory and local government jurisdictions, ensure that Australia and its interests remain viable and secure, while maximising the post-COVID economic recovery and push for greater sovereignty that is now being demanded by the Australian public?
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.