When viewed in isolation, the recently announced Defence Strategy Update and supporting $270 billion capability investment is a pivotal step change in the nation’s approach to the Indo-Pacific, however without the support of the entire breadth of national power it will still only be an example of a glass half-full.
As the threads of the post-Second World War economic, political and geo-strategic order continue to unravel, many emerging and reemerging peer competitors are leveraging 'whole-of-government' approaches to maximise their influence, prosperity and security in an increasingly troubling period of time.
While the 'whole-of-government' approach to public policy development and international relations has long been characterised by authoritarian regimes like China and Russia, many democratic great powers, namely the US, UK and France have all leveraged co-ordinated strategies to maximise the impact of economic and industrial development, social and international relations and of course traditional defence and national security apparatus.
Across the globe the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order appears to be in tatters, the impact of COVID-19 has exposed a startling over dependence on global supply chains, with the continued threat of asymmetric competitors, political warfare and broader global trends each serving to impact the security and sovereignty of many nations, including Australia.
Adding further fuel to the fire is the global and more localised impacts of COVID-19, which range from recognising the impact of vulnerable, global supply chains upon national security as many leading nations, long advocates of "closer collaboration and economic integration", grasp at the life boats of nation-state to secure their national interest.
Despite its relative isolation, Australia's position as a global trading nation, entrenched in the maintenance and expansion of the post-Second World War order has left the nation at a unique and troubling cross roads, particularly as its two largest and most influential “great and powerful” friends: the US and the UK appear to be floundering against the tide of history.
With the spectre of COVID-19 far from diminished across the globe and waves of civil unrest and violence tearing their way across the US, and the UK still under strict lock downs, these two great powers are limited in their capacity to actively and assertively intervene on behalf of their allies around the world, despite intent.
The not so benign Indo-Pacific
The recent launch of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds while an important step forward is still an example of the nation's siloed approach to developing true national resilience and security at this period of time, best described by the Prime Minister: "Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War, and trends including military modernisation, technological disruption and the risk of state-on-state conflict are further complicating our nation’s strategic circumstances.
"The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive. These trends are continuing and will potentially sharpen as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic."
These realities and the impact of the factors was recently well identified and articulated by the Lowy Institute, which revealed in polling of the Australian public as they come to terms with the early stages and impacts of a new era of 'great power competition'.
"The view from Australia today is sobering. Having barely emerged from the bushfire crisis, we were struck with a global pandemic and our borders remain closed to the world," Alex Oliver and Natasha Kassam explain.
"Our great ally, the US, is still deep in the health crisis and preoccupied with domestic social discord. Our largest trading partner, China, is wielding its economic leverage over us and threatens to do more as we enter our first recession in 29 years.
"Against this backdrop the 2020 Lowy Institute Poll, released on Wednesday, finds Australians feel far more distrustful, pessimistic and less secure than at any point in its 16-year history.
"Only half of Australians report feeling safe, a remarkable 28-point drop from 2018. And the same number feel optimistic about Australia’s economic performance in the next decade, the lowest level of economic optimism recorded in the poll."
The polling of just under 2,500 adult Australians revealed some startling details about the sentiments held by the Australian public towards our largest trading partner and emerging competitor, including that eight in 10 Australians would "approve of travel and financial sanctions on Chinese officials associated with human rights abuses".
This polling also revealed that Australian confidence in China's President Xi Jinping plummeted 22 per cent, with an overwhelming majority of Australians, some 94 per cent, calling for the Australia to "reduce our economic dependence on China", which is described as "the most emphatic consensus on an issue in the survey’s 16-year history".
It is also critical to identify that while "nearly four in five respondents said the nation’s alliance with the US was important to Australia’s security, up six points since last year’s poll", only 51 per cent of the respondents believed they could "trust the US to act responsibly".
Government's approach to Defence is the perfect launching point
The government's release of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, while revealing the still myopic view of public policy making within the halls of power, provides an opportunity to take a more integrated approach to public policy making, while also serving to address the growing economic, political and strategic anxiety and concerns simmering within the Australian public.
While it is often said that much of Australia's public policy-making decisions are based on the comparatively short election cycles across the various jurisdictions and this is a challenge faced across the democratic world – however, the grand irony is that if governments and oppositions planned for the long term they'd be more likely to be returned.
In light of this, it is time for Australia to plan for the next 15 to 20 years, not the next term of state, territory or federal government, providing policy consistency, vision for the public and surety in a period of global and regional turmoil.
This approach requires more than vanity programs, which can be best left to local government or private developers, rather it requires a strategic approach to a number of highly visible, big impact public policy areas, including:
- Infrastructure development: Addressing the critical links between hubs of economic prosperity including regional hubs and metropolitan centres – including improved, faster and more reliable road, rail and air transport links.
- Water security: Australia is a continent of extremes, "droughts and flooding rains", yet we do little to adequately channel and store the vast quantities of water that falls – now is the opportunity to promote economic stimulus through infrastructure investment while supporting Australia's agricultural industry and drought proofing the continent.
- Energy and resource security: Addressing the nation's lack of strategic resource and energy supplies has come to the fore during COVID-19, preparing the nation for such challenges whether natural or man-made should be of paramount priority – this requires less ideology and more pragmatism.
- Strategic industry development: COVID has stirred many within the Australian public to question why Australia isn't manufacturing more of the critical – it is clear that Australia requires a concerted policy initiative in the form of a Strategic Industries Act to develop a robust, globally competitive industry 4.0 oriented manufacturing base.
Each of these contribute to the nation's sovereignty and security at a time when many of the principles that Australia's post-Second World War public and strategic policy is based upon are coming under threat – serving to make Australia a more reliable economic, political and strategic partner amid a period of great power competition.
Furthermore, it serves to make Australia more resilient to man-made and natural shocks, resistant to coercion, economically competitive and robust at a time when the Australian public are calling for leadership, forward planning and vision.
In essence, it encapsulates the vision of former prime minister Robert Menzies, who outlined not just a call to action for Australia, but also identified the nation's responsibility to support the development and maintenance of a peaceful world, saying:
"If we want to make our contribution to the pacification of the world, it is our duty to present to the world the spectacle of a rich country with a great people, with an adequate population – with a population which may justly say to the rest of the world: 'We are here; we propose to maintain our integrity as a nation; and our warrant for that is that we are using the resources which God has given into our hands'."
Indeed, this sentiment echoes the statements made by Prime Minister Morrison regarding the nation's role and objectives within the newly contested economic, political and strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific: "As one of the world's oldest liberal democracies, we know who we are, we know what we believe, we know what we're about, we know what we stand for, and we know what we'll defend.
"We're about having the freedom to live our lives as we choose in an open and democratic liberal society without coercion, without fear. We're about the rule of law.
"We're about being good neighbours, pulling our weight, lending a hand and not leaving the heavy lifting and hard tasks to others. We don't seek to entangle or intimidate or silence our neighbours.
"We respect their sovereignty. We champion it. And we expect others to respect ours. Sovereignty means self-respect, freedom to be who we are, ourselves, independence, free-thinking. We will never surrender this. Never. Ever."
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 chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
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.
Australia is consistently told that as a nation we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the long-standing strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
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 shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.