With the conversation about Australia’s national resilience continuing to grow, identifying and planning for the differences and commonalities between ‘resilience’ and ‘security’ in the increasingly complex world presents interesting challenges for Australian policy makers.
At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the 'end of history' was upon us, that the era of great power competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity, we now know that to be wishful thinking.
Far from this promise, across the globe the US-led liberal-democratic and capitalist economic, political and strategic order is under siege, driven by mounting waves of civil unrest, more localised tensions in the aftermath of Brexit, economic stagnation across the West, concerns about climate change and the increasing geo-strategic competition between the world's great powers.
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 interests.
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 it's two largest and most influential “great and powerful” friends: the US and the UK appear to be floundering against the tide of history.
Meanwhile, the fragility of these two nations has prompted many global dictators to take advantage of the absence, as the old saying states: "When the cat is away, the mice will play" leaving Australia and many other allies, including Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, exposed to the whims of nations dedicated to the end of post-war order.
Nowhere is this more evident than across the Indo-Pacific as an emboldened Beijing continues to punish Australia for pursuing a global inquiry into the origins and China's handling of COVID-19, while also leveraging the comparatively diminished presence of the US military in the region to project power and intimidate both Japan and, critically, Taiwan.
However, as debate continues to brew closer to home, the often overlapping areas of 'resilience' and 'security' are causing a stir among Australia's public policy makers and political decision makers.
Entering the debate, Jacob Taylor, a cognitive anthropologist and visiting research fellow at the Asian Bureau of Economic Research at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University has cautioned against framing the conversation and policy outcomes as resilience-focused when in fact they're driven by security.
Taylor articulates: "Resilience is one of those terms that wins special prominence with policymakers during a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different.
"In fact, behind a general rhetoric of resilience, the government’s current set of policy options appear to be driven predominantly by the logic of security. Security is not the same as resilience."
Same, same, but different
In this increasingly contested global shift in power dynamics, driven largely by the growing use of 'whole-of-government' public policy machinations by emerging great powers, Australia as with many comparable nations and larger partners, is recognising that in order to maximise the capacity of any national response needs to be holistic, integrated and considered.
This is something articulated by respected strategist and policy expert Alan Dupont added to this, 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."
For Taylor, this approach requires a delicate balancing act between 'resilience' and 'security', which he explains as "the key message from complexity theory, the field of study from which the term resilience originates, is that resilience refers not simply to safety or security but to the capacity of a system to recover from perturbations (changes and shocks) in its environment".
"To be resilient, a system must invent ways to carefully balance a trade-off between maintaining structure (think sturdiness and security) and openness to new information (think flexibility and global connectivity)," Taylor says.
Expanding on this, he advocates for greater economic and multi-lateral collaboration and partnerships with the region's emerging powers, including China.
Taylor explains, "From this perspective, constraining multiple facets of Australia’s international engagement to narrow alliance-defined security arrangements is short sighted and just too risky.
"That approach threatens to reduce Australia’s flexibility by restricting access to accurate information about the international system in which it operates.
"If Australia’s moves towards more defensive security policies are not counterbalanced by moves towards greater economic and diplomatic engagement with the entire system (including those changes and shocks in the system attributable to China), then Australia may well come out the other side of this global pandemic in a more vulnerable and less resilient position than it was before COVID-19."
Taylor does, however, make a valid point in leveraging the economic experience and indeed success of nations including South Korea, Japan and Singapore – each of which provide powerful public policy examples of developing a robust, diverse, modern and competitive global economy.
An integrated response and the end result is ‘national security’
Australia has recently undergone a period of modernisation and expansion within its national security apparatus, from new white papers in Defence and Foreign Affairs through to well-articulated and resourced defence industrial capability plans, export strategies and the like in an attempt to position Australia well within the rapidly evolving geostrategic and political order of the Indo-Pacific.
Each of the strategies in and of themselves serve critical and essential roles within the broader national security and national resilience debate.
Additionally, the formation of organisations like the National Resilience Taskforce, state-based Energy Security Taskforces, and supporting organisations like Infrastructure Australia and broader government departments all serve to provide an intricate yet competing tapestry muddying the water and decision-making process for political and strategic leaders.
Each of these organs and constituencies in the form of state and territory governments have their own individual agendas and lobby accordingly for Commonwealth support and assistance, further complicating a national response, hindering both national security and national resilience in an age of traditional and asymmetric disruption.
Air Vice-Marshal (Ret’d) John Blackburn AO explained the importance of a cohesive, integrated response to national resilience and by extension, national security: “We have our departments doing great work in their respective fields. We have organisations like the CSIRO doing great work in terms of the hydrogen economy, energy security and the like, but the problem is each of these organs is siloed.
“One would expect that there would be a co-ordinating authority within the organs of government, which can support the development and implementation of a national resilience policy framework. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and we are seeing the affects of that today, so the only way to address this is with a co-ordinated, integrated response.”
The individual nature of the aforementioned respective strategies, combined with the competing interests of the respective portfolios and departments, are further exacerbated by a lack of cohesive, co-ordinating authority managing the direction of the broader national interest and implementation of a resulting strategy.
It is important to recognise that this realisation does diminish the good work done by the respective ministers, assistant ministers and opposition representatives.
But recognising the limitations of siloed approaches to the increasingly holistic nature of national security in the 21st century requires a co-ordinated, cohesive effort to combine all facets of contemporary national security and national resilience policies into a single, cohesive strategy.
In order to maximise the nation’s position, prosperity and security, is it time to introduce a role of a Minister for National Security or special envoy role to support the Prime Minister and respective ministers, both within the traditional confines of national security or national resilience like Defence and Foreign Affairs, to include infrastructure, energy, industry, health, agriculture and the like?
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.
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.