Out of Our Comfort Zone: Australia’s Changing Strategic Outlook

Australia is about to be taken out of its international comfort zone. Over the next 20 years we will face the biggest changes to our strategic environment since the arrival of the First Fleet. The foundation of our strategic and defence policy for generations, the US’ unchallenged supremacy in our region, is ebbing away. In its place a new order is emerging, in which more nations will exercise power in our region and non-state actors will exert more influence on the international environment than ever before.

Responding to these new realities will demand more of the Australian community and our leaders, and more of our foreign and defence policies. Yet defence policy in particular sometimes seems to operate outside mainstream Australian politics. While members of the National Security Committee and Shadow National Security Committee understand the strategic environment, relatively few other parliamentarians are as involved. They’re unable to debate defence issues in the same way they could other major policy issues, like health, education and economics. Dedicating time to engaging with defence policy hasn’t generally been a smart career move. Australian defence ministers have on average survived in the role for less than a term of government over the past 30 years. And it’s been more than 20 years since a former defence minister shifted to another major cabinet portfolio: it’s a dead end. The result is a dangerous gulf in culture and knowledge.

We’re lucky at least to have organisations like the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the Lowy Institute, and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University bringing some intellectual heft to the subject—but they are islands in a sea of political disengagement. Defence policy has been left to ideologues and technocrats, and the broad centre that gives good policymaking ballast is empty. The significant changes occurring in our region merit a better standard of public debate than they have received in the past.

The Australian Defence Forces’ capabilities (what they can do) and posture (where they’re located) have evolved within a decades-long strategic context that assumed ongoing American supremacy in our region. Now, the emergence of a multipolar strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific challenges the fundamental assumption that under­pinned our defence policy for forty years. While it’s likely that the US will remain deeply engaged in the Indo–Pacific over the coming decades, the context for this engagement will change dramatically. The end of stable and benign US military hegemony in our region will significantly increase the strategic demands on our defence forces.

The escalating strategic risks in our region demand a commensurate increase in our defence capabilities: both in raw funding and in our intellectual capacity to debate defence questions as a nation. Australia currently has the thirteenth-largest military spend in the world and the fifth-largest in Asia, but it’s a small fish in a big pond. We have a large landmass and even larger strategic interests to defend. Adequately resourced and intelligently deployed defence forces are the price we need to pay for an independent Australian foreign policy over the coming decades: the national asset that underwrites our ability to say no to powerful allies and neighbours when we need to.

As part of a new conversation about Australian defence policy, we would argue that our primary security objective should be a stable Southeast Asian region, within which the Australian Defence Forces would be able to impose sufficiently high costs on an aggressor so as to dissuade all but a determined great power from threatening our sovereignty.

This would require air and undersea surveillance and defence capabilities to meet threats to our sea and air approaches (that is, our own sea-denial capability), but also amphibious capabilities co-ordinated across the armed forces to conduct regional-stabilisation exercises. In a region dominated by ocean, a Southeast Asian focus would also require a greater emphasis to be placed on maritime capabilities, particularly undersea detection and defence capabilities, than is currently the case. It should tip the balance towards a serious government investment in the national infrastructure required for sustainable, ongoing submarine and naval shipbuilding in Australia. The digger’s slouch hat has been the symbol of our defence forces but, as an island nation in a region dominated by ocean, it’s our naval culture that should dominate the national imagination in coming decades.

Setting strategic defence priorities according to our own region may also lead us more seriously to investigate the potential for pursuing common security measures with our regional neighbours. Given President Widodo’s ambitions for Indonesia to become a ‘maritime axis’, there are immediate opportunities to expand our naval co-operation: after all, we have shared strategic interests in the security of the Southeast Asian sea lanes. It’s worth considering whether in the long-term Australia could facilitate the development of a regional air and maritime surveillance network that is accessible by our defence partners in Southeast Asia. While there are obvious security sensitivities associated with sharing capabilities of this kind, such an explicit long-term objective would be emblematic of the kind of mindset that we’ll need to adopt towards our neighbours in the coming decades.

This is an edited extract from their book Two Futures: Australia at a critical moment published this week by Text Publishing.

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