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Rethinking Australia’s defense and security

By Murray Hunter - posted Wednesday, 2 September 2020


Australia has been hit by crises over the past 18 months that raise public policy concerns and questions. They include severe drought, bushfires that threatened the very fringes of major population centers, the Covid-19 pandemic, which has shut international and domestic borders and a trade spat with China, all of which have caused substantial economic damage. In addition there is growing Chinese infiltration into Australia's political, business and social institutions, Chinese assertiveness on the South China Sea and a decline of US influence within the Indo-Pacific hemisphere.

In particular, the extent of Chinese influence on both sides of the Australian political fence as well as in universities, domestic media, the Chinese diaspora, local government and aggressive 'wolf warrior' diplomacy on the part of China, are of major concern. The Australian polity has for far too long been entangled with Chinese instruments of influence, which rendered executive government largely unable to respond.

Only after numerous media exposes of Chinese influence within Australian society, with the latest being the 'Thousand Talents Plan' to source technology and lure expertise for the benefit of China, has this been taken as a real threat to Australia's national interest. After months of media criticism, the Morrison-led Liberal government has finally announced that it is seeking legislative measures to block Labor Victorian premier Daniel Andrews' Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China, signed almost two years ago.

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From a strategic perspective, Australia's traditional defense and security doctrine has failed to protect national interests. Defense policy is based upon the premise of defending the Australian mainland and supporting US presence within the Indo-Pacific theater as a minor entity. The ability of Australia's armed forces to project into Asia has been on the wane for decades. Security policy has primarily focused on terrorism in the post 911 world, at the cost of protecting national interests against other threats.

The drought, bushfires, and the pandemic have all shown that the greatest immediate threats to the wellbeing of the nation are both non-state and non-military. Protecting Australia very much requires non-conventional strategies and resources. Future threats are more likely to require specialized non-military domestic logistical resources for deployments in times of emergency, and security resources to focus on espionage activities rather than terrorist attacks. This requires a reconfiguration of both Australia's military and security services.

Politicians from both sides had always assumed that Australia's defense and security was closely aligned with US objectives. There are four US bases in Australia, with US Marines based in Darwin on rotation to support this assumption. Potential threats have always been perceived as traditional external military nature.

Australia's Foreign policy doctrine has focused upon bolstering existing traditional relationships, leaving most regional relationships very shallow and transactional to say the least. The mandarins of Canberra still hold onto a strong Austro-Eurocentric view of the world, within the Anglosphere of the Five Eyes, the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand. This has been seen to have failed to protect Australia's interests from non-conventional threats.

The minerals boom created a false sense of security. Although the boom drastically increased Australian exports and attracted A$250 billion in investment, reaching 58 percent of total exports by 2018, this gave the illusion that the country was strong and secure economically. Although, the mineral boom saved Australia from recession, it hid the decline in agriculture, construction and manufacturing, creating a much narrower based economy dependent on imports to replace what used to be produced locally. This made the country very economically dependent upon China, representing 29 percent of Australia's total international trade.

China's diplomatic aggressiveness and the physical buildup within the Pacific and South China Sea, have long been of concern. Over the past few months, with Australia calling on an independent inquiry into the source of the Covid-19 pandemic, China has diplomatically decupled itself with Australia, and introduced a number of trade sanctions.

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The gradual decline of US regional influence, which looks set to continue, and prolonged geo-political and geo-economic friction between China and the US, leaves stark questions about what type of region Australia will live within?

There is a vacuum of policy thought about what Australia can do and how effective anything Australia does would be. There are no strategic options with high probabilities of potential success. All options look difficult.

The current doctrine of the US as a strategic partner and China as a trading partner is becoming difficult to coexist. Keeping a close US alliance will not aid Australia's prosperity. Australia in a post Covid world will be much poorer, with high unemployment, a liquidity squeeze, record bankruptcies and a government in extraordinarily high debt. In this position the government will find it extremely difficult to kickstart the economy and put resources into defense and security priorities. Australia may be totally unprepared for any new crisis. The government will have to drastically increase immigration to create economic growth through demand.

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This article was first published on Asia Sentinel.



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Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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