Australia’s National Security Strategy: Lessons from the Pivot Down Under

  • Photo Courtesy of AFN-Pacific Hawaii News Bureau
    Jan 31, 2013

    Australia published its National Security Strategy (NSS), entitled Strong and Secure: A Strategy for Australia’s National Security, on January 23. The 58-page document outlines the country’s assessment of its risks, priorities, and capabilities. The first of its kind since the 2008 national security statement, the NSS is the equivalent of a policy “ligament.” It attaches Australia’s determination to be part of Asia, as outlined in its October 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, to its commitment to national security, which will undoubtedly be outlined in the Defense White Paper due in mid-2013.

    The document contains important signals for U.S. policymakers. Australia, a vital U.S. ally, has evolved beyond its post-September 11 worldview to focus more on the Asia Pacific region. It must and will cope with a rising China. To do so, it needs a strong U.S. presence in the region. Unfortunately, Australia still feels it must work to secure a U.S. commitment to the Asia Pacific. The Australian need for, but anxiety about, sustained U.S. commitment can clearly be read between the lines of the NSS.

    This dynamic is not unique to Australia. All five U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific and almost all other countries in the region are assessing how to understand China’s ascendance as they consider their national security priorities for the coming decades. The White House and the incoming U.S. secretaries of state and defense need to understand this well because all actions the United States takes will be interpreted carefully by its partners in the region.

    This is particularly the case with laying out how the United States prioritizes the Asia Pacific politically. Will the White House accept a new script in American politics by clearly making the case for Asia’s importance to the U.S. economy and security? How will defense spending cuts affect the U.S. force posture in Asia? Will the United States deepen its focus on economic diplomacy and trade in the Asia Pacific?

    The NSS reminds Australia that it, like its neighbors in the Asia Pacific, must come to terms with a China that is now its largest trading partner, a major investor, and a rising military power in the region. The question Canberra faces is not whether it needs to accommodate China, but under what terms. The NSS makes this clear: “The importance of a deepening of our relationship with China cannot be overstated.”

    Although the NSS, like the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, is solicitous to China, it reveals Australians’ deep concerns about what China wants and what role it intends to play in the Asia Pacific. The Lowy Institute’s 2012 poll of Australian perceptions showed continued concern about China. While perceptions of China warmed slightly since 2011, 48 percent of those who saw China as the leading power in Asia expressed discomfort with that fact, and 40 percent said China is likely to become a military threat to Australia.

    The NSS also emphasizes the importance of nascent regional architecture designed to build patterns of cooperation and develop trust among Asia Pacific countries, including China. Among regional institutions, the most important is the East Asia Summit. The approach recognizes that architecture can never be more than the sum of the parts of very strong bilateral relationships among key countries within those frameworks. It therefore prioritizes Australia’s relations with Indonesia, India, Japan, New Zealand, and others.

    This strategy should reaffirm the United States' determination to follow through on similar approaches within its own refocusing on Asia. Starting down the road toward building regional architecture in Asia is important, but it must be built on a solid foundation of deep, granular, and institutionalized relationships with an expanding array of partners.

    The focus on expanding partnerships, particularly with Indonesia and India, is very important. While Australia has internalized and begun to adapt its political and security culture into a new way of operating that will allow it to better understand and align with Indonesia, the United States still has a long way to go. Progress has been made in this area, and it helps that President Barack Obama spent years of his childhood growing up in Indonesia, but more political focus must be put on the relationship.

    The NSS recognizes that a “positive relationship with Indonesia contributes profoundly to Australia’s overall security.” However, Australia also needs to link that rhetorical and bureaucratic commitment to its political discourse and cultural mind-set. Its success can help the United States and should be supported by Washington.

    The timing of the release of the NSS is certainly linked to Australian politics. That is the normal rhythm of governance and should be expected as Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Labor Party seek to boost their security bona fides ahead of pending elections. Unfortunately, politicizing grand strategy carries real risk. The NSS lays out a roster of tactics to ensure Australia’s strength through deeper engagement in Asia, stronger bilateral partnerships, and interagency coordination to address threats, but it does not ask or answer the question of how to pay for those commitments.

    Gillard’s government has made knee-jerk cuts to defense spending to serve the politically expedient objective of achieving a balanced budget. Can Australia play the role that it stakes out in the NSS while it slices its defense budget and cuts funding for its diplomatic track at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade? 

    When Australia’s foreign minister, Bob Carr, visits Washington this spring, he should recognize that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and presumptive secretaries of state John Kerry and defense Chuck Hagel will need to hear from a good friend about the importance of stepping up the U.S. focus on the Asia Pacific. Australia’s own plans to do so are sound. If properly resourced and implemented, they will make Australia, already a strong ally, invaluable to the United States.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the January 31, 2013, issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

    Ernest Z. Bower is codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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