Defence Connect Article – New Year kicks off with reinvigorated calls for a national security strategy

8 Jan 2024

In an increasingly dangerous world, planning to face the challenges is as important as directly responding. With this in mind, once again we have to ask, is an Australian national security strategy an idea that its time has come?

Perhaps, uniquely among both modern history and the world’s developed nations, Australia, the “Lucky Country”, has enjoyed a record-setting, unbroken period of three decades’ worth of economic growth, seemingly without hiccup.

Meanwhile, this period of unbroken economic prosperity and growth was further enhanced by the historic anomaly that was the otherwise benign era of peace and stability following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the formalisation of the Pax Americana.

Like many nations during this 30-year period, Australia was buoyed by the voracious demands of the world’s emerging superpower, the People’s Republic of China, thanks to a period of reform initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the late-1970s, becoming known as the period of “Boluan Fanzheng” or “Eliminating chaos and returning to normal”.

As Deng’s China shook off the inherently chaotic aftermath of Mao’s failed Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward policy failures, many nations began to peg their economic prosperity and stability to the rising ancient power. Australia, likewise, doubled down, leveraging its vast resource and agricultural wealth to help transform China’s economic fortunes into one of the world’s major economic powers.

Seemingly unassailable in its economic, industrial, political, and strategic ascendency, China’s economic miracle, much like Australia’s, avoided the worst of the Asian Financial Crisis and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 to become the “factory of the world”, resulting in the hollowing out of many national industrial bases as globalisation took hold across the world.

While the Great Financial Crisis of 2007–09 swept away the wealth, prosperity, and stability of middle-class populations across the developed world, especially in the US, and saw the financial and banking systems of the Western world bailed out by government, Australia enjoyed record economic growth, buoyed by the voracious demands of China in particular.

Fast forward a few years and the world was ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, which is now serving to reveal the cracks in our national economy.

In particular, the rise of “just in time” supply chains throughout the 1990s and early-2000s, combined with mounting geopolitical and strategic competition from our primary trading partner, have revealed the inherent vulnerabilities of this approach to economic policy, shedding light on the very real cracks in the economic and security foundations of many nations, especially Australia.

Meanwhile, the ongoing War in Ukraine and renewed hostilities in the Middle East and around the critical sea lines of communication through the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, coupled with mounting great power tensions, have all served to shatter the once comforting belief in the “End of History”.

In response to this combination of international and domestic factors, many nations have begun looking closer to home to resolve concerns about their national security.

For Australia’s circumstances, there has been a slowly growing sense that responding to the myriad of challenges requires a considered, coordinated strategy to respond to the threats and opportunities we as a nation and people face.

At the forefront of this latest push is the Australian National University’s Rory Medcalf in a piece for The Australian Financial Review, titled, Australia needs a formal national security strategy, in which he details the growing necessity for such a response.

Confronting a world in chaos

It is no secret that the systems, balance of power, and hierarchy established initially in the aftermath of the Second World War and more formally solidified following the end of the Cold War are rapidly deteriorating under the array of sociopolitical, cultural, demographic, and strategic challenges now present.

Highlighting this, Medcalf stated, “The government enters 2024 with no shortage of critique and commentary on how to protect Australia’s interests in a volatile world. Two globally repercussive wars are raging, strategic breakdown in our region is a genuine fear, and the intersection of climate risk, societal mistrust, disinformation, tech disruption, economic shocks and other cross-border contagion bodes ill.”

Whether in our immediate region or a little farther afield like in the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf, Australia and Australians cannot escape the nation’s dependence on the global ecosystem, and responding to these challenges now requires a gear shift from the government.

“A comprehensive strategy for national security and resilience in a world of worsening risk is not something that can be defined by speeches, however frequent or occasional. Of course, there’s every reason to assume that much is happening behind the scenes: a classified scaffolding of advice and decision, with bureaucracies and intelligence agencies modelling how such shocks as climate crisis, critical infrastructure failures and any of many possible conflicts involving China would ravage Australia’s security and wellbeing…

“A national security strategy – or as eminent former policy leader Heather Smith and I have argued, a national interest strategy – would provide a transparent explanation of how government is co-ordinating all the levers of national power over the long term. This could look at how to integrate security with other vital dimensions of the national interest – prosperity, cohesion, sustainability – and with the democratic principles of Australian identity,” Medcalf detailed further.

This basis reinforces the argument proposed by the late senator and Major General Jim Molan who explained to Defence Connect in 2019, “Australia has had one previous attempt at putting a national security strategy in place under the Gillard government in 2013. Although it was a decent first attempt, it has already been overtaken by events. Terrorism was the principal security challenge it focused on, and although the threat of terrorism has not disappeared, other changes in the world are demanding our focus.

“The world has changed dramatically in the six years since the release of the last national security strategy. Of primary concern is the decline of American power. At the end of the Cold War, the US planned for the contingency of fighting, and winning, ‘two and a half wars’ simultaneously. This meant it could wage two large-scale regional wars and a small-scale conflict elsewhere and prevail in all of them.”

By its very nature, national security strategy and policy is an all-encompassing area of public policy – indeed, every facet of contemporary public policy is crucial to supporting the broader national security debate.

Medcalf reinforced Molan’s key points, stating, “The point of a strategy is preparedness for testing times. Politically, it could provide a narrative for leadership to ready the nation – across partisan, portfolio and federal boundaries and into the private sector and our diverse civil society – for the decisions they will need to share.”

From seemingly banal aspects of social security and health policy, through to infrastructure development, water security and agriculture policy, each element of public policy is intimately enmeshed as part of the broader national security conversation.

Recognising this critical factor – how does Australia respond to the rapidly evolving regional environment and develop a holistic national security strategy?

Final thoughts

Australians are going to be asked to accept a number of uncomfortable realities in coming years. First and foremost, we will have to accept that while the world is increasingly becoming “multipolar”, the Indo-Pacific, in particular, is rapidly becoming the most hotly contested region in the world.

This has been underpinned by the emerging economic, political, and strategic might of powers like China, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam, and the established and re-emerging capability of both South Korea and Japan, in particular, are serving to create a hotbed of competition on our doorstep.

Second, both the Australian public and our policymakers will have to accept that without a period of considered effort, investment and reform, or as I like to colloquially refer to it, our rocky montage moment, current and future generations of Australians will be increasingly impoverished, living in a nation pushed around by the region’s now rising powers.

Recognising this array of challenges and opportunities, both the Australian public and its policymakers need to look beyond the myopic lens of short-termism that has traditionally dominated our diplomatic, strategic, and economic policy making since Federation.

Ultimately, we need to see Australia begin to play the long game to fully capitalise on the opportunities transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The most important question now becomes, when will we see a more detailed analysis and response to the challenges and opportunities facing Australia and when will we see both a narrative and strategy that better helps industry and the Australian public understand the challenges faced and opportunities we have presented before us?

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?

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at [email protected] or at [email protected].