Australia must enter the grey zone to counter threats of the future
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Australia must enter the grey zone to counter threats of the future

Originally published in The Canberra Times.

Australia has responded to its rapidly deteriorating security environment with a major course correction. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update provides the rationale for Australia’s acquisition of a range of expense of new military capabilities so that the Australian Defence Forces can, if necessary, better fight a “high intensity war” or, preferably, deter our adversaries from engaging us in one.


But what if, before we reach this crisis point, Canberra finds that China is already entrenched in the island states around Australia’s north and east.  What if Australia’s critical infrastructure has been sabotaged through cyber means? What if Australia’s leaders and their constituents are so confused and divided by an onslaught of fake news that they can’t make the critical decisions?


To its credit, the Strategic Update addresses the risk of such a fait accompli. Defence’s new first strategic objective (before “deter” and “respond”) is to “shape Australia’s strategic environment”.


But the document is less clear on how this will be achieved or funded, beyond promising that stepped up cooperation with states in our immediate region as well as the United States, India and Japan. The Strategic Update has more to say about how Australia’s “adversaries” are shaping our regional environment. They are doing so through “grey zone activities”. This focus on the “grey zone“ is new – there are 11 references to it in the 2020 Update. There were none in the much longer 2016 Defence White Paper.


The Strategic Update describes grey zone activities as “activities designed to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict …para-military forces, militarisation of disputes features, exploiting influence, interference operations and the coercive use of trade and economic levers”. Beijing’s incremental takeover of the South China Sea is a frequently cited example. China’s recent large-scale cyber intrusions into Australian networks provide a more recent example.


The “grey zone” is not a clear strategic concept. It’s best understood as the opposite of the rules-based order -  another concept that has become more popular in strategic planning documents (the 2016 Defence White Paper refers to the rules-based order 56 times). While International law is based on black-and-white distinctions between war and peace, the “grey zone” is the murky area in between. States like China, Russia and Iran have increasingly found that they can advance their interests in the grey zone without paying a high price. That activity both exploits weaknesses in the rules-based order and hastens it.


What should Australia do about grey zone activity? So far, Australia has focussed on strengthening the rules-based order and, implicitly, trying to shrink the grey zone. This accords with our values and plays to our strengths. Australia is more competitive in region that is based on rules, transparency and cooperation. So the 2020 Strategic Update’s focuses on improving regional cooperation can be seen as more of the same.


But this is not enough. As the Prime Minister acknowledged in his introductory remarks, “the institutions of patterns of cooperation that have benefited our prosperity and security for decades, are now under increasing - and I would suggest almost irreversible - strain.”


Military strength doesn’t help deter grey zone activity. The United States overwhelming nuclear capability has not helped it deter China from building islands in the South China Sea or engaging in massive cyber-enabled intellectual property theft. The Strategic Update asserts that Australian Defence Forces will “need to deliver deterrent effects against a broad range of threats, including preventing coercive or grey-zone activities from escalating to conventional conflict”.


To counter Chinese operations in the grey zone, Australia needs to enter that space. That will require mobilising the full spectrum of Australia’s national power – from cyber operations through to intelligence and development aid – to proactively shape our regional environment. At the same Australia also needs to preserve the rules-based order. Australian activity in the grey zone still needs to accord with Australian values, legislation and broader interests in the rules-based order.


That’s not just a job for Defence, but Defence will play a central role – especially through its beefed up cyber and information warfare capabilities – and so will need to find better way of integrating with the rest of government.


The national security bureaucracy as a whole may need to rethink the way it works – much as it did after 9/11. The fact that Defence has managed a major strategic shift in the midst of a global pandemic and following devastating bushfires is a reason for optimism about the quality and adaptability of our public service.


Finding a way to compete effectively in the grey zone without unnecessarily damaging the rules-based order is one of the greatest challenges facing liberal democracies. Hard trade offs will need to be made. Operational activity may need to be kept from public view, but the policy framework should – more so than was the case after 9/11 - be the subject of vigorous public debate. 

Ben Scott is the director of the Australia's Security and the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute.

Areas of expertise: Australian national security policy; International rules and norms; US foreign policy; the Middle East