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Let's get strategic about border security

Let's get strategic about border security
Published 2 May 2016   Follow @johncoyne14

Over the last five or so years, Australia’s public policy discussions on borders have hardly been strategic. Discussions have instead coalesced on mandatory detention of irregular maritime arrivals, at-sea turn back policies, and Australian Border Force uniforms and accoutrements.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection can’t be blamed for border security becoming so politicised around operational issues and strategy. But it is left to deal with the policy impacts of a dearth in border security strategic dialogue.

In 2015, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection produced its Strategy 2020 with a clear futures focus. It attempted to apply a couple of different strategic lenses: economic, demographic, geopolitical, technological, and that ever helpful category of ‘other’. But for one reason or another, this hasn’t generated much strategic policy dialogue about borders and their future significance.

Before we self-flagellate, lets contextualise our efforts with those of the US and Europe. The US public policy debate on border security is no more strategic than ours in its oscillation between demonising migrants and building walls. Europe’s frontline border agency Frontex’s Risk Analysis 2016 offers the world little in the way of strategic analysis with its pedestrian assessments of a unprecedented rise in migratory pressure, an increasing terrorist threat, and a steady rise in the number of regular travellers.

Recent conferences and symposia in the UK reveal that there are most definitely changes afoot in the strategic conceptualisation of borders, and these will have policy impacts. These discussions reveal that a greater emphasis on multi-disciplinary analysis of geopolitical developments is required to understand future border security challenges.

For the first time since the end of the cold war, the world is seeing the construction of an increasing number of border walls. But we are not seeing a return to a impermeable cold war type border security environment. In contrast the focus now is on keeping ‘bad things’ out: people and commodities. We are also seeing a continuation of trusted permeability, supported by assumptions about the safety of traditional hegemonies.

For those who are trusted, the crossing of international borders is becoming easier. For everyone else movement is being restricted. But even this selective or trusted partner permeability is challenged by the reality that assumptions about the safety of the hegemony are challenged. Automatic assumptions about the risk posed by travelers with European passports, for example, are challenged by events such as the recent Paris and Brussels attacks.

Border security measures, in terms of people and technology, are expensive. Slowing the movement of people or goods across borders can br economically catastrophic. So with increased threats, challenges to underlying trust assumptions, and associated economic risks, nations are struggling to find a border security 2.0 strategy that balances economic facilitation requirements with security. In the absence of innovation, militarisation appears to be winning in the short term. [fold]

When it comes to border disputes, maritime borders is where it’s at. With only a few exceptions, the locations of major land borders are relatively stable. Growing global food protein shortage and the finite nature of metal and mineral resources will continue to motivate efforts from some nation states  to expand their maritime borders. In this kind of border dispute, there are going to be definite winners and losses; and no shortage of potential for miscalculation.

For the foreseeable future, bilateral disputes over maritime borders are going to be on the increase. At the centre of this trend are China and Russia. Both countries continue to test international law and resolve th

rough maritime domain expansion. In the process each is likely to be feeding the others successes or failures. The outcome of these expansion strategies will have long term strategic impacts on the future of maritime border disputes.

This expansionism isn’t just about the establishment of today’s physical maritime borders. It’s also about the exploitation of global commons through establishing uncontested practice. China’s expanding global fishing fleet serves is an example of this strategy in practice. The actions of the Chinese fishing fleet today expands access to much needed and highly profitable fish. But its fishing fleet, and its operations, serve as a middling strategy for access to marine resources more broadly.

The provision of border security involves far more than creating a capability focused solely on keeping our borders secure from potential terrorists, illegal immigrants and illicit contraband. Reducing the concept of border security to a discussion of balancing between securing or not securing national borders from irregular migration is overly simplistic. The balancing metaphor in border security suggests that this policy debate involves a zero-sum game, where increased security measures will reduce the risk of negative consequences.

Border security policy deals with a unique operating space, where extraordinary measures are often required to provide a sense of security, whilst simultaneously maintaining the sense of normalcy that will allow economic interactions to flourish.

Arguably, borders now have a resurgent strategic relevance to national security and geopolitics. In response to this trend, it’s time to lift border security policy discourse to a strategic level. The best way of achieving this strategic border security discourse is through multi-disciplinary discussion and debate: involving subject matter experts from fields such as international relations, economics, geomatics, environmental sciences, and national security.

With the closure of Manus on the cards, there is an excellent opportunity for an increased strategic focus to be applied in Australia’s border security policy response. Such a response should consider a broader range of options that include new third party resettlement options, reengagement with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHC) and further regional cooperation on forced migration. Strategic multi-disciplinary thinking won’t make the complex problem or irregular migration and asylum any easier to address. But it will ensure broader policy consideration and opportunities for policymakers to develop more innovative strategies.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library

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