Published daily by the Lowy Institute

New thinking about Australian security

New thinking about Australian security
Published 22 Sep 2015   Follow @Rory_Medcalf

This is an extract from a speech delivered by the author in Brisbane on 18 September. A full transcript can be found here.

Australia's greatest strategic challenges are very much in the realm of geopolitics, in our Indo-Pacific region. They are related to changing balances of power, the use of force, and the way in which planning for our future may be frustrated by the interests, concerns and destabilising behaviour of other states. That is what strategy is about.

A vital interest for us is to preserve a rules-based order internationally, especially in our vast and dynamic Indo-Pacific maritime region, which is the new global centre of economic and strategic gravity. This is the very order that is being eroded by the uncertainties around China's growing military power and its patterns of affronting, acquisitive behaviour in the global maritime and cyber commons.

That behaviour is something that should seriously concern our business community and the wider public, not just our professional security caste. This issue relates not only to the manufacture of militarised islands in the disputed South China Sea, or displays of power intended to shake confidence in the system of US alliances upon which regional order has relied.

The problem also relates to the widely reported theft of information from business and government in many countries. It has reportedly occurred on a massive scale in the United States. There is every reason to assume that we face this risk in Australia too.

A critical question for Australia is whether we should continue to quietly accept the erosion of the conditions underscoring our security and freedom of action. Or, if we need to call out the concerning aspects of China's actions beyond its borders, why will later be any better than sooner? And what are we prepared to do, beyond words? [fold]

Another question is whether our efforts to build a deep and durable economic and political relationship with China — with all its own internal uncertainties — should be offset or indeed more than offset by efforts to diversify our strategic and economic equities in Asia and globally. Australia has every reason to take the diplomatic initiative in building new coalitions of powers to uphold a rules-based order in the region. Alongside the US alliance, we are right to be strengthening our security ties with the likes of Japan, India and Singapore – and to be looking for every opportunity to do so with Indonesia.

This is not about 'containment', the word often used by Chinese commentators to criticise the hardly offensive idea of other countries talking to and cooperating with one another. It is about the perfectly normal strategic behaviour of balancing. It is about hedging against adverse future contingencies, however unlikely they may seem.

And interestingly, whatever media speculation there may be about our new Prime Minister's views on China, hedging is a strategy he has previously and publicly endorsed. Hedging does not mean positioning ourselves half way between China and the United States. It means guarding against bad possibilities – that a powerful China may use its power in ways contrary to our interests, or that stumbles in China's rise also bring risks and uncertainties.

Containment is entirely the wrong word for this prudent balancing strategy. Containment is a word misappropriated from the Cold War, when the US and its allies sought to weaken the Soviet Union including by hurting it economically. Australia and its partners are hardly seeking to contain or weaken China economically. We are connected with China economically and through society, and we are trying to build better security understandings with Beijing.

Of course, we should have balance and options in our strategic settings. In a complex, uncertain, deeply connected world, vulnerable to shocks that can cascade rapidly across borders, our watchwords need to be resilience, adaptability and diversification. Incidentally, these same principles ought to be applied to future defence planning - which is a reason why paying multi-billion dollar premiums to build warships and submarines in Australia could well prove to be a misplaced cost many billions of dollars more than building them elsewhere.

That money could be put to other purposes that would be good for national security but also for national wellbeing more broadly. For instance, it could go a long way towards investing in new defence capabilities and technologies – in space, cyber and unmanned, autonomous systems – to ensure we are at the winning edge of disruptive change. Or some of that money could go towards building national resilience, competitiveness and wellbeing in ways that would contribute to security as a side-effect to other priorities, such as investment in education and infrastructure.

Instead, we're seeing the wrong kind of bipartisanship on this issue. By all means, our future Navy ships and submarines should be fully sustained in Australia – and that itself will generate jobs. But national security and the national interest do not seem to be paramount considerations in the debate at present.

Either way, Australia needs to be braced for strategic shocks in our Indo-Pacific region — and as a nation we will not be able to hide when they occur.

You may also be interested in