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Big challenges for Australia in a changing world order

By Peter Jennings

Terrorism may yet prove to be a defining topic for the federal election. The horrendous events in Christchurch followed by Sri Lanka and the so-called Islamic State’s foiled plot to attack commemoration ceremonies on the Gallipoli peninsula all point to a threat that is changing but not going away.

Governments have little choice other than to keep strengthening intelligence gathering and law enforcement agencies in an effort to stay ahead of multiple threats. It’s difficult to escape the weighty reality that somewhere, at some time, Australia may face a mass casualty attack, be it in Gallipoli, Bali or one of our major cities.

This points to a truth so far unacknowledged in the election campaign: While the major parties are running on economic and lifestyle issues, the biggest challenge the next government will face will be dealing with an unravelling security order in our region.

Since the end of the Second World War we have built our security around an American led ‘international rules-based order’, which today is fraying as badly as the democracies did in the 1930s.

It’s anyone’s guess how much of the rules-based order will survive over the next decade. Future Australian Governments will certainly champion its cause but the National Security Committee of Cabinet needs to do more than just pine for a dead parrot. Australia’s political leaders will have to work much harder to shape key bilateral relationships in ways that promote our interests.

Three big challenges will confront whatever Government emerges after May 18: First, we need to reduce our economic dependence on an increasingly authoritarian and assertive China.

Second, we need to keep a reluctant United States engaged in Asian security while building a stronger defence force able to act alone if necessary.

Finally we need to assert our fabled security leadership in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands region. Indonesia could be the lynch-pin for a stronger regional approach but it will take imagination and effort from Canberra to deliver that outcome.

It’s not that counter-terrorism is a second order issue, but measured against these major strategic challenges we need to test the balance of our financial investment in the intelligence, security and policy agencies dealing with these multiple problems.

On China, the next government’s biggest difficulty is working out how to tell the truth to the Australian public that the Chinese Community Party now presents more risks than opportunities.

Australia has indeed benefited from the Chinese economic miracle but the era of ‘peaceful rise’ championed by Deng Xiaoping is long gone, to be replaced with an assertive, dangerously nationalistic, Leninist one party state intent on replacing the US as the region’s dominant power and expecting all other countries to defer to its interests.

In the interests of selling China commodities, education and apartments Australia will look the other way for as long as it can, but the reality is that our strategic interests are fundamentally different to those of the Chinese Communist Party.

A future Morrison or Shorten Government must urgently get its strategic thinking in order on how to respond to Xi Jinping’s China. The truth is that Canberra has shown growing spine on this issue in toughening anti-foreign interference laws and in the belated recognition that there should be some limits to Chinese ownership of critical infrastructure including the vital future 5G mobile network.

Much more, however, needs to be done. Australia’s universities have built such a dependence on Chinese fee paying students and in aligning their research agendas to suit Communist Party development priorities that an inevitable crisis of business sustainability is impending.

Likewise Australia’s States, free from any responsibility to think about national security, continue to see China as nothing more than a money-making opportunity.

It is simply astonishing that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews continues to champion Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative at a time when the Federal Government and Opposition are significantly more reserved about aligning to the scheme.

Preparing to fly to China this week to attend a ‘Belt and Road’ congress, Andrews told the Chinese newsagency Xinhua last Wednesday that ‘To not engage at the Belt and Road Initiative level, I think would be a significant barrier to stronger relations between Victoria and China.’

So, here we have an Australian State government unilaterally championing a Xi Jinping initiative that Canberra and many other developed democracies won’t endorse because of concerns that it promotes Chinese political and strategic objectives and builds overdependence.

There is clearly a need for a future Federal Government to do a better job of engaging universities, State and Territory Governments and businesses around some of the risks of aligning too closely to the Chinese Communist Party.

Of course Australia should trade with China, but we urgently need a strategy to diversify economic relations to stop the quelling effect that Beijing’s economic dominance is having on our ability to think and speak directly in favour of our strategic interests.

My own experience of engaging with People’s Liberation Army Generals as a senior Defence official was that Beijing will respect a country that argues strongly in favour of its own interests.  Having a capable, combat-experienced and high-technology Defence Force allied to the US also helps in negotiations with China.

Our government should also do some strategic planning around China future scenarios other than simply assuming that economic growth and unbroken Party dominance is the only possible future.

Frankly, this is an assumption that pays no attention to China’s history of frequent and often bloody political change. Australia needs to be ready for a variety of different Chinese political outcomes.

If Australia’s China challenge is to strengthen our capacity to operate independently from Beijing’s aspiration to dominate the region, the key task with Washington is to keep America productively engaged in Asia-Pacific security.

This is not just a problem about Donald Trump, although he adds an idiosyncratic quality that doesn’t help. Well before Trump, though, the Obama administration had dropped the ball on Asian engagement.

It was the Obama administration that wrongly decided China’s military annexation of the South China Sea was not strategically important enough to warrant a concerted response. Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership offering the region a vehicle other than China to promote economic growth and open societies. But Obama also lacked the cut-through to get Congressional support for the TPP.

Trump and Obama remain on a unity ticket to minimise American military engagement in the Middle East and elsewhere and both rightly pushed America’s allies to spend more on their own Defence capabilities.

Whether or not Trump survives to a second term, we are likely to see an America demanding more of its allies and refusing to engage on regional security issues that may be more directly important to regional countries.

That’s nothing new: The US disappointed Australia’s expectations of direct support over the Indonesian incorporation of West Papua in 1962 and of hopes for a US ‘boots on the ground’ presence during the East Timor crisis in 1999. Canberra should expect that Washington has high expectations for what we will do for our own security well short of American involvement.

The US military and intelligence establishment and Congress – all those elements that Trump regards as the swamp he wants to drain – remain strongly in favour of military engagement with America’s Pacific allies, but the price of Washington’s direct involvement is growing.

Traditionally Australia has been the key shaper of the US alliance. Not unreasonably we spend more time thinking about the alliance relationship than Washington. So the future of the alliance and what’s done in its name is Canberra’s to drive.

That means our next government will have to get out of an alliance comfort zone of basking in the cosy rhetoric about ‘100 years of mateship’ and focus instead on giving Washington every reason to prize what Australia brings to the relationship.

Trump remains a wild card. My fear is that he will turn some rhetorical heat on Australia in the way he has towards Canada and the European allies. Canberra has been lucky thus far that the White House’s domestic worries mean it hasn’t been asking Australia tough questions about our level of defence spending (still below 2% of Gross National Product) or our supine refusal to undertake freedom of navigation operations near the ‘contested features’ in the South China Sea.

This run of luck won’t hold. A key task for the next Australian government will be to develop an agenda for growing alliance cooperation that engages the US, brings Japan closer into the partnership and wins the approval of Trump and his successors. Of course this won’t be cheap, buts it’s the price of the leading role we claim for ourselves in regional security.

The third big strategic challenge for our government after the election will be to lift our relations with Southeast Asian countries to a new level of engagement. Mostly current ties are good but with the exception of Singapore they fall well below what Australian governments have aspired to achieve.

If our 2016 Defence White Paper is to be believed, the key priority driving our acquisitions of new submarines, amphibious helicopter carriers and frigates is to contribute to the security of ‘maritime Southeast Asia’ – a body of water that looks suspiciously like the South China Sea.

The Defence White Paper makes it clear that Australia’s security starts with a secure Southeast Asia that is able to look after its own defence interests, is able to resist pressure from regional great powers and looks to us and our allies as partners of choice.

On its present trajectory, it’s not clear that a majority of the Southeast Asian countries share any of these objectives. Our government’s task must be to strengthen regional confidence in the role that we and our allies can play in promoting their security.

It’s a net positive for Australia that Joko Widodo has been re-elected as President of Indonesia but like Australia Jakarta primarily looks north when it thinks about security.

Successive Australian governments have declared that they wanted to build a ‘strategic relationship’ with Indonesia which, if anything, means that we must deepen ties and build a shared approach to thinking about our defence and security.

My view is that this aspiration won’t be achieved unless an Australian Prime Minister is prepared to take an audacious and significant step to enhance defence cooperation with Indonesia.

Why not, for example, think about a joint Australian-Indonesian maritime squadron patrolling our northern approaches? Why don’t we invite an Indonesian Air Force squadron to operate out of Darwin near the US Marines? Why don’t we suggest an Australian submarine home ports out of Surabaya?

To even start that conversation our next Prime Minister should make it his business to get as close to President Widodo as French and German leaders have done with each other in the post-war period. The Franco-German connection was born from strategic necessity but Australia and Indonesia have no less compelling reasons to work together. It will be Canberra’s job to take that first step to closer relations. Failure to do so will be a massive failure of strategic vision.

A lightly edited version of this piece appeared in The Weekend Australian on 27 April 2019