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North of 26 degrees south and the security of Australia: views from The Strategist

By John Coyne, Paul Barnes, Malcolm Davis, Rhys De Wilde, Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb, Genevieve Feely, Michael Shoebridge, Dr Richard Brabin-Smith AO, Chris Clark, Michael Crane, Len Notaras and Scott Wallis

North of 26° south and the security of Australia’, a new report by ASPI’s The North and Australia’s Security Program, presents a series of articles by a range of trusted and up and coming authors exploring the continued importance of Northern Australia to national security and defence strategy.

The last time real attention was paid to what our regional environment means for defence in the north of Australia was in Paul Dibb’s 1986 Review of Defence Capabilities and the 1987 Defence White Paper. Following that work, the Australian government invested billions of dollars in bases and bare base infrastructure in the north, with a real focus on the Northern Territory.

The strategic environment since then has changed dramatically.

First, regional nations continue to get richer and more capable, including in their ability to project military power within and beyond their own territories—meaning that near-region partners like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are becoming more important in Australia’s security and diplomacy.

Second, great-power competition and potential conflict have returned to the forefront of world affairs. China and the US are now actively engaged in deep strategic competition and arm-wrestling over political, economic and strategic relationships and technological dominance across our Indo-Pacific region.

There are credible prospects of a major military conflict between these great powers over the next couple of decades, which, if it happens, will most likely spill beyond a bilateral conflict into a wider regional war.

Northern Australia’s dispersed critical infrastructure and primary resources remain vulnerable to traditional and non-traditional national security threats. Modern weapon systems put these resources within striking distance of conventional weapons, and they’re also susceptible to hybrid warfare strategies like that used by Russia in Ukraine.

While Australia has a long-term defence capability plan, we need to continue to test our assumptions about the defence of northern Australia and the north’s significance to national security. On paper, government has made a strong declaratory commitment to northern Australia. But there is evidence of a widening gap between declaratory policy and Defence’s activities in the North.

This report provides much needed contemporary analysis of the criticality of the North to Australia’s national security and defence.