Policy outlook: radical departure on defence or more of the same?

What will defence policy under Tony Abbott and new defence minister David Johnston look like? AAP/Dean Lewins

The Abbott government talks a good game on defence. While in opposition, new defence minister David Johnston slammed Labor for failing to fund the grand promises of the 2009 Defence White Paper. Now in office, the Coalition promises to raise defence spending to 2% of GDP as soon as budgetary circumstances allow, trying to reassure the armed forces, regional allies and voters that “the adults are back in charge” of national security.

The Coalition’s promises to stop short-changing the Australian Defence Force (ADF), given that defence spending is now at its lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1938, are heartening. So too is the Coalition’s resolve to invest in the military assets needed to protect the resource-rich but relatively unpopulated northwest region of Australia.

However, in trying to look tough on defence, the Coalition reinforces three key distortions in Australia’s national security debate.

Differences between Coalition and Labor policy

First, the new government overdraws the contrast between their defence policy and that of the previous government. Partisanship aside, the thrust of the Coalition’s defence policy is consistent with its Labor predecessors. It can hardly be otherwise, for there is a bipartisan consensus on the key security challenges confronting Australia. These challenges range from the strategic instability accompanying China’s rise, through to terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

There is also a common commitment to the US alliance as the foundation of Australia’s security, and general agreement on the preferred mix of military means - high-end air and naval assets, combined with around three land combat brigades and special forces - needed to protect Australia.

Where the Coalition does distinguish itself (for now) from Labor is in the greater urgency it has signalled in restoring the ADF’s funding on a more sustainable footing.

Defence spending - a deficit of will as much as money

However, this leads to the second distortion in the national security debate. There is a broad unwillingness among policymakers to recognise the constraints governments now face in mobilising the political will needed to properly fund Australia’s national security needs.

Australia currently confronts an increasingly contested regional security environment. Rapidly escalating tensions between our first (China) and second (Japan) largest trading partners, increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, and the perpetual wildcard of a nuclear-armed North Korea all mark growing strategic volatility.

Meanwhile, America’s slow economic recovery is stoking demands in Washington that America’s Asia-Pacific allies – including Australia - pick up more of the slack in upholding a stable regional security order.

A more volatile neighbourhood and a more demanding senior ally are therefore pressuring Australia to lift its defence spending. But at the same time, Australia faces massive demands on the public purse, ranging from the healthcare demands of an ageing population to badly-needed infrastructure investment. Coupled with public hostility to tax increases, this prevents governments of all stripes from investing in the military capabilities needed to bolster our diplomacy.

Military power and diplomacy - complements, not alternatives

The third - and gravest - distortion in the current national security debate is the widespread tendency to reduce national security to questions regarding the levels and composition of defence expenditure alone. This is problematic, because military power works best as an instrument of political influence when harnessed in conjunction with effective diplomacy.

Successive governments from both sides of politics have loudly proclaimed (in words, if not in deeds) their determination to invest in Australia’s military capacities. But they have also consistently under-funded Australia’s diplomatic capacities, such that Australia now has the smallest diplomatic footprint of any G20 country.

Defence policy in the Asian century

Reducing national security to questions of defence policy - and defence to a question of dollars and weapons platforms - is especially problematic in the Asian century.

As our Asian neighbours develop economically, we will no longer be able to base our security on buying more and better weaponry than potential regional adversaries, as we have done in the past.

As Asia grows richer, Australia’s established technological lead will diminish, as will the ability to militarily outspend our neighbours. Possessing a potent military will remain essential in our emerging regional environment, both to protect Australia’s vital interests and also to promote our values through activities such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief - in which the ADF has outstanding capacity and experience.

But beyond these considerations, a strong military will be most crucial in supporting the creative diplomacy Australia needs to proactively shape for a peaceful regional environment. One key continuity the Coalition carries over from the Rudd and Gillard governments lies in its “supersizing” of Australia’s strategic geography from an Asia-Pacific to an Indo-Pacific frame. If the Abbott government is to persist with this, Australia will need to consolidate its security partnerships with key regional countries – particularly India and Indonesia.

Having credible military reserves is of course key to developing such partnerships. But these efforts will surely falter, unless future governments match their grand promises to the ADF with an equally solemn commitment to resourcing the diplomatic capacities needed to effectively advance Australia’s interests in a more complex and turbulent age.

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