The 2016 white paper must get it right on defence diplomacy

Defence diplomacy will not substantially transform the overall picture of Asia’s ongoing political cleavages. AAP

Non-violent defence diplomacy is a relatively new phenomenon. But it has already become a widely admired idea in Australia – and throughout Asia. It has substantial bipartisan support.

Defence diplomacy assumes peacetime military-to-military co-operation – port visits, education activities and low-intensity joint training exercises – can help to mould co-operative practices, build regional trust, and prevent potential or rolling regional flashpoints from escalating.

Yet many of the underlying assumptions about defence diplomacy as a means of conflict prevention and crisis management, and its linked strategic benefits, are on flimsy grounds.

Despite a range of positive spin-offs, defence diplomacy will not substantially transform the overall picture of Asia’s ongoing political cleavages. Nor will it eliminate fundamental areas of strategic distrust.

The failure of the 2013 white paper

The peaceful deployment of defence resources and capabilities has a PR flair and an intuitive appeal. Who is going to be against engagement to build a sense of common cause in Asia?

But this altruistic dimension can be, and is, readily misapplied. It has an appeal of seeking security in the region, rather than from it, expressly on the cheap. Exaggeration and inaccuracy surrounding the promise of defence diplomacy also shows the unwelcome prevalence of spin to, in part, manage public opinion regarding defence responsibilities. The 2013 Defence White Paper directly said:

Australia’s defence international engagement is both a strategic necessity and a strategic asset.

Yet many were critical that the implementation of this proposed engagement was deficient. There was a lack of clarity and only minute details provided about how enhanced defence diplomacy would actually be accomplished.

At the same time, based on case study evidence, scepticism should also be applied to the notion that where diplomats have failed, plain-talking soldiers can solve long-running regional anxieties and shift political alignments to avoid major power clashes.

Instead, defence diplomacy should be seen as a deeply constrained, unhelpful or even counter-productive on strategic-level issues.

Power plays

This is not to say that defence diplomacy is without merit. It has many notable positive elements.

It has a proven value in addressing a number of current or shorter-term security problems, such as those related to disaster-related activities. Short-notice military co-operation was successful in responding to the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.

It has also proven highly effective in helping to build specific partner capacities in the region to deal with non-traditional human security concerns and issues such as counter-piracy and organised crime. These endeavours that enhance security – and indirectly generate confidence and goodwill – should continue to be encouraged and supported.

Yet dealing with these types of mutual sources of insecurity is relatively non-controversial, has involved narrow and explicit objectives and, in most cases, induced pragmatic forms of co-operation with traditional allies. These efforts have also all been solely aimed at solving tangible problems.

It is a dramatic leap of faith to conclude that disaster diplomacy alone might then significantly alter the fundamental direction of a particular bilateral relationship – or, by implication, change the region’s strategic orientation.

The reverse is actually true. Defence diplomacy remains overwhelmingly influenced by, and in danger of being manipulated within, broad domestic conditions and global political relationships.

Perhaps most crucially, defence diplomacy will not transform the overall competitive picture of US-China relations that involve China’s territorial disputes and land-reclamation pursuits.

Such ongoing tensions are not largely a result of common misunderstandings or infrequent communication. These tensions remain connected to power struggles about contested leadership claims over the region.

The promise of 2016

The coming white paper presents an opening for the Turnbull government to place its imprimatur on national security priorities and to align defence force planning and policy settings with its strategic vision.

Crucially, it will provide a much-needed opportunity to ensure the newfound enthusiasm for defence diplomacy is more than a superficial smokescreen for policy initiatives that fail to adequately address its inherent limitations, contradictions and political constraints.

To overcome this, defence diplomacy should be recognised as a tactical and security tool, rather than a strategic measure. As a result, Australia’s overall approach must be measured, cautious and practical about how and where defence diplomacy is applied.

Recent defence white papers have tended to be idiosyncratic – albeit inherently political – documents that have to deal, in part, with conflicting policy priorities. The tendency to avoid tough decisions can lead to status-quo assessments and excessively emotional appeals that often lack an organisational and contextual foundation – like reinforcing an image of a benign middle power that can punch above its weight.

Ostensibly, defence white papers should be hard-headed statements of government policy that attempt to identify Australia’s objectives while aiming to provide a blueprint to guide planning and force structure over a ten- or arguably 20-odd-year period.

Such crystal ball-gazing is a complex task. It involves reflections on demographic changes as well as rapid technological innovations, which remains vulnerable to frivolous disagreement and cheap-shot criticism.

A recurring theme has been that over-the-horizon judgements about what we expect the ADF to do and how to best manage risks in an uncertain world have too often been drowned out or sabotaged by party politics and related political teeth-gashing or economic baits, short-term electoral considerations and ministerial misfortune or even broader government ineptitude.

In efforts to better manage accelerated expectations about the impact and implications of defence diplomacy, a preoccupation with unrealisable rationales about transformative “strategic” goals will lead to wasted resources, high opportunity costs and damage public confidence in the ADF if it is seen as unreliable in meeting such sweeping ambitions.

If devoid of a political and intellectual sturdiness in 2016, Australia’s defence strategy will remain highly piecemeal, misdirected and underdeveloped.