Australia’s Security Challenge

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Australia’s Security Challenge

A recent report only underscores why Australia has long been a tough place to understand when it comes to security.

A new Australian strategy document  is meant to clear the air about what security concerns preoccupy the land Down Under and what Canberra is doing about them.

But its dissonance with recent defense spending cuts is leaving observers perplexed. The Labor government of Julia Gillard has recently cut the defense budget to around 1.6 percent of gross domestic product, the lowest proportion since the 1930s. This makes the nation the odd one out in an Indo-Pacific Asia where states that matter are placing a priority on modernizing their militaries.

Australia has long been a difficult place to understand when it comes to security.

On the one hand, here is what seems an exceptionally secure continent with a natural moat, an advanced military, one of the top 15 defense budgets in the world and no credible direct strategic threat.  On the other hand, there has long been a thread of insecurity running through Australian strategic thought, which helps explain why Canberra has hewn so closely to an alliance with the United States.

Perhaps the nation’s strategic anxiety is in part a legacy of the early years of European settlement, with a tiny population and vague fears about Asia. No doubt it was intensified by a sense of abandonment by Britain after the fall of Singapore in the Second World War. In the Cold War, latent worries about larger Asian states mixed with paranoia about Communism.

A decade ago, murderous jihad in Southeast Asia and beyond led to new threat perceptions in Australia, including concern that its proud and resilient multicultural democracy might have homegrown terrorists in its midst.

Most recently, uncertainties about Chinese power, ranging from military modernization to potential diplomatic and economic coercion, have preoccupied Canberra’s security community.

This was made plain in the defense White Paper released by then prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2009, which promised a much stronger military including 12 new-generation submarines with cruise missiles. The plan was criticized for being needlessly provocative towards China and glaringly unfunded.

Since Rudd was dumped as leader by his own Labor party in 2010, the government has quietly sought to wind back his grandiose vision.

Not because the strategic environment is becoming safer.  Instead, the Gillard government is desperate to reduce its spending in any area that does not readily raise its chances of re-election in polls that have just been called for later this year.

Australia’s economy may be in much better shape than that of most developed nations, but that has not stopped Australian Ministers from pointing to America's fiscal difficulties as an excuse for their own new defense miserliness.

At the same time, Canberra has intensified its alliance with the United States and aligned with the Obama Administration's rebalancing strategy.  A cynic might suggest that one reason for this enthusiasm is that an alliance is so very much cheaper than investing in defense.

So where to now? The new Australian national security strategy has its strengths.  It highlights the growing importance of interstate tensions as the principal challenge in Asia, while acknowledging that terrorism has not gone away.

And it has a more balanced take on the future of Asia than Canberra's 2012 economic policy blueprint for the Asian Century, which accentuated the positive and downplayed risk.

But watch for the third and final text in the strategic policy canon of Gillard’s Australia — a new Defense White Paper, due this year.

Will it set out a credible plan for modernizing and funding robust maritime capabilities to match Australia's interests in a stable Indo-Pacific order? And will the conservative opposition under Tony Abbott, very possibly the next government, be willing at the very least to match it?

These will be the tests of whether Australia is serious any more about security.