As the centenary of Anzac Day passes, considerable reflection and reassessment has taken place. Despite changes to the roles Australia and New Zealand play in world affairs, one international relationship has endured—their association with the Commonwealth. This, in fact, has a strategic dimension, one which they can leverage in the 21st century for mutual peace and security.
That’s why we at Commonwealth Exchange produced the report, The Commonwealth’s Call to Duty, whose foreword was written by Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP, former Secretary of State for Defence in the UK. The genesis of the report came from a blog post written on this very site.
Importantly, the report doesn’t argue for the creation of a Commonwealth defence force or a security council like NATO. Nor are we undermining US hegemony or Anglosphere ties. Rather in a world of rapidly changing geo-politics, it’s about those traditional Anglosphere defence powers creating opportunities to forge strategic links with emerging and developing Commonwealth economies.
We charted both Australia’s historic and modern connections with Commonwealth partners. Those ranged from Australia’s leading role in the Commonwealth Occupying Force in Japan in 1946 which marked the first time British troops were under full Australian command; the 1st Commonwealth Division in the Korean War in 1951; the Commonwealth’s Far East Strategic Reserve in Malaysia in 1954; then participation in the Commonwealth Monitoring Force in Zimbabwe in 1980.
As for Australia’s modern and future links, it remains a part of the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) with four other Commonwealth partners (the UK, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore). The Arrangement holds annual tri-force exercises and is described as ‘particularly well suited to likely future strategic circumstances…as it is a non-provocative form of hedging and confidence building’.
Australia could enhance many of its current ties. For example, one joint think tank study suggested Australia help Canada join the FPDA, install reciprocal defence attachés, establish annual defence minister meetings, and work together sharing expertise on Arctic and Antarctic responsibilities. With New Zealand it was recently acknowledged by both governments that despite the traditional close ties and their annual Defence Ministers meeting (ANZMM) the ‘yearly cycle of talks has become overly driven by process…and our very closeness can at times mean we do not push the limited of effective co-operation’. Australia’s link to Malaysia is also strong with its personnel at the Royal Malaysian Air Force Base Butterworth, but also with regular army and naval exercises. This led the Australian Government to state that ‘there is a strong foundation for this relationship to develop further’.
Of significant interest is the nascent defence partnership with India. A number of Australian commentators have said focusing on being a Pacific power ignores the wider aim of establishing Australia as an Indo-Pacific power. The new bilateral deal will see regular defence ministers’ meetings and maritime exercise, but one leading Indian think tank has said that deeper security cooperation is likely to take a long time to develop.
Not forgetting the AUS–UK relationship, this is underpinned by an annual Foreign and Defence Minister meeting (AUKMIN). However, as another author on The Strategist has said: ‘Wallowing in heritage and history is no substitute for an active and more strategic relationship…it’s in Australia interests to do more with the UK to show that our strategic engagement isn’t just limited to a handful to Asia’s emerging powers’.
Therefore, the idea that Australia was not an active Commonwealth partner in defence is flawed, while opportunities for doing more in the modern era are certainly apparent. The question is how could Australia advance these links as well as create new ones?
Our report’s major proposal is the creation of a Commonwealth Security Forum (CSF) to take place alongside the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. It could follow the hugely successful example of International Institute of Strategic Studies’ Dialogue series.
A CSF would provide all Commonwealth nations with the chance to discuss, understand and develop responses to a number of fundamental strategic concerns. It would also allow for private bilateral meetings to take place which could aid Australia in developing the Commonwealth ties mentioned above.
Another recommendation is for the creation of a Commonwealth military scholarship to allow young officers the chance to study in other Commonwealth nations thereby increasing educational understanding, as well as trust and loyalty. The final proposal is to upscale officer exchange programs between Commonwealth nations which will foster greater interoperability and camaraderie between members.
Crucial to the understanding of the Commonwealth strategic concerns is that we are looking ahead, not backwards. Ultimately solutions to the Commonwealth’s pressing defence problems need progressive and modern architecture to deal with them.
The last word should go to Dr Fox: ‘We cannot have too much dialogue or an excess of information in the era of globalisation. It may be that the Commonwealth could be coming of age in the right way at the right time. It is time to be bold’.