Having nearly a five year gap between ‘annual’ national security statements does offer one benefit—the chance to compare and contrast successive documents to assess directions and decisions. PM Gillard quietly disposed of the ‘annual’ burden in two ways. First, she trumped the National Security Statement Kevin Rudd issued in 2008 (PDF), with a grander sounding National Security Strategy. Second, she announced that the strategy will be renewed on a five-year cycle.
There is an element of Spinal Tap message management in going from a mere statement to the grand plains of strategy. But the shift makes sense at several levels beyond the political. The new five-year schedule for national security updates comes into line with the five-year cycle of Defence White Papers. Certainly, this strategy document settles some of the conceptual parameters for the White Paper that Defence is expected to issue by mid-year. And in a parallel with the Defence Capability Plan, there’s to be a National Security Capability Plan.
The National Security Strategy is the bridge that links the optimistic liberal internationalism of the Asia Century White Paper (we are all going to trade our way to happiness) to the state-based realism of the Defence White Paper (as Gillard expressed it, ‘the most basic expression of our sovereignty’).
Beyond carping about message-management, the Gillard document does have some of the sinews of strategy (although still lacking money muscle—more on that from Peter Jennings in a coming post). A lot more wordage and nice graphics have been thrown at the document than went into Rudd’s 2008 statement. That partly reflects the changed bureaucratic reality. The position of the National Security Adviser and the new national security coordination role in the PM’s Department is set and settled. The Strategy is an expression of this now established institutional role.
While on that point, there was one interesting whack by Gillard at Canberra’s existing structure: ‘My message to the national security community is: if you see a silo, dig it up’. Such a tear-down-that-wall instruction suggests that the PM and her National Security Adviser are not quite as sanguine and satisfied about how well all the Canberra players are partnering as was the 2011 Independent Review of the Intelligence Community.
The change in tone offered by Gillard was her comment that we have entered the post-9/11 decade. Mark that as a continuation with a harder emphasis of the direction flagged by Kevin Rudd in his 2008 statement. The biggest Rudd departure from the Howard Government’s language was his relative demotion of terrorism and the promotion of climate change as security issues. The language in the 2008 Statement put terrorism on par with a range of other scourges, from people smugglers and organised crime down to the need for e-security against cyber attacks.
The Australian Greens have noted that the new strategy demotes climate change in much the same way that non-state actors have dropped down the list. In Gillard’s national security hierarchy, the state is back at centre stage, and that applies as much to the cyber domain as to the ‘strategic competition’ she identifies between the US and China.
In the National Security Strategy, the US still dominates Australia’s view (nearly 40 references in the document) but China isn’t far behind, with close to 30 appearances. By comparison, mentions of Indonesia score in the low 20s; India and the Indian Ocean pop up a total of 15 times, while Japan gets less than ten references. Regard that as a crude but accurate hierarchy.
In terms of presentation, Indonesia gets its own section (Australia’s Security Relationship with Indonesia) near the front of the document, in the second chapter on Australia’s strategic environment. In setting the parameters for the Defence White Paper, the nub of the Strategy is the section on ‘China’s role in the region’ in chapter four. Here, there is a lot of panda hugging going on as both the Asia Century White Paper and the National Security Strategy set the scene for the coming Defence White Paper.
The Strategy accepts that China and the US are going to make Asia’s weather, strategically as well as economically. But China’s military growth is described as ‘natural’ and ‘legitimate’. The prescription offered to deal with growing confrontation and competition is to avoid escalation, keep everyone focussed on economic growth and deeper trade integration, openness and transparency, and ‘more open and active engagement by China with the region’. It might look a bit thin, but this is an election year, cash is tight and a lot of happy whistling might have to suffice.
One other presentational point is worth noting. The Rudd Statement in 2008 was given in Parliament. The traditionalist in me says that Gillard, too, should have made her speech to the House of Representatives, not at the Australian National University. A Prime Minister heading a minority government might be expected to pay more attention to Parliamentary prerogatives. Eventually, the Strategy document will be tabled in Parliament and we might even get some formal debate. But in such matters these days, message management and the mastery of the minders are paramount and Parliament comes in a distant second.
The Prime Minister takes centre stage in a well-managed event and the Opposition doesn’t even get to share the platform. Rudd set the standard by releasing his Defence White Paper on a frigate in Sydney Harbour (great photo op!) and Gillard also released her Asian Century White Paper in Sydney.
Such spin shouldn’t obscure the substance to be found in this Strategy announcement. The true test of this document won’t be its presentation but how it is translated into dollars and diplomacy.
Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalism fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user LEOL30.