Advancing Australia’s regional interests: don’t ditch the POE
20 Apr 2015|

Map: Oceania in its broader geostrategic settingIf there was an award for most audacious title for a blog, Peter Layton’s ‘Shortcomings of the next defence white paper’ would surely take the prize.  It was posted just months after the 2013 edition hit the streets and immediately following the then-new minister’s ASPI address. To be fair, the focus of his criticism was on what he regards as an overly narrow white paper process rather than the future volume’s possible content.

As we approach the launch of an actual DWP, probably in the third quarter of this year, it doesn’t seem quite so bold to offer unsolicited advice on the direction of a work-in-progress. Doing so still has its perils, as we can only speculate what the document will say. But it’ll be too late to influence the strategy (or final adjustments to the May Budget) once it’s published, and there are some pretty strong clues as to its likely shape. Prime Minister Tony Abbott last week announced we’ll purchase two more giant C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, and announced the dispatch of an important ADF–NZDF mission to train Iraqi troops against ISIL on the eve of a long run of Centenary-of-ANZAC commemorative activities. This week, ADF troops will join US and Philippines forces in, as Fairfax puts it, ‘South China Sea war games’ for only the second time, and as China builds artificial islands and military facilities on disputed reefs.

With other analysts now commencing or already well into their own preemptive strikes and raids on the white paper, I’ve just published a new ASPI paper, ‘No exit: next steps for promoting South Pacific peace and prosperity’.

My report’s main aim is simply to remind readers not to lose sight of the importance of our near neighbourhood as Australia naturally focuses more on its global interests in a changing and challenging international environment. But I particularly wanted to make a security case for preserving a substantial and well-targeted development assistance program as savage aid cuts loom. That message still tends to be based mainly on appeals to the public’s conscience (some partial counter-examples here and here), despite aid’s contribution to regional growth and cohesion, given the clear nexus between underdevelopment, insecurity, and instability.

While I welcomed Foreign Minister Julie Bishop bringing the aid program under more hard-headed discipline in pursuit of our national interest, it’s hard to see how it’ll be able to do much more than tread-water after it’s defunded by 20% next month, despite all the promise of the new aid paradigm and just-launched innovation hub. I also wanted to offer some concrete suggestions for enhancing our regional diplomacy and security engagement.

If the Abbott Government’s inclinations, experience, and spending plans all point to the next white paper discarding the 2013 edition’s stipulation that we only buy military equipment needed to prevent direct attacks against Australia or to contribute to regional security, Alan Dupont suggests the focus on the loose arc referred to as our ‘area of direct military interest’, ‘primary area of strategic interest’, or ‘primary operational environment’ (POE) in successive declaratory strategic policies is, in any case, past its use-by date. Rory Medcalf, meanwhile, wonders whether we’ll be forced to reassess whether we’re even able to remain the security provider of last resort for a ‘troubled neighbourhood’ by the possibility future crises could overwhelm our ability to respond. That question may gain significance as PNG’s population climbs towards 15 million in 2030 and up to 30 million by 2050, for example. Others, however, would argue its more helpful to focus on opportunities than glass-half-full risks, with the region in better shape than at any point since strife re-emerged in Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands, Fiji saw a fourth coup, and rioters torched Tonga’s capital nine years ago.

For me, as causes for serious concern remain, and the very trends fixing our attention on global worries could raise the cost of regional problems, we don’t have an either/or choice to focus on nearby or distant challenges. It’s not an option to ignore potential disorder nearby, as it would be difficult to be more active further afield while facing potential disorder in our approaches. We’ll retain a strong interest in, and considerable capacity to promote, stability close to home and respond to contingencies. As John Howard and Alexander Downer concluded in finally deciding, against official advice, to rescue Solomon Islands in 2003, there’s no exit strategy from our own region: a failed state on our doorstep will jeopardise our own security, so it’s worth paying some premium for regional leadership. Accepting the continuing relevance of a POE wouldn’t imply it’s our sole operating environment if we shift toward a region-first-but-not-only stance. But if we need to acquire weapons for high-end coalition ops outside the POE, that shouldn’t be at the expense of equipment to lead potentially difficult missions where the ADF’s most likely to have to work.

Given the potential severity of future crises, the trick will be to prevent them arising in the first place or to de-escalate them earlier-on, so we don’t have to lead further costly, risky, and protracted interventions. Of course that’s far easier said than done. But it shouldn’t be impossible, even in a tight budgetary setting. For some possible first steps, click here.