Australia, concentric circles and strategic priorities
10 May 2016|

(1)The issue of setting strategic priorities is one that’s dogged Australian defence white papers since their inception in the mid-1970s. History, culture, strategic commitments and global power balances pull Australian priorities outwards. British settlement of Australia initially tied our fate to that of the British empire; our Western cultural roots made us more comfortable dealing with states and societies founded on similar values; our ties to great and powerful friends encouraged us to paint on a broader canvas; and our distance from key global power balances meant that if we wanted to be a force for good in the world we’d have to be expansive in our strategic priority-setting.

On the other hand, geography, nationalism, the expectations of friends and allies, and what we might call ‘doability’ pull those priorities inwards. All other things being equal, we’re more likely to be worried about proximate events than distant ones; the growth of Australian nationalism has fed the case for defence self-reliance; our friends and allies expect us to lead security operations close to our own shores; and, given the constraints upon our power and the nature of our own backyard, we’re typically more able to ‘do something’ about a problem close to home rather than one that’s half a world away.

Enter DWP 2016. Chapter 3 outlines the current government’s thinking about that issue. It bears a careful reading. The broad structure of the chapter is one that follows a ‘concentric circles’ model—the separation of strategic interests and objectives into three distinct circles, with a secure and resilient Australia at its core, a secure near abroad of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific in a second circle, and a stable Indo-Pacific and global rules-based order in the third circle.

The concentric-circles model of Australian strategic priorities is traditionally deployed by those who want to argue that geography matters, since the whole point of the structure is to emphasise the strategic priority of continental Australia and those areas proximate to it. But DWP 2016 specifically rejects that thought. Indeed, it insists that geography is a poor way to think about Australia’s strategic priorities: ‘Australia’s security and prosperity is directly affected by events outside our region and is not just linked to our geography or confronting threats solely in our maritime approaches’ (para 3.33).

That argument seems sound, and it’s a thought that other Defence publications have echoed before. As the Howard government’s Defence Update 2007 put it, ‘Australia’s national interests are not spread uniformly across the globe, but nor do they decline in proportion to the distance from our shoreline.’ Proximity might matter more when all other things are equal, but when are they ever equal? Yes, a coup in Tonga matters more to us than a coup in Togo, but not more than a coup in Russia or a coup in Pakistan.

But DWP 2016 is less clear in outlining what Australia’s strategic policy actually is. Read para 3.2, for example:

‘In response to this complex and uncertain strategic environment, the Government’s strategic defence policy is to manage strategic challenges by: developing Defence’s capabilities and agility to take a more active role in shaping regional affairs and to respond to developments which threaten our interests; while strengthening our alliance with the United States and developing our partnerships with other countries.’ (para 3.2)

To be honest, that treats strategic policy as a mere management problem—and one that focuses on instruments rather than outcomes. But the broad sentiment of the paragraph is in favour of upstream shaping rather than downstream hedging. Just look at the verbs: shaping, responding, strengthening, developing. The paragraph says that, during an era of regional transformation, Australian strategic policy will be ‘hands-on’.

Yes, the strategic policy that emerges from the broader document does suggest a step away from the concept of defence self-reliance. Kim Beazley’s pointed out that DWP 2016 doesn’t even use the term ‘self reliance’. To be fair, it does deploy the adjective ‘self-reliant’ twice (at paras 1.15 and 3.13), on both occasions in relation to the defence of Australian territory, and once even observing that such a defence remains the government’s ‘highest priority’. But its strategic policy is better described as ‘self-reliance plus’, not ‘self reliance’.

And even that concept’s not new (see para 6.16 of DWP 2009, for example.) What’s new is the relative distribution of weight between the ‘self reliance’ part of the phrase and the ‘plus’. DWP 2009 reached the ‘plus’ missions only after an exhaustive exploration of the virtues of self reliance. DWP 2016 implicitly accepts that self reliance in the defence of Australia offers limited leverage in shaping the emerging region. As a strategic policy, it’s more reactive than proactive. And it fits best in a strategic framework of classic state-on-state military engagements, not the complex hybrid security environment that now confronts us.

We’ve always had strategic priorities besides the defence of our continent. And not surprisingly, that’s the part of our strategic policy that’s most contentious. Engagements in distant theatres always provoke questions. Why should we be involved? Which Australian interests are at stake, and how are they threatened? What sort of contribution can we make? Those are questions that have bedevilled Australian strategic policy for decades. DWP 2016, with its emphasis on shaping, suggests we won’t be shrinking from those questions anytime soon.