Australia risks alienating friends and deterring no one

Contributors to The Strategist’s ‘North of 26° south’ series have explored the continued importance of northern Australia to national security and defence strategy, propelling the argument for expanding air, naval and space bases in the Top End. This effort to prepare for an immediate hot-peace future doesn’t come without risk. Without adept strategic communication, we risk damaging our resilient yet fluctuating relationships with our northern neighbours.

Dino Patti Djalal, a former Indonesian deputy foreign minister, spoke at ASPI’s ‘2020 Strategic Vision’ conference on the shortfalls and long-term harm of such tactical miscalculations. He recalled being dumbstruck in 2011 when journalists questioned both him and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Hawaii on the placement of a US Marines air–ground taskforce in Darwin. He reflected that neither the Americans nor the Australians had consulted or informed the president appropriately, creating embarrassment and spurring conspiracy theories that linger to this day in the Indonesian government about Australia’s malintent. The proximity of the placement to West Papua and the Masela gas block was significant in the minds of Indonesian officials, and the unannounced development was a quiet setback to the relationship.

We urgently need to craft our strategic communication to be better positioned to fulfil our mission in the north. The 1998 letter from Australian Prime Minister John Howard to Indonesian President B.J. Habibie was indicative of communication lacking diplomatic nuance or strategic thought, ultimately backfiring and playing some role in prompting the snap referendum on independence for East Timor six months later.

While we’ve made improvements in our strategic communication since 1998, Australia at times still has a tin ear for how our neighbours will interpret our domestic policy.

If Australia sees itself as a burgeoning middle power with a responsibility to protect, or at least support, the Indo-Pacific region, we’ll need to create a consistent message aligned with our strategic goals. Was it that oversight that developed an undercurrent of anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia that sparked alight in 2017 when General Gatot Nurmantyo severed defence ties in a brief bilateral crisis? The general had spoken plainly and publicly of his concerns about the rotation of US Marines through Darwin, and accused Australia of recruiting Indonesian officers as spies.

Investment in Australian military facilities proximate to Indo-Pacific shores has increased during a downward trend in defence spending in Southeast Asia. This has the clear potential to inflame and escalate underlying anxieties. These developments, paired with the ongoing funding cuts to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, have made the need for political nuance and tact not typically characteristic of Australian ‘megaphone diplomacy’ more urgent.

If Australia is to avoid mistrust and misunderstandings, we’ll need sophisticated strategic communication to navigate a ‘poorer and more dangerous world’. We’ll need to understand what motivates the foreign policies of our northern neighbours and their indirect methods of balancing against China’s incremental incursions into their exclusive economic zones. Indonesia and ASEAN wish to see themselves as independent of great-power contests. Whether that proves to be realistic or not, we’ll need to craft our messaging to not alienate neighbours that don’t appreciate a heavy-handed approach.

South Pacific states are beginning to deviate from their traditional security relationships and leverage their geostrategic value for greater aid and investment, even if risking debt-trap diplomacy. In July at the UN Humans Rights Council, Papua New Guinea sided with China on its draconian Hong Kong national security law. It’s unclear exactly why PNG voted that way, but its signature to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative may have helped motivate the decision.

The reinvigoration behind recent military development of northern Australia hasn’t been an effort solely to deter foreign aggressors from our doorstep, but to project a credible military presence ready to support our friends in the region and maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Leveraging regional proximity, northern defence commitments promise to foster greater interoperability and the capacity to conduct surveillance against covert threats and ensure our preparedness to provide humanitarian and disaster responses. But, in failing to communicate the collective value of that investment to our security partners, we risk alienating our friends in the region and, in doing so, failing to hedge against escalating aggression from China.

The government’s defence strategic update classifies the Indonesian defence partnership as of ‘first order importance to Australia’ and alleviates anxiety that Australia would consider Indonesia a potential threat. If that’s the case, why hasn’t Canberra done more to assure Jakarta, which has historically been suspicious of the US, of the intentions behind our defensive posturing and our strategic vision for northern Australia?

While Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s embrace of the ‘Pacific family’ was arguably out of the ‘Scotty from marketing’ playbook, it did successfully reframe Australia’s renewed interest in the region. The Pacific step-up needs to communicate with Australia’s partners in our near region and lose the neo-colonial, paternalistic undertones that have existed since the term ‘arc of instability’ was coined.

Looking back on our past strategic communication failures, we need to focus on consulting with our regional partners in a whole-of-government sense so they have a deeper understanding of our strategic policy.