Australia’s message for NATO
11 Jul 2023|

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese heads to Vilnius for this week’s NATO summit needing to deliver the clear messages that Australia continues to be a serious supporter of Ukraine, that it remains of free will when it comes to managing Beijing, and that transatlantic and Indo-Pacific security are linked. All three issues will be on the minds of his NATO counterparts.

Australia prides itself in punching above its weight on the international stage. It was Australia that first looked beyond the seemingly interminable threat of terrorism to focus the world on the modern-day challenges emanating from the Chinese Communist Party—strengthening foreign investment regimes, calling out cyber intrusions, protecting technology and infrastructure, supporting Southeast Asian neighbours against illegal unilateral activities in the South China Sea and taking action against what we now know as foreign interference.

In recent years Australia’s policies and actions helped wake up the rest of the world to authoritarian aggression and the importance of the Indo-Pacific. The US and India, through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, are more invested in the region, and there are a series of Indo-Pacific strategies, including from the EU, France, the UK, South Korea and recently Lithuania, that highlight increased awareness of ASEAN centrality and the need for collective action against Beijing’s worst behaviour. Yesterday, during a visit to Berlin ahead of NATO, Albanese and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz reinforced the strengthening of military ties, including relating to defence in the Indo-Pacific.

Notwithstanding some unfortunate but unsurprising reluctance from French President Emmanuel Macron, NATO is seeking greater collaboration with this region by inviting the Indo-Pacific partner countries to Vilnius and considering Japan’s offer of a Tokyo liaison office.

Previously, it would have been a hard sell for our prime minister to convince NATO or the EU of the relevance of the Indo-Pacific and threats posed by Beijing.

Now it is NATO countries’ turn to wonder where Australia stands on the rapidly growing concerns about economic security, born of the shock of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, China’s aggressive economic coercion and the Moscow–Beijing ‘no limits’ partnership. Many of our global partners have not only joined us but pushed on, embarking on an economic security strategy, showcased by Japan hosting the recent G7 meeting in which leaders proclaimed the need for ‘ongoing strategic coordination on economic resilience and economic security by reducing vulnerabilities and countering malign practices … and improving a well-functioning international rules-based system, in particular the multilateral trading system with the WTO at its core’.

Albanese’s mission should be to leave NATO colleagues in no doubt that Australia remains a leading player in this strategic coordination and collective support for international institutions and rules. This is why Australia must continue to show serious support for Ukraine. While it is understandable to think cost-of-living pressures may make the public prioritise the economy, Australians have often been able to multitask better than their governments. The outpouring of criticism following the recently announced inadequate level of assistance will hopefully lead Albanese to take to President Volodymyr Zelensky a new package of all that Australia can offer, including more Bushmasters. This will answer the question on Ukraine.

The other two questions on global security and China are intimately linked, with many of our partners recognising that there is no separation of economics and security, or of Europe and the Indo-Pacific, and that national and collective strategies are required to counter authoritarian dominance. The US, EU, Japan and others have set a policy of de-risking that means, first, ensuring against economic overdependence on China (or Russia) and, second, identifying those sectors in which engagement should be prohibited due to security threats. Last month, the European Commission released its economic security strategy, aiming to reduce risk across supply chains, outbound investment, critical infrastructure and technology, with China being both the EU’s top trading partner and security concern. Meanwhile, the Dutch have joined the US and Japan in restricting technology transfers to China, specifically chip-making equipment, to constrain Beijing’s malign military rise.

For the first year of the Albanese government, a dual-track China approach was successfully employed involving reduced political rhetoric and maintenance of security policy. It was based on a philosophy of ‘cooperate where we can, disagree where we must’, but the question has always been whether this was sustainable over the long term. A dual-track approach works only if both elements are active. Where the disagreement track is blocked, it risks returning to a failed policy of engagement without due diligence. This is because there is weakness in what must means. If diplomacy is defined as limited to positive international relations, there will be few events that policymakers and politicians will determine must be acted on. We are witnessing the horrors of war in Europe because actions that should have been taken to deter Putin over many years were not.

Australia doesn’t have to provide a decent assistance package to Ukraine, but we should consider it our responsibility. Australia doesn’t have to join other countries in sanctioning Russia, Iran and China for gross breaches of human rights, but again we should see this as our responsibility. Yet, while the US, the EU, the UK and Canada have all sanctioned those responsible for crimes against humanity in Xinjiang, including forced sterilisation and labour, Australia sits idle.

Australia didn’t have to continue the World Trade Organization case against China on barley. But Australia’s decision to suspend—and likely end—the case, despite reports we were told we were going to win, has removed the ability for all countries, in particular small states less able to take on major powers, to point to a global finding and lost the opportunity to build trust in the multilateral system we say we care about. A policy of making defence and security decisions only when required or forced to means Australia is at risk of joining those countries that are driven by the seductive prose of principles but that fail to act on them.

Instead, as a regional power, it is in Australia’s national interest to join NATO counterparts in proclaiming support for Ukraine and the inseparability of the transatlantic and Indo-Pacific. In doing so, Albanese has the opportunity to maintain the globe’s trust and confidence that Australia acts on its principles, says what it means and does what it says.