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Defending Australia’s national interests in a changing world

Posted By on December 11, 2015 @ 12:30

Stephen Conroy [1]

The security challenges across the globe are numerous and complex, and the post-Cold War peace dividend is an increasingly distant memory. I see two main security trends at play. The first is ungoverned spaces and fragile states. Instead of the hoped for end to the 9/11 decade, extremist groups continue to take advantage of ungoverned spaces and weak states to establish safe-havens from which they export violence.

That’s most obvious in the Middle East, but it is occurring across the globe, including in Africa and Asia. Radicalised non-state actors are a new normal—and, as a result, Australia has once again committed significant numbers of military personnel to the Middle East.

Labor has provided bipartisan support for Australia’s assistance to Iraq and, more recently, air operations across Iraq’s border with Syria. We believe it’s in the national interest to contribute to the campaign against Daesh, although we’ve been upfront about our concerns with the coherence of the strategy guiding the international effort.

Labor isn’t alone in its concerns—and there has been much criticism in recent months of the international strategy in Iraq and Syria. Some of this criticism, frankly, appears to be motived more by a desire to achieve political change in Washington than in Damascus.

Yet it’s true that, to date, the international effort hasn’t achieved all that we might hope. But we shouldn’t overlook some of the successes. The briefings I’ve received indicate that Daesh’s aggressive advance in Iraq has been largely halted, and in some instances, reversed. Our training efforts—which will ultimately help Iraq protect itself—are making progress. But our role is a supporting role.

The key to success will be a demonstrable commitment by Iraq’s leaders to overcoming sectarian divides and to unite for a common goal. I believe success is Iraq is achievable—but only Iraq’s people and their leaders can provide the fundamental ingredient for success.

Meanwhile, the situation in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe and a threat to global security. We must acknowledge that a durable solution will demand more than just military intervention—it will require diplomatic effort and a political solution. There won’t be a lasting solution absent an agreed way forward between the major players involved in the conflict.

If an agreed solution ultimately calls for additional international contributions, then that’s something Australia should consider—and Labor will be a constructive partner in those discussions.

But, as a starting point, the international community should be encouraging the Arab states with the means to do so to secure a post‑conflict Syria.

Ungoverned spaces and weak states are one of two key security trends—the other is shifting power relations. It’s in our region, to our north, where the greatest shifts are occurring—a generational transformation is underway as decades of stability lead to enormous economic growth.

In a post-GFC world in which developed economies have struggled to grow, Asia has become the world’s economic engine. But as economic weight has shifted to our region, so too has strategic competition increased. Asia’s economic rise has led to a period of intense military build-up and modernisation.


Of themselves, those trends are neither surprising nor a cause for alarm. It’s understandable that countries with healthy economies will want to modernise their militaries—and having more capable militaries in the region that can contribute to common security goals is desirable.

But coupled with a lack of transparency and historical grievances, those trends could have unforeseen consequences. In a period of flux, it would be comforting to assume that the multilateral system that has served us well to date will be a stabilising force.

But as DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese has noted, multilateralism is under intense pressure and isn’t delivering on our expectations. In Mr Varghese’s words: ‘emerging powers are no longer willing to accept rules they did not write or outcomes which they perceive do not take their interests into account.’

As a result, the future of global leadership could be described as contested. For a middle power like Australia, for whom the international system provides a means to project our interests beyond our relative strategic weight, that’s a concerning prospect.

Notwithstanding the shifts underway, for the foreseeable future, the US will remain the preeminent global and regional power. Labor strongly believes that this special relationship remains firmly in our national interest—and that an engaged and active US is a common good for our region.

Our alliance is an art, not a science—it’s a relationship that isn’t defined by a precise formula or quid pro quo—and it’s more than the sum of its parts. It’s also, in my view, a relationship that requires constant investment, innovation and reinvention to meet new challenges.

Labor has been at the forefront of evolving the alliance to respond to new challenges. This includes extending the ANZUS treaty to cover cyber threats, and increased bilateral cooperation on space.

China’s rise is at the centre of changes occurring in our region. It isn’t the only factor, but it is the most prominent. And its relationship with the US will be the defining feature of this century.

Labor strongly supports the peaceful rise of China. As our relationship with China matures and deepens over time, so too should we expand the links between our defence forces and personnel.

While others have argued that China’s rise will lead to an inevitable ‘choice’ for Australia between our alliance with the US and our growing relationship with China—I disagree. I reject the notion that there must be a binary, zero sum ‘choice’. We are, in the words of Defence Secretary Dennis Richardson, ‘friends with both, allies with one’.

I believe that we can continue to invest in our alliance with the US while we simultaneously seek to build cooperation with China.

It’s important to acknowledge that our relationships with both differ. Our relationship with the US is long and deep. Our relationship with modern China is only just developing. It’s a relationship centred on trade that, I hope, will develop over time into a rounded and mature relationship as trust and confidence builds.

We can expect China to want a greater say in existing global and regional arrangements and institutions—and to promote new arrangements and institutions which reflect its interests.

But trust and confidence will also require China to demonstrate a commitment to supporting the international system of laws and norms from which both our countries have directly benefited.

Nowhere is it more apparent that the international system is under pressure and in need of support than in our region—particularly in the South China Sea. As a maritime trading nation, we have a direct interest in freedom of navigation and are the beneficiaries of an international system of laws and norms.

We don’t take a position on the competing claims—whether they be the claims of China, the Philippines, Vietnam—or any other claimant.  Our interest—Australia’s interest—is in supporting the international system.

For this reason, Labor welcomes the recent activities by the United States in the South China Sea as an important affirmation of international law and norms.  I believe that other likeminded countries, including Australia, also have an obligation to act in support of international law and norms in the South China Sea.

Those actions mustn’t be directed at any single claimant.  And I would encourage all nations to become parties to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, including the United States, as a confidence building measure and further step towards a normative rules based approach to resolving disputes.

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