Government focuses on strategic shaping as DFAT drops soft-power review
22 Feb 2021|

‘Australia’s strategic environment has deteriorated more rapidly than anticipated … Our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War … The Indo-Pacific is at the centre of greater strategic competition, making the region more contested and apprehensive.’

— Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, ‘Foreword’, 2020 defence strategic update

Australia’s new policy is to ‘shape’ our strategic environment.

While announced as a defence job, shaping in international affairs involves everything from military force to the power of ideas.

So it’s ironic that as Canberra embraces shaping, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has quietly dropped its review of Australia’s soft power.

In the middle of the pandemic year, Australia unveiled its thoughts on strategic shaping just as China took out a hammer and went bang. Here was a decisive bit of Beijing shaping.

On 30 June, China imposed its new security law on Hong Kong. The four major crimes—separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries—are ambiguously worded with devastating effect. China reshaped Hong Kong’s future with brutal finality, casting aside much Beijing once agreed to maintain.

The Chinese flag went up in Hong Kong at midnight on 30 June, 1997; the Chinese hammer came down on 30 June 2020. The new law meant that one country, two systems, became one country, one system: the end of Hong Kong as we’ve known it.

China gave dramatic point to Australia’s discussion of how things are shaping (or losing shape).

The following day, 1 July, Australia’s defence strategic update was issued. The update is short and sharp, at only 61 pages. And explicit. If this is the public version, imagine the darkness in the longer, secret version.

The update frets at friction and strain and disruption and challenge in the global order. Economic or strategic goals are achieved by coercion. The risk of state-on-state conflict rises.

Defence was rough on sacred cows. The update ditched 50 years of strategic theology: Australia no longer believes it has 10 years’ warning of a conventional conflict, based on the time it’d take an adversary to prepare and mobilise for war.

Another ‘essential element’ squeezed was the superiority of the Australian Defence Force in the region. The 2016 defence white paper had traditional words about ‘maintaining the ADF’s technology and capability superiority over potential adversaries’. Four years on, that comforting ‘superiority’ has ebbed. All the update gives is an edge: ‘Military modernisation in the Indo-Pacific has accelerated faster than envisaged. Regional force modernisation has resulted in the development and deployment of new weapons that challenge Australia’s military capability edge.’

In its opening pages—with a foreword from the prime minister and defence minister, an executive summary and a chapter on Australia’s strategic environment—the update is a foreign policy statement as much as a defence document.

To read those first 20 pages as foreign policy is more than merely accepting the critics’ line that Oz policy has been seized by the Department of Defence and the security agencies. Here is how Australia sees its world.

Certainly, it’s true that Defence introduced Canberra to its new geographic construct: the Indo-Pacific. In the 2013 defence white paper, the Indo-Pacific replaced the Asia–Pacific to broaden the frame of reference and factor in India. Defence trumped the liberal-internationalist flavour of the ‘Asian century’.

The ‘new framework’ in the 2020 update says Australia wants (emphasis not added) ‘to deploy military power to shape Australia’s strategic environment, deter actions against our interests and, when required, respond with credible military force’.

Deterring and responding are mostly military missions, but shaping needs more than the military.

Shaping describes what we can attempt, indicating caution about what we can define, demand or deliver in this ‘contested and apprehensive’ time.

As shaping has its gaze firmly fixed on power, it’s surprising Canberra is narrowing how it conceptualises it.

In the shaping power contest, our diplomats have been told not to bother being too ambitious. The pandemic is changing the game too quickly for DFAT to bother pondering ‘soft power’. No bandwidth is available for fresh thoughts about influencing the behaviour of others through the power of attraction and ideas.

The review of Australia’s soft power has been shut down. The soft-power death notice issued by DFAT reads:

Following the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the Government concluded that we should not continue with a review process that was no longer as relevant to the significantly changed global environment. The Review was discontinued in October 2020.

Pursuing Australia’s interests during the COVID-19 response, the economic recovery and as we enter a post-COVID era will required a focused, deliberate effort integrating all tools of statecraft, including Australia’s considerable soft power.

The review had been in the works for two years, starting in August 2018. Much of the writing had been done and the dollars debated.

The review was promised by DFAT’s 2017 foreign policy white paper. That document has only eight chapters, with its concluding chapter devoted to how Australia’s soft power amplifies our international influence.

Things die in Canberra’s jungle for many reasons: lack of political champions, the idea doesn’t win, the dollars go elsewhere. Soft power was too tied to the prime minister and foreign minister who issued the foreign policy white paper, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop.

The unwillingness or inability to conceptualise and grow soft power emphasises earlier failures: the way we trashed and burned and discarded one of our key foreign policy instruments, our international media voice.

In the 1990s, Australia had a TV news presence in East Asia that competed with CNN and the BBC. Today that’s gone.

Until the last decade, Australia was the pre-eminent international media voice in the South Pacific, as we had been since World War II. Today we’ve lost that singular role. New Zealand, for the first time, might just be ahead of us, and China is everywhere.

Hard news and free media used to be the sharp edge of Australian soft power. No more.

In these troubled times—whether new cold war or new hot peace—Canberra has a narrow understanding of the tools available for the great shaping mission.