Talking to the neighbours: Australia and track II defence diplomacy
5 Nov 2012|

A recent Strategist post suggested that Canberra should take a closer look at ‘80-20’ solutions in the forthcoming Defence White Paper. In essence, it argues that Canberra should consider simple and cheap technologies which provide similar military capabilities in lieu of the more expensive and technologically complex options. This is sage advice, to which I would add that talk is cheap—literally. One of the most effective (and most affordable) ways that Australia can protect its strategic interests is to increase its investment in defence diplomacy.

Australia is already involved in a constellation of security-focused dialogues such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit. However, if Australia is serious about promoting its interests and engaging the region it should intensify its involvement in track II, or informal, dialogues. Track II dialogues are ‘unofficial’ meetings which bring together academics, think tank scholars, non-governmental organisations, policy experts and officials in their unofficial capacities. These gatherings provide a political space for them to exchange policy ideas, identify emerging security concerns, and communicate with other countries regarding their strategic interests. The ‘informal’ nature of these meetings means they are relatively free of diplomatic constraints; thus, participants can trade information, test new ideas, and most importantly, confront sensitive security matters before they require an official or military response. Much to the detriment of Australian security diplomacy these processes are currently underutilised and underappreciated.

It would be neither difficult nor expensive for Australia to further engage in track II processes. Numerous Australian think tanks are already part of track II diplomacy and have extensive official and unofficial networks connecting them with regional governments and other think tanks. And yet what is missing is a whole-of-nation approach. That is, through partnership with these think tanks, Australian government officials could enhance their access to the already established and sophisticated informal security structure of the region. This would allow Australia to take a leading (albeit informal) role in presenting new ideas, identifying mutual security concerns and promoting regional cooperation. Furthermore, it would add a beneficial new dimension to Australia’s current participation in formal regional dialogues by helping policymakers better understand regional security concerns and avoiding potential misunderstandings. In addition to official releases, track II fora provide for the airing of alternative narratives for policy decisions. There are a few occasions in recent memory where Australia could have utilised this capability, and did not. For instance, prior to the announcement of basing US troops in Darwin, Canberra could have used track II meetings to reassure alarmed regional actors and mitigate perceptions of hostile strategies such as containment or aggression.

Likewise, Prime Minister Rudd’s vision of an Asia-Pacific Community (APC) may have garnered a better reception if it had been discussed in track II forums prior to its proposal. One reason the APC was so coldly received, particularly by Southeast Asian leaders, was that regional actors felt the idea had been ‘sprung’ on them without prior notice. This could have been avoided had Australia first presented the ideas of the APC in the informal policy space of track II and given regional actors time to acclimatise to the idea and give input and feedback. Track II processes provide space for policy explanation and justification, and could improve Australia’s foreign and defence policy, as well as our regional reputation, by making it more open and transparent. Much of regional diplomacy already flows through informal channels operating in tandem with official ones, lending even greater imperative for Australia to expand engagement in this way.

That said, Australia has already taken some very important steps in security diplomacy participation. The Shangri-La Dialogue, organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is one example. The dialogue’s mix of government representatives in their ‘official’ capacities along with extensive think tank and scholar participation has made the Shangri-La Dialogue hard to categorise. In this aspect the Shangri-La Dialogue is part of a growing category of Track 1.5 process that straddles the distinction between ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ processes. Established in 2001, the annual dialogue now attracts Defence Ministers from 27 countries. It has hosted frank discussions on both traditional and non-traditional security matters and provided a public platform for Defence Ministers to clarify state security policies. Importantly, it has allowed defence officials to meet and engage in the essential—and sometimes uncomfortable—security conversations necessary to maintain regional stability. This ‘unofficial’ Dialogue has arguably eclipsed the official regional security dialogue, the ASEAN Regional Forum,which has been labeled as process driven and ineffective (PDF).

Australia has a wealth of untapped policy expertise and influence at its fingertips. In reality, Defence wouldn’t miss $100 million (in most years – it might be more of a stretch right now). This money, equivalent to a rounding error in the Defence Capability Plan, would be better spent funding diplomacy and dialogue explaining and enhancing Australia’s strategic position. In addition to providing locations for discussion, think tanks provide timely and innovative policy research. Government investment in the track II process would increase Australia’s access to high quality policy advice and the invaluable dialogues and network connections cultivated by track II actors. Australia can use track II processes to clarify security concerns, promote mutual understanding of interests, and encourage substantive security dialogue. Furthermore, it would create open lines of communication and enhance diplomatic connections with our nearest neighbors. Talk may be cheap, but in the case of security diplomacy, it is also valuable.

Erin Zimmerman is a PhD candidate at Adelaide University, whose thesis focuses on track II diplomacy.