The new Defence White Paper sets out that ‘Australia’s security and prosperity depend on a stable Indo–Pacific region and rules-based global order’. This is the last of three strategic defence interests identified in the paper, with a secure, resilient Australia (including secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communication) and a secure nearer region (encompassing maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific) completing the triad. In order to defend this interest, the White Paper identifies some areas where Australia is and should continue to contribute military capabilities to global coalition operations, with UN peacekeeping operations included among that list in line with approaches in more recent White Papers.
Since the release of the last White Paper in 2013, Australia’s contributions to UN peacekeeping have continued to decline. There are currently just over 30 ADF personnel deployed to UN operations in South Sudan and the Middle East. When you add the nearly dozen AFP personnel also serving on UN peace operations, Australia is ranked 84th out of 123 military and police contributors (as of December 2015). On the issue of contributing further ADF personnel to UN-led operations, the White Paper states (at para 3.31):
‘Australia remains one of the most active supporters of the United Nations and Defence will continue to make tailored contributions to United Nations operations in the future where it is in Australia’s interests to do so. In addition to possible contributions to peacekeeping operations, Defence will continue working with the United Nations to build its capacity to lead international efforts to respond to global security challenges. Our efforts will include providing targeted funding and expertise to help the United Nations develop standards and training for its future peacekeeping operations’.
If you’re just looking at numbers, then the claim in this White Paper that Australia is ‘one of the most active supporters of the United Nations’ is readily disputed in contrast to our regional neighbours, with China (9th) and Indonesia (12th) each having close to 3,000 military personnel deployed to UN operations. Of course, numbers aren’t the only reflection of a commitment to UN peacekeeping. Australia can point to other areas of policy and financial support, including its recent term on the UN Security Council. Those numbers also don’t reflect other deployed contributions Australia is making to the ‘rules-based global order’, particularly in the Middle East. However, those avenues of support don’t provide a substitute for operational experience in a UN context.
With most blue helmets currently deployed on the African continent, one of the challenges in assessing Australia’s interests in engaging further in UN peacekeeping is the need for a more nuanced approach to security interests and geographical priorities in Africa. That isn’t explored in any real depth in the current White Paper, even though there is acknowledgement that terrorism and state fragility, particularly in northern and sub-Saharan Africa, are among the strategic drivers shaping the security environment to 2035.
Despite the lack of clarity around ongoing UN peacekeeping engagement, the White Paper identifies peacekeeping as one of several platforms for bilateral and regional Defence cooperation in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Peacekeeping is referred to in the White Paper as a mechanism for cooperation with China, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. It also notes Australia’s engagement with the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus in the area of peacekeeping, and recognises the willingness of regional neighbours Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga to make contributions to UN and other multilateral peacekeeping operations. These statements suggest peacekeeping remains a useful mechanism for Australia’s international defence engagement.
Nevertheless, if Australia’s operational engagement in UN peacekeeping doesn’t expand in the coming decade, it’ll be increasingly difficult for the ADF to maintain credibility to deliver on these cooperation programs as well as areas of support articulated in the White Paper, such as working with the UN to develop standards or provide training support. There’s a real risk that any further deterioration in Australia’s engagement in UN peacekeeping will result in a deficit of knowledge within the ADF and Defence about how UN operations function, creating a challenging situation should there be a need for a UN or regional peacekeeping force to support Australia’s second strategic defence interest for a more ‘secure nearer region’ in the future, particularly given concerns identified about instability in the South Pacific.
In the broader context of Australia’s strategic defence interests, UN peacekeeping is only a small piece of the puzzle and the assessments provided in the White Paper reflect this reality. But it’s worth remembering that Australia’s defence interests have required significant engagement and cooperation with the UN in the past. At a time when the US, UK, European partners and our regional neighbours are increasing their support UN peacekeeping as a means to address the ever-increasing range of security challenges and support the rules-based global order, Australia should be more substantively considering how it might do the same. The White Paper provides a framework to embark on that discussion, but Defence will need to work with other government partners to develop a strategic approach on the way forward.