The Australian Minister of Defense Visits Washington: November 2019


By Anne Borzycki

The Australian Minister for Defence, Senator the Honorable Linda Reynolds CSC, spoke to the Hudson Institute in Washington DC on 1 November 2019.  The topic of her presentation was The US-Australia Defence Alliance in a Contested World.

Following a reaffirmation of the Australian-US relationship, a reflection on the durability and duration of this relationship, and the shared histories and culture that underpin it, the Minister directed the focus of her presentation to the future.

The discussion about this future was framed by four key themes:

  • A vision for the Australia-US alliance
  • The new and different challenges that will be faced together
  • How to address these challenges leveraging each others respective strengths and differences
  • How to capitalize on the areas of diversity and difference and balance them with the shared values to deliver regional and global peace and prosperity

While the presentation explored the Australia-US relationship, and these four themes, through the lens of military capability and hard power deterrence, there was an interesting sub-theme that related to economic security and regional stability.

It is this sub-theme that will be the focus of my discussion.

The Minister stated up-front that as a three-ocean nation, ‘Australia has a very clear and engaged view of the Indo-Pacific region…’.  This geographic reality is at the heart of Australia’s regional engagement and security and economic policies.

The Minister said that the challenges for Australia ‘go well beyond’ those that could be considered traditionally ‘military’.

Today, ‘economic coercion, foreign interference … and cyber attacks are amongst the sort of tools and measures we have now seen employed to avoid direct conflict and preserve a thin veneer of deniability in pursuing strategic objectives.’

In order to constructively deal with these challenges to protect Australia’s economic sovereignty, the Minister stressed the importance of Australia actively building regional partnerships.

She observed that before the next decade is over, 4 of the world’s 5 largest economies in purchasing power parity terms are likely to be in Asia – China, India, Japan and Indonesia.   Australia has benefited to date by the economic growth and prosperity of Asian nations.

And as the Minister said, Australia will continue to benefit as ‘export markets to our north continue to expand and diversify.’

An ongoing discussion in Australia amongst academics, the media and politicians, is the paradox of the Australia-China relationship. 

A significant and economically vital trading partner, yet also considered a threat in many ways to Australia’s national security.  Minister Reynolds addressed this matter in part by referring to Australia’s world-leading role in legislating counter foreign interference laws and the steps taken to secure critical networks and infrastructure, while at the same time ‘broadening and intensifying our partnerships … because China’s engagement is vital for strengthening institutions that underpin the free flow of trade…’.

The Minister acknowledged that ‘China’s dynamism and our trade complementarities make Australia and China natural economic partners for securing the prosperity of our respective nations.’

However, the management of this relationship required ‘very deft handling’.

While Australia would cooperate with China wherever possible to enhance the security of the region, the Minister stressed that Australia only does so ‘from a very clear position that our values are what define us as a nation and that maintenance of those values is non-negotiable.’

As Australia continues to champion the rules-based order, and work with allies and friends in the Indo-Pacific region to foster economic security and stability, the Minister sees a very real and ongoing role for Australia’s historic ally and friend, the US.

Indeed, she emphasized that the US has been ‘key to the Indo-Pacific success story of both peace but also for prosperity, and the future of both hinge on sustaining and deepening US engagement.’

She went on to say that this engagement ‘is about more than committing military strength, as crucial as this has been and will continue to be … it is also about fostering economic growth and strengthening democratic institutions … US soft power plays a vital role to this end.’

Australia as always, will partner and support US endeavours as necessary and appropriate.

The shared history and values, and past cooperation, make Australia and the US an obvious partnership to address the future challenges of the Indo-Pacific region.

The Minister said that ‘Australia makes no apology for its relentless advocacy of deep, broad-based and ongoing US regional engagement’.

She emphasized this point with the following unambiguous statement about Australia’s expectation from the US:

‘It is squarely in Australia’s interests for our great friend and our closest ally to remain partner of choice in the region, a partner who remains deeply invested in the region and in an open global economy and a rules-based trading system no less than in a security presence with potent deterrent capability.’

Australia’s Minister for Defence has clearly articulated an intersection between economic security and the security of Australia and the nations of the region. 

She highlighted that the free flow of trade and an open global economy increases the security of Australians.  She has identified that critical Australian networks and infrastructure need legislative protection from foreign interference.

And that military capability in and of itself is but one way in which national security is ensured.

During the Q&A section of her presentation, Minister Reynolds noted that in supporting regional stability and security, Australia has taken a whole-of-government approach, because the challenges in the region cannot be addressed by the Department of Defence alone. 

And she makes a very good point with this observation.  The world has become more challenging, and the threats to security and sovereignty have become more pervasive and pernicious.

The interconnected global economy is delivering prosperity, but it also makes nations more vulnerable.

Notably, Australia, at the end of a very long global supply chain, is perhaps even more vulnerable than most.

It is therefore unfortunate that the whole-of-government approach taken to assist Australia’s regional allies and friends as they navigate future challenges, has not been adopted in delivering national security for Australia.

How can the Australian government understand and manage the interconnected elements of national security (for example the economy, infrastructure, maritime trade, energy, environment, defence) without a whole-of-government approach?

This whole of government approach should be integrated under a National Security Strategy.  Australia does not have one.

The last time Australia had a national security strategy was 2013 but this was lost in the transition to the Abbott Government.

The world has changed, and as Minister Reynolds highlighted in her presentation, the world is continuing to change and the challenges to be faced are mounting.

Australia has stated its expectations of the US in the region – perhaps the time has come for Australia to develop its own national security strategy as well.

Anne Borzycki is Director of the Institute for Integrated Economic Research – Australia and a former Air Force Group Captain.

Transcript - Linda Reynolds