Australia's Security Policy

Posted in Other | 25-Oct-05 | Author: Axel Kukuk

State of the art - RQ-4 Global Hawk, unmanned aerial vehicle for reconnaissance.
State of the art - RQ-4 Global Hawk, unmanned aerial vehicle for reconnaissance.
This essay examines Australia’s current security and defense policy. Based on a threat assessment, I will portray some of Australia’s defense measures. I restricted my view to the so-called ‘hard security issues’ such as military, the fight against terrorism and the most significant - foreign relations.

Threat Assessment

The Australian government perceived the world, especially the Southeast Asian region, as a dangerous place. Statements like “Australia today is a secure country, thanks to our geography…” (Defense White Paper, 2000 p. IX) belong to the past. The possibility of a conventional military attack of Australia has further diminished and the biggest threats are now terrorism and the proliferation of Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD).

The bombings in Bali in 2002 with 88 deaths marked the single biggest overseas loss of Australian lives during peacetime. The recent Bali bombings in 2005, the attack of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004 and public announcements of possible future attacks on Australian citizens and on Australia are expressions of a perceptibly changed security environment.

Australian Security Measurers

Australia’s Defense Force

Australia’s Defense Force (ADF) is comprised of 54,000 soldiers. Like most armies in the Western world, the Australian Defense Force faces the problem of recruitment and retention (Woodmann, 2001). The changing security environment and hence the different threat assessment, as outlined in the Defense Update of 2003, lead to new tasks for the ADF. Today, an involvement in coalition and operations far away from home bases are more likely than in the past. Despite the unchanged priority of mainland defense, the government sees the task of the ADF in the provision of important niche capabilities for foreign missions. In order to fulfill this task, some necessary reform measures to ensure a more flexible and mobile force have already been taken.

Foreign military missions

The ADF has been deployed well beyond the shores of the Australian continent on several missions for over a decade. At the moment, around 1,550 Australian soldiers are deployed in 10 foreign missions, and of these, 1,320 of them are serving in Iraq (DoD, 2005). Their tasks range from monitoring missions over peacekeeping and peace enforcement to combat missions. Since the beginning of the war, Iraq has been one of the most prominent issues of Australian security and defense policy.

Some critics argue that Australia's contribution to the war in Iraq was only an attempt by the government to put credit in the alliance bank, which can be drawn if needed (Verrier, 2003). This and other criticisms of the support of the Iraq war were labeled by the government as “visceral anti-Americanism” and as a potential threat to the Australian/United States alliance. The government strongly encouraged the view that the alliance with the US is indivisible from the war on Iraq and that a weakening of the alliance would threaten Australian security. The latest foreign mission was the peacekeeping operation on the Solomon Islands, which started in 2003. After the government of the Solomon Island requested international help, an Australian-lead mission preserved the Islands from collapse through civil unrest and interference from warlords in politics.

Fighting terrorism

The Australian government takes a broad approach to fighting terrorism. In addition to troop deployments and bilateral agreements with some Asian countries that include intelligence exchange and cooperation between law enforcement agencies, the rational underpinning of Australia’s foreign aid program has shifted away from poverty alleviation and now embraces broader issues such as regional security. For example, this encompasses assistance in developing local security structures that are added to traditional areas of aid, such as infrastructure development, health and education.

Concerning home affairs, the government introduced anti-terrorists laws that are still controversial. Another domestic challenge with international implications is the government's approach to working with Muslim communities in order to emphasize that the anti-terrorism campaign is not a war on Islam.

Relationship with the US

Australia's most important and dominant foreign alliance is with the United States. Regarding statements from the current Australian government, this partnership is based on shared values and a common history. Although this strong relationship has evoked a lot of critics in the population and in science, it remains of “strong contemporary relevance” (Downer, 2005 p.9).

The advantages of this relationship for Australia are varied. A firm alliance contributes to the effort to keep the US engaged in Northeast Asia and hence to underpin regional security and stability. Australia also benefits bilaterally through intelligence exchanges and access to advanced military technology. Australia, which only spends 1.9% of it’s GDP on defense, has access to hardware, intelligence and research that would otherwise not be available within its national resources. Australia also supports US efforts to create a ballistic missile defense shield and their strategy of preemptive strikes (Camilleri, 2003).

Training for special operations.
Training for special operations.
Regional Engagement


An important organization of the Southeast Asian region is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This association meets every year. They agreed in late 2004 to create a new forum, the South East Asian Summit, which will hold its first meeting of heads of participating governments in December this year. Besides the ten original members, ASEAN decided to invite India, New Zealand and Australia. Australia risks canceling this invitation through the reluctance to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a non-aggression pact that forces the signatories to avoid interference in other countries' internal affairs as well as to settle disputes peacefully. It was only in July 2005 that the Howard government made a complete u-turn and showed willingness to sign the treaty.

Bilateral agreements

Australia has a wide range of bilateral agreements and relationships. It maintains economic ties to Japan, China, Thailand and Singapore and it is in security dialogs with Malaysia and the Philippines. Especially important is the newly improved relationship to Indonesia, Australia’s biggest neighbor as well as the world's fourth largest nation and a young democracy. Improved relations are a result of the close cooperation in security and investigative efforts after the Bali bombing in 2002 and after the attack of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004. The massive help after the tsunami disaster and the changed presidency in Indonesia in late 2004 also contributed to this advancement. This hopefully ongoing and deepening cooperation is another turning point in Australia's foreign policy, which has regarded Indonesia for a very long as a potential source of threat.

Critical Evaluation

In this part I will evaluate the Australian security measurers that I have described above. To this date, the ADF is still structured on the basis of the Defense of Australia Doctrine, which sees the biggest threat in an invasion or an air strike. These threats are no longer paramount. Therefore, there is an urgent need for Australia to further transform the ADF. A lot of other traditional benchmark countries for Australia such as the UK, Canada and the US are far more consequent in tackling this task (Dupont, 2003). Today, defense forces have to win the peace as well as the war. They have to be capable of a wide range of tasks, from humanitarian aid to combat missions. Different tasks demand different training and equipment. In times of restricted budgets, most likely threats should be paid more attention than highly unlikely ones. Therefore, the structure and the procurement of the ADF must be examined. Questionable in this context is for example the planned procurement of 100 Joint Strike Fighters for over $20 billion and the investment of more than $6 billion in Aegis-equipped destroyers (Monk, 2005). The army, in contrast to the navy and the air force, is still underpaid.

Australia is seen by the international community as a reliable ally, and the reputation of its troops serving in foreign missions is good. The most recent decision to go to the Solomon Islands should be regarded in the context of the Bali bombings. These bombings have shown that Australia is directly threatened by terrorist attacks, because of their proximity to terrorist bases in Southeast Asia. The decision to help the government in the Solomon Islands to preserve law and order is a consequence of this new awareness. A possible collapse of the Solomon Islands would become a problem for Australia, because of the likelihood that terrorists could use the Islands as a base or hub for drug trafficking and money laundering (Gulane, 2003).

The decision by the government to take a broader approach in fighting terrorism by providing more money for police and other security agencies in other countries is essential, but to this date it is not sufficient. The effort to emphasize that the war on terror is no fight against Moslem people in general is also a well taken step, but that is not enough. The fight against terror is a fight for hearts and minds. The Australian government has to emphasize that it cares for the Southeast Asian region and its problems with poverty and underdevelopment and that it is tolerant and open-minded toward the Muslim way of life. Claims that terrorist attacks happen because of troops serving in Iraq are harsh and narrow minded. Terrorists fight against our societies, our values and our way of life. Helping people to understand that western societies are not conquerors but that they believe in a just and peaceful world, could contribute to military operations on the ground.

To provide more security for Australia, the government implemented controversial anti-terrorist laws. The occasional resistance from some groups reveals that every society dealing with terrorist threats faces tough decision regarding the balance between freedom and security. However, tough times require tough laws. On the one hand, police and law enforcement agencies should have the necessary means to do their job in a proper way. On the other hand, every government has to consider if restricting values can protect them. Whatever the Australian government decides, it is important that its decisions are accompanied by public relations efforts. People are likely to follow, if they understand.

Although political-regional relationships have eased, statements like, “years of effort to create an image of an autonomous Australia identifying its place in the world largely through the role it could play in that region where it had its own set of specific interests had been thoroughly eroded by 1996” (Verrier, 2003) reminds us that some problems remain. Australia shares many values and core interests with the Western world and especially with the US, but there are also some that are necessarily different. In this context, differences are not inevitably sharp contrasts or opposites. Therefore, an alliance with the US would be possible even if Australia were to emphasize its own interests. Furthermore, the Australian government would do well to stress these differences to their immediate neighbors. This would help Australia to find its own place in the Asia Pacific region and hence a balance between alliance associations and regional interests. The close association with the US, in particular if Australia is seen as “deputy sheriff” or as “surrogate” of the US and as less interested in regional sensitivities, has diminished valuable diplomatic options.

Australian soldiers in Iraq - strong allies in the coalition of the willing.
Australian soldiers in Iraq - strong allies in the coalition of the willing.
The war on Iraq contributed to Australia's complicated relations with its neighbors, who have been consensually against the war. The only exceptions among this unity were the Philippines, Japan and South Korea. As Edward Aspinall (2003) a regional expert argued “the war is helping militant Islamic groups to propagate their vision of a world divided between hostile Muslim and non-Muslim camps … the Iraq war is radicalizing the followers of those moderate Islamic organizations on which countries such as Australia must rely if they are to build lasting and fruitful relations with the Islamic world” (citied in Verrier, 2003, p. 456). This is only one reason why Australia’s contribution to the war can hardly be regarded as in the national interest. Statements by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, to strike terrorists on other countries' soil, also contributed to the troubled relationship. The reactions of Southeast Asian countries regarding this statement were unambiguous and encompassed dismay and responses that such actions would be considered as an “act of war” (Camilleri, 2003).

The latest development in the regional relations is a careful rapprochement as seen in the improvement of the relations to Indonesia and the decision to sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Although this decision was late, it was wise and necessary. Through a close cooperation with its Southeast Asian neighbors, Australia has the chance to help build a new regional architecture of peace and cooperation within this region.


This essay explained and evaluated the current Australian security and defense policy. I have shown that Australia faces the same set of threats as other Western countries. Although there has not been an attack in Australia, the terrorist threat is present as well as the danger through the proliferation of WMD. This threat was painfully perceptible in the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005, where terrorists claimed the lives of Australian citizens.

I have outlined the most important security measures, ranging from deployment of troops, foreign missions, anti-terrorist laws and foreign relations. I have argued that the ADF should be further transformed to be capable to cover future demands and that it is important to take a broad approach in fighting terrorism. I have shown that the alliance with the US is the most important foreign relation for Australia and that this alliance has advantages as well as risk and disadvantages. The biggest disadvantage is a decrease in diplomatic options in the Southeast Asia region. Recently, the relations have eased despite this burden.

I have depicted that Australia has noticeably improved relations with its biggest neighbor and young democracy, Indonesia, and has also enhanced relations to ASEAN by its willingness to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. The Howard government has been in power since 1996 and has shown a stable and predictable course in foreign relations and in its commitment to security and defense policy. Therefore, it is unlikely that major changes will take place prior to the next elections in 2007.

The main challenge for the near future is to find a balance between alliance and regional engagement. A more multilateral approach in foreign relations could help Australia to become a moderator between Asia and the Western world. In this role, Australia could help create a more open dialog to face the urgent challenges of the contemporary world.


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