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22 July 2020

With Jonathan Pearlman

Morrison kneecaps DFAT

On 1 July, Scott Morrison unveiled a new defence strategy for Australia. The government’s A$270 billion plan and its intention to develop a more offensive military force have proved contentious, but there was little to disagree with in its justification for the strategy: increased tensions in the Indo-Pacific region are heightening the risk of conflict.

In a world that is “more dangerous and more disorderly”, Morrison said, Australia must shape its strategic environment and ensure that countries in the region can trade freely and are not subject to coercion. This ambition seems self-evident and it leads to an equally obvious conclusion: Australia needs to strengthen its voice and presence in the region.

Last week, the government revealed plans to do the opposite. It is downsizing the already under-resourced Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Sixty positions will be cut, including fifty in Canberra and ten at overseas posts.

These reductions directly undermine Morrison’s defence strategy (which, for the record, involves growing the Australian Defence Force by 800 people over the next four years) and weaken confidence in the government’s ability to understand the rising tensions in the region and respond accordingly. It also raises questions about the extent to which Morrison’s revamped defence strategy was driven by political motives.

As Asialink’s Melissa Conley Tyler explains in “The Fix”, her article in AFA7: China Dependence, Australia’s diplomacy and aid budget went from A$8.3 billion in 2013–14 (adjusted for inflation) to A$6.7 billion in 2019–20. In 1949, the diplomacy, trade and aid budget was almost 9 per cent of the federal budget; it is now 1.3 per cent.

“We risk a situation where the primary duties of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be issuing passports, providing consular assistance and managing ministerial visits,” she wrote. “This would limit Australia’s ability to prosecute its interests abroad, leaving it hostage to international forces rather than trying to shape them.”

The Lowy Institute’s most recent global diplomacy index found that Australia ranked twenty-seventh in the world for its diplomatic resources, equal to Belgium, which has a population of just 11.7 million. In contrast, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that Australia has the world’s thirteenth-highest military expenditure, which matches its status as the world’s fourteenth-largest economy.

For the past decade, successive Australian defence and foreign policy blueprints have been based on an increasingly stark and grim assessment of the region’s stability. Unfortunately, the analysis was not exaggerated. Tensions between China and the United States are increasing, particularly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The risk of regional conflict, as Morrison said, is also growing.

Morrison’s attempt to make the nation’s military strategy a more offensive one is understandable. But the government’s first ambition should be to ensure that its increasingly expensive weaponry and ever-expanding military personnel are not actually used. A stronger, more experienced and capable diplomatic arm would help with this. It could decrease regional tensions and prevent them from spilling into combat, and try to ensure that regional changes move in a direction that favours Australia. But Morrison’s recent actions weaken Australia’s diplomatic hand, making it more likely that the government’s A$270 billion worth of hardware will not sit idle.


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In 2020, a return to Keynes and a cold war

“The momentum towards a bipolar world now seems unstoppable, and as the pandemic rages in the United States, the world is choosing sides. Australia has made it clear which side we’re on, even though that’s likely to end up being very costly.” Alan Kohler, The Australian [$]

China’s deepening geopolitical hole

“Chinese leaders have only themselves to blame for their growing international isolation … As China’s leaders ponder how to respond to the United Kingdom’s ban on Huawei, they should heed the first rule of holes: when you are in one, stop digging.” Minxin Pei, The Strategist (ASPI)

India, Australia and containing the China challenge

“Coupled with the increasingly strained relationship between Canberra and Beijing, the Himalayan incident could be the catalyst for something Australia has long sought ­– a warmer relationship with India.” Aarti BetigeriThe Interpreter (Lowy Institute)

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Don’t expect President Biden to fix Australia’s international problems

“The biggest international headaches for Australia have been the tensions between the United States and China and the damage to the global trading system. There’s little reason to think either would change much under President Biden.” Adam Triggs, Inside Story

Hedging or balancing? Australia and New Zealand’s differing China strategies

“New Zealand has been sending ambiguous signals to both China and the United States … By comparison, Australia is more proactive in bringing about or taking part in a coalition of ‘like-minded’ countries to balance against China. This Australian approach has aroused the ire of China and now Australia is bearing the brunt of Chinese economic reprisals.” Lai-Ha Chan, The Diplomat [$]

Free from Australian Foreign Affairs

Data driven – how COVID-19 and cyberspace are changing spycraft

“For as long as – and perhaps even longer than – there have been states, there have been spies. In Australia, the intelligence community comprises not just those in the field but also those conducting analytical, technical, signals, operational and geospatial functions. Today, all of this work is being transformed by exponential changes in cyberspace and technology.” Danielle Cave, HERE

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