22 July 2020
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.