Defence Challenges 2035: Securing Australia's Lifelines

Rory Medcalf, Brown James

    Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


    As the Australian government prepares a new white paper to guide the country’s defence planning to 2035, the burden of strategic risk on Australia’s national interests is increasing. Those interests are extensive and face a widening range of risks, from coercion or conflict in Asia to resurgent terrorism and aggression in other parts of the globe. Australia’s region is becoming more central to global power balances and strategic tensions. Power balances are changing with China’s rise, and this will encourage risk-taking. Conflict between states is more about constant competition and coercion than the prospect of all-out war. The probability of war in Asia is small but real, and greater than a few years ago. Disruptive technologies are altering calculations of military advantage. Deep dependence on energy, information, trade and human links with the outside world makes Australia vulnerable. This means that challenges to global order are risks to Australian interests as well. But no country can pay equal heed to them all, or meet them alone. Together, these factors mean that the number and kind of security contingencies that could affect Australia will grow. Australia’s defence will involve meaningful contributions to securing its lifelines to the wider world. Thus Australia will need to protect its sovereignty, provide security in a troubled immediate neighbourhood, and contribute to the security of the broader Indo-Pacific region and beyond. In the next 20 years, there are many plausible situations in which Australian governments might want military options, including regional crisis interventions, contributions to US-led coalitions, and missions to safeguard maritime interests. Deciding which national interests are worth defending is ultimately about political choices. As the Australian Government prepares its next defence white paper — a document meant to guide military spending and priorities out to 2035 — it will need to choose between diverse, complex, sometimes contradictory pressures. An essential starting point for informed decision-making is an assessment of Australia’s strategic environment: the identification of geopolitical factors, including trends and possible discontinuities that put our interests at risk. For a nation of only 23 million people, Australia’s interests are extensive, including the scale of its territory and maritime jurisdiction. Australia benefits from exceptional interconnectedness with the world, through flows of trade, finance, information and people. This brings with it a reliance on rules, order, and secure access to the global commons. Australia’s interests go beyond the obvious priorities of protecting the physical security of its citizens, its sovereign territory, and its resources. They also include maintaining national freedom, including independence of action, social cohesion, and a democratic political system, as well as secure access to energy supplies and international markets. Australia cannot achieve these goals without international partnerships — the most important of which by far remains the alliance with the United States. These partnerships in turn are reasons for Australia to uphold its reputation as a secure, capable, reliable, and active participant in the international system. Last year, a Lowy Institute report outlined what an effective Australian defence policy might require, highlighting an emerging gap between national interests and military capabilities.[1] This Analysis poses three questions. What is Australia’s strategic environment likely to look like in the decades ahead? What are the risks to security that Australia may face out to the 2030s? What are the circumstances under which future Australian governments may want military options? In addressing these questions, this report considers the changing strategic order in Australia’s Indo-Pacific region and globally. It considers drivers of rivalry among states, emerging trends in military technology, and the changing character of conflict. It surveys a range of transnational risks, including terrorism, and considers the extent to which military forces can address them. It identifies imaginable discontinuities or ‘strategic shocks’. It concludes with a set of plausible scenarios in which a future Australian government may want the option of deploying force. Debates on Australia’s defence policy have long oscillated between two schools: one focused on the physical defence of Australia’s territory and its immediate maritime approaches, the other on maintaining the capability to send out expeditionary forces able to meet threats early or contribute to alliances. Both have characterised Australia’s relative isolation mainly as an asset. But now, as a country more dependent than ever on global flows of trade, energy, information, people, and money, Australia’s best defence involves securing its lifelines to the wider world.
    Original languageEnglish
    Commissioning bodyLowy Institute
    Publication statusPublished - 2014

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