Opinion article

Australia and global security

Dr Benjamin Zala analyses three major security challenges for Australia, the decline of US primacy, China’s transition to a global superpower and the new global nuclear order. 

Questions of global security are always fundamentally underpinned by uncertainty and risk. Despite the current penchant for describing the contemporary moment as an ‘age of uncertainty’, countries like Australia have never in history faced a certain global security environment. It is however, fair to say that for policy-makers in Canberra, crafting responses to large-scale global security trends is particularly challenging at present. Long-term security challenges can come in various forms, three in particular standout at the present time that Australia cannot afford to get wrong: responding to the relative decline in US primacy; managing the period in which China goes from ‘rising’ to ‘established’ great power status; and establishing Australia’s role in a new phase of the global nuclear order.      

The end of US primacy

For decades, Australia’s response to any and all global security trends has been conditioned by our military and political alliance with a military superpower, the United States. The alliance has allowed Canberra to both keep defence spending relatively low as well as engaging in any and all diplomatic relationships with others with our ‘great and powerful friend’ metaphorically waiting in the wings. 

Yet today US power is not what it once was. Since the end of the Cold War, Australian citizens and Australian policy-makers alike have become used to being allied with the only game in town. But as the relative power and influence of other states (Russia, China, and India for a start with others including Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia possibly coming down the line) the politics of the great powers is set to become far more complicated. This means the costs and benefits of Australia’s alliance to one of these powers (no longer the sole ‘superpower’) are shifting accordingly. 

In itself, this has become an increasingly difficult trend for decision makers in Canberra to reconcile themselves with. The difficulties of being allied to a former superpower in relative decline have been amplified in 2017 due to the nature of the administration in Washington which is of course, in only its first of (theoretically) four or even eight years in office. President Trump came to power on an admission that the United States has been in relative decline (otherwise there would be no need to ‘make America great again’). The conventional wisdom on US power has been that Washington’s global alliances are a comparative advantage that other rising powers cannot match making them key to hanging on to or even restoring US primacy. 

Yet for President Trump, alliances are instead seen as avenues for other countries to free-ride on America’s prosperity and strength. Americans, he thinks, deserve a better deal. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has argued that this is not something we in Australia need to worry about. We spend a high enough portion of our GDP on defence to keep Washington happy and Australia has fought alongside the US in every major conflict since World War II. The question of the durability of the US alliance is therefore settled for its proponents. But this is the wrong question to ask in the age of Trump.

The issue that really needs to be discussed is not just whether we can still depend on the US, but whether we want to. If Australia’s role in Iraq in 2003 taught us anything it is that tying ourselves so closely to the United States militarily means doing so politically as well. America did not desperately need our military contribution to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. But our political support for such a controversial action was hugely important. The question that we as Australians need to ask ourselves is – how confident are we that we would want to provide political cover for the decisions that the Trump administration is likely to make over the coming years? 

Trump’s plan to rejuvenate the American economy is based on the fantasy that he can provide an historically unprecedented tax cut to the most wealthy while dramatically increasing spending to create jobs in industries that are no longer competitive. The chances of this working are extremely low and therefore domestic politics within the United States are unlikely to become harmonious anytime soon. A president that is unlikely to succeed domestically won’t necessarily initiate foreign crises but is likely to gravitate towards them, and even escalate them, in order to have the nation rally around him. There have been signs of this over North Korea already. In the event of a crisis, Mr Trump will – not unreasonably – look for a dividend from America’s investment in the alliance with Australia. He will look for more, not less, political cover.  

It will be at this point that asking the wrong question about the US-Australia alliance will come home to roost. Australian political elites have avoided the tough issue of whether the US alliance still suits Australia’s (not America’s) national interest in the same way that it did in the past. The time for dismissing even having this conversation as “misguided” or “idealistic” is now past.

China’s transition from rising to established power

At the same time as Canberra must navigate a new difficult era of alliance politics with Washington, in our own neighbourhood China’s rise to great power status is too entering a new period. Is China still a ‘rising power’ that is likely to be an important player in the years ahead or is it already one of our region’s so-called great powers that needs to be treated as such today? 

At the heart of the dispute in the South China Sea for example is the issue of China’s status. Beijing’s assertiveness in claiming the islands and reefs falling within its ‘nine-dash line’ is a way of testing Washington and its Asian allies on their answer to this question. To put it simply, China is acting as if it is already a great power – setting the rules of the game, claiming a sphere of influence and having this sphere recognised by other rival powers. It is gambling on the likelihood of the United States blinking first and backing down and, at least to some extent, treating China like a peer. 

For small and middle powers such as Australia, a more balanced distribution of power in our region (and in the world more generally) is a welcome development. This might be OK in theory but it leaves the Australian Government with the dilemma in practice of figuring out how to navigate a period of power balancing where the incumbent hegemon is our major military ally and the first cab off the rank to challenge them is our largest trading partner. 

The new nuclear order

On top of Australia’s relations with the established and rising powers, Canberra must also face a number of larger global security trends. One of the most pressing at the moment is the early signs that the norms, agreements and institutions that underpin the global nuclear order are coming under immense pressure. This year has already witnessed major challenges to two aspects of this – the reliance by the nuclear-armed states on the doctrine of ‘nuclear deterrence’ to prevent nuclear war on the one hand and the ‘grand bargain’ of the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) to prevent the unregulated spread of these weapons on the other.  
Recent media coverage of nuclear weapons issues has been dominated by North Korea’s final sprint towards a robust nuclear weapons capability. The fundamental challenge to global security here is not actually Pyongyang’s weapon system. If the doctrine of nuclear deterrence (in which both sides accept that mutual vulnerability will prevent the other from striking, thus resulting in a carefully maintained stalemate) that has kept the nuclear ‘peace’ for decades now still exists, then one more nuclear-armed state is regrettable but not catastrophic. The problem instead is that North Korea’s main nuclear-armed adversary, the United States, officially refuses to accept a situation of mutual vulnerability with it. The prospect is routinely described as ‘unthinkable’ in Washington which obviously leads the crisis into dangerous territory. 

A pre-emptive US military strike against North Korea is clearly not in Australia’s interests and therefore most statements out of Canberra turn to the possibility of a negotiated solution. Despite the attention devoted to the issue by the Turnbull Government, Australia’s response to the most serious nuclear crisis since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has amounted to little more than an insistence that China “must” force Pyongyang back to the negotiating table. Australian leaders have offered no indication of what Australia and its allies might be willing to concede to China in order to provide it with an incentive for doing so. A serious Australian response to the issue will require facing up to the fact that China has something we and our allies want but we don’t have (economic leverage over North Korea). Until this is done statements about what China “must” do will fall on deaf ears in Beijing. 

The second pillar of the global nuclear order is the grand bargain that sits at the heart of the NPT regime allowing five states to be nuclear-armed (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States) while the rest of the treaty’s signatories eschew them in return for access to peaceful nuclear technology and a commitment from the five states that they will eventually disarm. This too has been challenged this year as the majority of NPT signatories gave up on waiting for the five to take serious steps towards honouring their side of the bargain and negotiated a brand new treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons. The treaty has been successfully negotiated and is now open for signature (set to come into force before the end of the year). 

The nuclear-armed states have boycotted the whole process and instead insist that the NPT must be the cornerstone of the global nuclear order. Australia’s response to all of this? Despite the fact that we have often taken the lead on disarmament diplomacy in the past (and the civil society campaign that kicked off the process, newly minted with the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, was started in Australia), the official position has been to boycott the whole thing. Despite the fact that the vast majority of NPT signatories have taken the dramatic step to negotiate a new treaty rather than persisting with the glacial pace of disarmament under the NPT, Australia refused to join the negotiations – even (as the Dutch did) to voice our dissent. A major challenge appears to be under way in global arms control and disarmament and Australia is missing in action.    

The time for clarity and strategic vision 

These are but three trends currently emerging that are likely to shape global security and Australia’s security relations with others in the years to come. All are large-scale developments in which Canberra itself can only ever play a limited role. Yet there is no way of escaping the direct impact of US decline, China’s growing international status and the potential unravelling of the global nuclear order on Australia’s interests both here and abroad. The foreign and defence policy community is keenly awaiting the release of a new foreign policy white paper in the coming months to set out the broad contours of how Australia intends to respond to these and other developments. In the current security environment, the white paper’s authors have an unenviable but very necessary.

Read CEDA's research report, Australia's place in the world.


About the authors

Benjamin Zala

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Dr Benjamin Zala is a Research Fellow in the Department of International Relations in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University.  His work focuses on the politics of the great powers, international security issues, and International Relations theory and has been published in journals such as Review of International Studies, Pacific Review, Cooperation & Conflict and The Nonproliferation Review. He is also a regular contributor to national and international media on issues of foreign policy and global security. Ben holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham and has previously held positions at the University of Leicester, the Oxford Research Group and Chatham House.  

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