June 16, 2022

Is ‘Fortress Australia’ inherently insecure?

Sealed up, revved up, pushing back against China. A fortress mindset has, until recently, dominated foreign policy approaches. But how well are we positioned to meet new security challenges — conventional and non-traditional?

Benjamin Herscovitch
Research Fellow, Australian National University

Australia is undertaking a massive expansion of its defence budget and military capabilities. Among other platforms, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) will acquire nine anti-submarine warships and 72 F-35A fighter jets, while the new Government has pledged to keep Australia’s defence spending above 2% of GDP. At the leading edge of this drive towards more capability is AUKUS — the trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States — which is designed to furnish the ADF with at least eight nuclear-powered and long-range submarines.

The suitability of these submarines for protecting Australia and its near-region is up for debate. But this platform will undoubtably enhance the ADF’s capacity to contribute to collective deterrence far from home. AUKUS will help Australia shift the military balance against China and in favour of the United States and its allies and partners in the Western Pacific. Accordingly, Tokyo and Taipei have endorsed AUKUS as a way of safeguarding peace and stability in the face of Beijing’s assertiveness and fast-expanding military budget.

But while AUKUS submarines will make some like-mindeds in North Asia feel more secure, this new capability will continue to foster fears in Beijing and concerns in some regional capitals, including Jakarta. Meanwhile, the cancellation of the conventional submarine deal with Paris — AUKUS’ predecessor — has undermined trilateral cooperation with India on maritime security and Franco-Australian bilateral diplomatic initiatives. So far, Australia’s sharpening defence posture under the Morrison and Albanese governments has produced a mixed bag of outcomes and the net effect on Australian security remains uncertain.

Ben is the person in the room with empathy for all sides of a policy challenge and the sharp wits to help navigate a way through. At the Lab, we’re fans of Ben’s newsletter, Beijing to Canberra and Back, and enjoy Ben challenging us with his China, security and geoeconomics expertise. He’s a class act, a scholar to watch and a delight to work with.

Alice Ridge
Senior Research, Policy and Advocacy Advisor, International Women’s Development Agency

Australia’s foreign policy obsession with China means we often operate from a sense of insecurity. This narrows our focus to the most limited range of options, both in terms of understanding the threats we face, but also in considering how we respond. 

Feminism and foreign policy are both interested in understanding power — how it operates, and how it can be shifted. Foreign policy works from the starting point that power is finite, and the rational choice is to try and amass power — it’s what we assume others are doing. The problem for a middle-power like Australia is that when it comes to the security challenges we face – whether that is China, climate change or even gender-based violence (which is rarely acknowledged as a security issue, despite being the main threat women face on a day-to-day basis) we aren’t going to win a power amassing game. 

This is where feminist foreign policy would give Australia a leg-up. It would help us see gendered violence at the individual level as the greatest predictor of conflict at the national level. It would necessitate diversification of the people involved in security discussions, ensuring that we are getting the full picture. For a settler-colony like Australia, a feminist approach requires us to centre First Nations voices and worldviews — something Minister Wong has already committed to doing — and it would enable us to treat power as something we can grow, changing the calculus of how to best act on Australia’s interests in the world.

Alice is a high impact operator in the international development and feminist policy space. She is often the carefully considered conscience of the groups she works with and has made an impression on the careers of a number of staff at the Lab. As one of the conveners of the Australian Feminist Foreign Policy Coalition, Alice is a focused professional and is driving big change.

Bridi Rice
Founder & CEO, Development Intelligence Lab 

Treating Australia as a fortress fails our partners in the Indo-Pacific region. And failing our partners risks failing the moral and strategic interests of Australia.   

A fortress is preoccupied by external threats and blinded to slow-burn sources of insecurity like political polarisation, climate change and inequality that exist closer to home. As we sat in our ivory towers gazing towards Washington and London fearing the worst of China, we diminished our own ability to shape our environment with a suite of sophisticated soft power assets.

Luckily, 'Fortress Australia' thinking is beginning to strain. Partly because COVID-19 crossed our borders. Partly because the latest generation of foreign policy analysts have started thinking about security in an interdisciplinary way. And partly because the new Government has indicated a shift in mood. 

But as the fortress folds, the enormous challenge of carving out a fresh path for Australia’s foreign policy comes to the fore. The challenge has been described as ‘drinking from a fire hose’. War in Ukraine risks global rules-based order; China persists; and poverty challenges of health, education and livelihoods are increasingly fused with growing threats (think economic coercion, cyber-attacks and extreme weather events).

For Australia to effectively overcome a fortress mindset with our Indo-Pacific partners, three things are essential. First, the ‘we listen!’ rhetoric of the Government should be backed by genuine action that meets long-term developmental aspirations of regional leaders. Second, we need a holistic threat assessment of insecurity drivers in the region, beyond China. And third, we must prepare for a future of non-traditional challenges that sit at the intersection of society, technology, security, economics, and environment. One way is to establish an expert open-source forecasting capability to combine thinkers and practitioners that currently work in silos. The new concepts, tools, and capabilities from this will position Australia with two feet firmly planted on the ground – not in an imaginary fortress.

Bridi is the founder and CEO of the Lab, currently working from Washington DC as a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Strategic International Studies. The team at the Lab love Bridi’s commitment to creating a space to explore pathways to development that is locally-led, geo-strategically attuned and which represents the best Australia has to offer. She’s known by her peers for expertly gathering different perspectives on issues and working in collaboration to tackle development challenges that lie ahead.

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