In Australia, Allied legislators discuss common responses to global security challenges

24 November 2023

In today’s complex security environment, like-minded partners across the globe are working with NATO member states to address a range of cross-cutting security challenges. The Indo-Pacific has emerged as a region of particular concern given China’s ever-closer collaboration with Putin’s Russia, its military build-up, the powerful commercial leverage it exerts over strategic industrial sectors, its revisionist outlook on global security and economic structures, and its willingness to use this leverage to upend the international rules-based order.

Closely collaborating with partners in the region that share allied values has accordingly become a critical priority for allied governments. Indeed, it is essential that parliamentarians from the transatlantic community of nations deepen the dialogue with counterparts in Asian democratic societies sharing their commitment to the international rules-based order. With this in mind, 28 parliamentarians from 12 NATO member states, representing two NATO Parliamentary Assembly Sub-Committees visited Australia from November 13-17.

The delegation was led by John Spellar (UK), Chair of the Assembly’s Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Economic Relations, and Marcos Perestrello de Vasconcellos (Portugal), Chair of the Sub-Committee on NATO Partnerships. Over the course of the week, the delegation explored these challenges in depth with Australian parliamentary leaders and members of two parliamentary committees, senior Defence and Foreign Ministry officials, NATO Ambassadors based in Canberra, defence industry representatives and experts working at the country’s leading research institutes.

The Australian perspective on the Chinese challenge

The delegation learned that Australia has undergone a marked change in its relations with China over the past decade. Although trading ties between the two countries have long been close and mutually rewarding, in 2016, following an Australian government decision to block Chinese-owned telecommunications giant Huawei from rolling out the country’s 5G network due to security concerns, the relationship has soured considerably. It deteriorated further in 2020, when Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. In retaliation, China launched a policy of coercion, imposing extraordinarily high tariffs on a range of Australian exports, initiated a concerted campaign of cyber-attacks and disinformation and adopted an ever more provocative military posture in waters patrolled by Australian naval assets.

Although the damage to Australia’s economy was limited, Dirk van der Kley, a Research Fellow at the National Security College, suggested to the delegation that it had a profound impact on Australian perceptions of China and the threat it posed to regional stability. Australian officials quickly determined that given these rapidly changing circumstances, a comprehensive effort would be needed to enhance national resilience, reduce exposure to China’s economy in certain strategic sectors, ensure that the country was positioned to resist economic and military coercion, and deepen collaboration with like-minded partners in the region, many of which were or had been subject to similar pressures.

Defence and deterrence: the Australian approach

The government at the time also launched a comprehensive Defence Strategic Review (SDR) to chart out ways to ensure that the country’s military was structured to achieve these goals. That review concluded that Australia would need to enhance its maritime capabilities substantially, extend the reach of its naval and other military assets, develop longer-range strike capabilities, reinforce its defensive and offensive cyber capacity, and generally enhance deterrence.

Australia would also be increasingly challenged to defend vital sea lines of communication in the face of an ever-more capable and revisionist China. For a remote trading nation like Australia, doing so would be critical to maintaining decision-making sovereignty and participating fully in the regional and global economy. Hugh Jeffrey, Deputy Secretary, Strategy, Policy, and Industry, at Australia’s Department of Defence, told the delegation that improving the military’s capacity to work with allies and partners both in the region and beyond represented another core ambition laid out in the SDR.

The United States remains Australia’s most crucial ally and plays a fundamental security role in the Pacific. That alliance has been further cemented by the trilateral AUKUS partnership for the Indo-Pacific among Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is playing a leading role in developing critical Australian capabilities including new nuclear-powered submarines. But the partnership will also deepen collaboration on cyber security, artificial intelligence and autonomy, electronic warfare, quantum technologies, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic missiles, innovation and information sharing.

Australia and the Euro-Atlantic community

Although Australia is increasingly focused on Indo-Pacific security challenges, it recognises that developments in the transatlantic space reverberate throughout the region. It sees parallels between Russia’s quest to redraw the borders of Europe through its war on Ukraine and China’s preparations to resolve its claims on Taiwan through military means. Australian officials strongly support Ukraine’s effort to defend its territory and sovereignty and the efforts of NATO allies to provide Kyiv with essential military, economic and humanitarian support. Indeed, Australia is the 9th largest contributor to NATO’s Trust Funds for Ukraine and the largest outside of the Euro-Atlantic Area. Both the government and the parliament feel that were Russia to prevail in this conflict, a serious blow would be administered to the international rule of law.

The delegation was told in several meetings that although NATO itself does not play a direct role in Pacific security, there is ample latitude for practical cooperation between the Alliance and its Pacific Partners as laid out in the Madrid and Vilnius Summit declarations. This partnership itself is underpinned by a shared commitment to international law and the rules-based order. Australian- NATO cooperation is conducted through the individual tailored partnership program and extends through a range of areas, including arms control, countering hybrid threats and cyber war. Australian officials told the delegation that they have discerned a significant increase in Chinese disinformation campaigns focused both on NATO and AUKUS in recent years.

The government recognises that NATO by definition must focus on challenges to security in the transatlantic space. One speaker told the delegation that Europe’s greatest potential contribution to Indo-Pacific security would be to enhance defence spending and capabilities needed to secure the European continent — a development that would effectively provide the United States with greater flexibility to deploy more assets into the Pacific theater where they will continue to play a fundamental role in preserving stability.

But the ties are also economic. Several speakers, however, expressed disappointment that EU-Australian negotiations to create a Free Trade Area (FTA) have stalled and suggested that in this case, politics had prevailed over win-win trade facilitation. There is a clear sense that there is room for the EU to be more active in the region both as a trading partner but also as an influential and highly competent market regulator. One speaker even suggested that it might be a welcome member of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which is in effect a trading counterweight to China in the region.

Australia’s regional priorities

Australia’s regional policy represented another theme of the discussions. The islands of the South-Pacific represent an increasingly contested space in which China has been actively seeking to exercise influence and leverage. Australia sees this as an effort by China to limit its own influence and naval reach and is accordingly determined to offer the region an alternative premised on win-win precepts and accepted international norms.

In fact, while the delegation was in Canberra, the Albanese government and the island nation of Tuvalu announced the signing of a security pact in which Australia will provide security assistance to those strategic islands while according that country’s citizens the right to migrate to Australia — an important opportunity for a country highly vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise. This development is part of the soft diplomatic approach Canberra has taken to this important region. The government, with strong support from the parliament, aims to provide both incentives for cooperation and security and diplomatic reassurances based on accepted international norms and deep historic and cultural ties.

By contrast, the Australians were very disappointed by an agreement China recently signed with the Solomon Islands in which China is now to train that country’s police units — a role once played by Australia itself. The Albanese government, however, has recognised that it must be more active in the region to provide an alternative to China’s often heavy-handed diplomacy.

Australian leaders accordingly applauded a recent decision taken in the Philippines to back away from close security cooperation with China, a development that has also been welcome in Washington and Tokyo. What was originally greeted in the Philippines as benign cooperation came to be understood as an overt Chinese effort to subvert the country’s sovereignty and control over key islands and waterways. Beijing had blithely assumed that the Marcos government would follow in the path of the previous Duterte government, and, according to several speakers, failed to appreciate that its own aggressive behavior has begun to alienate Manilla and other governments in the South Pacific. The view in Canberra is that it is a fundamental mistake to assume that China can be appeased. The Australian experience is that concessions only beget future demands. This understanding is now a foundational concept to its new approach to China. Myriad speakers told the Committee that there will be no return to the status quo ante even if trade and diplomatic ties with China will remain important.

The delegation visit, the first NATO PA visit to Australia since 2008, is part of the Assembly’s broader effort to strengthen parliamentary dialogue with partners in the Indo-Pacific region. Australia has a status of Parliamentary Observer in the Assembly, and Australian parliamentarians regularly attend NATO PA Annual sessions.

During the visit, interlocutors included:

Parliamentary leaders

  • Senator the Hon. Sue LINES, President of the Senate 
  • The Hon. Shayne NEUMANN, MP, Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
  • Senator the Hon. David FAWCETT, Deputy Chair, and other members of the Committee
  • Peter KHALIL, MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and other members of the Committee
  • Andrew WALLACE, MP, Deputy Chair, and other members of the Committee

Government officials

  • Hugh JEFFREY, Deputy Secretary of the Strategy, Policy, and Industry, Department of Defence
  • Elly LAWSON, Deputy Secretary of the Strategic Planning and Coordination Group, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Panel of ambassadors and diplomats

  • H.E. Ms Betty PAVELICH, Ambassador of Croatia to Australia
  • H.E. Mrs Victoria Marguerite TREADELL, CMG MVO, High Commissioner of the United Kingdom to Australia
  • H.E. Mr Jean-Pierre THÉBAULT, Ambassador of France to Australia
  • H.E. Ms Kersti EESMAA, Ambassador of Estonia to Australia
  • H.E. Mrs Ardi STOIOS-BRAKEN, Ambassador of the Netherlands to Australia
  • Erika OLSON, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of the United States in Australia

Experts of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), Australian National University’s National Security College (NSC) and the Lowy Institute.

In Canberra, the delegation visited the Australian War Memorial, met with its Director Matt ANDERSON  and attended the Last Post Ceremony. The delegation visited the Fleet Base East in Sydney, where members were briefed by Commodore Michael HARRIS, OAM, Director General Maritime Operations (DGMAROPS), and toured HMAS Sydney. The delegation was briefed by and toured the facilities of Australia’s leading defence company Thales Australia.

Photos of the visit
© Australian War Memorial
© Australian Government Department of Defence

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