Australian Commander Joint Task Force 661 Air Commodore Richard Owen is greeted by members of the Vietnamese People’s Army on arrival of the HMAS Canberra into Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, during Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2019. Photo: Kylie Gibson/ Aust Dept of Defense

A number of pundits have warned that Australia faces a looming environmental catastrophe. Yet others say it is great power contestation that presents the most imminent existential threat, with the prospect of thermonuclear war a real danger. And some hold to the view that violent extremist terrorism presents the most pressing challenge. So, which group is right? And how can we possibly discern between them?

In fact, Australia and the world face a spectrum of potentially existential matters concerning all three domains of great power contestation, the environment and governance. These range from political, economic and human security concerns, environmental challenges, cybersecurity issues and a range of maritime, territorial and homeland security problems.

Yet Australia is ill-prepared to respond appropriately, with limited sovereign capacity. This unpreparedness is in part because many of these issues are beyond the jurisdiction of one state or federal entity and international mechanisms to handle them are weak and disjointed.

In order to weigh up what options Australia has to address this array of challenges, a geo-strategic SWOT analysis – covering Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats – may help. That is, an analysis of internal strengths and weakness, and external opportunities and threats. Critically reflecting on the circumstances of Australia and its neighbors presents a useful mechanism to commence a dialogue about the net effects and most appropriate responses.

The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra has published a paper, linked here, examining in detail key geo-strategic factors in regard to Australia. They are listed below:

Internal strengths include: abundant natural resources; a strong economy; domestic political stability and the rule of law; an educated workforce; a multicultural society; a honed and high-tech, albeit boutique, defense force; the nation’s geography as an island continent, with no land border disputes; and the leverage gained from access to advanced US military and intelligence capabilities.

Internal weaknesses include: a complacency about security and the country’s place in the world; infrastructure pressures and uneven population distribution; fuel dependency on oil refineries abroad; power vulnerabilities and underdeveloped solar, hydro and potential nuclear energy resources; Web dependence and cyber vulnerabilities; and limited sovereign industrial capacity.

External opportunities, by region, include: in the Pacific – climate, resource and social challenges present an opening for respectful Australian leadership alongside New Zealand; in Southeast Asia – there is a regional and sub-regional appetite for closer Australian engagement and investment; in Northeast Asia – trade growth opportunities persist; in the Indian Ocean region – ties to India and beyond are growing; with the NATO countries – a resurgent interest in Indo-Pacific affairs provides openings; with the US – ties with Australia’s principal ally remain of enduring consequence; with Antarctica – Australian responsibilities and obligations loom larger than most realize.

External threats include: levels of foreign interference not seen since the height of the Cold War; cyberattacks from industrial, state and non-state actors; an ideational retreat from leadership by the US; religiously and politically motivated violence at home and abroad; conventional and/or thermonuclear war; increased environmental challenges; other transnational security concerns; large-scale unregulated people movement; diminished biodiversity and pandemics, challenges to fishing stocks in the Pacific and beyond; and the possibility in a breakdown in relations with Indonesia.

While important, some of these SWOT factors may not appear to be urgent. Yet many of these must be addressed sooner than later; for if we wait until they appear urgent, we may have waited too long and left things too late.

In response, Australia needs a domestic political and societal re-awakening to face the array of challenges presenting themselves. A national institute of net assessment, akin to the productivity commission, should be established on a statutory basis to consider the SWOT spectrum, drawing on the breadth of research expertise in the university sector, as well as industry, think-tanks, government and beyond. Such an institute could develop viable options to address challenges holistically, including by examining further the following suggestions.

Deepen ties with ASEAN

Increased capacity and endurance in a number of areas is required for Australia to be self-sufficient. Australia currently has limited sovereign capacity to respond to the growing range of threats. This means investing further in the capacity of the Australian Defense Force and related government instrumentalities and other infrastructure (including in the cyber domain) to be able to endure prolonged security challenges including those posed by advanced technology threats and possibly war.

Given chronic personnel shortfalls and a wide array of agencies that could benefit from extra people involved, an expansive and inclusive Australian Universal National and Community Service Scheme (AUSNACS) should be considered through which all young Australians could contribute. There might even be significant societal side benefits.

Building on the Australia-ASEAN Special Summit of 2018, Australia should strengthen and deepen ties with member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, notably Indonesia, as well as others beyond that are willing to work closely with Australia to bolster regional security and stability.

Beyond the Pacific Step-Up, a compact of association with South Pacific countries is needed for shared governance, akin to the treaty arrangements the US and New Zealand have with several Pacific micro-states. In return for residency rights, Australia, along with New Zealand, should respectfully offer closer partnering arrangements to assist with management, security and governance of territorial and maritime domains.

Australia should maintain and strengthen its economic and security ties with the US and other closely aligned states. Utilizing its trusted access, Australia should counsel against adventurous US initiatives that undermine international institutions, but support initiatives that reinforce the rules-based order. Australia’s US engagement has a demonstration effect in the region, being closely scrutinized by the neighbors.

John Blaxland is professor of international security and intelligence studies in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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