The limits of Australia’s defence diplomacy

| October 28, 2018

In July 2018, several Indo-Pacific air forces joined the United States, France, Canada and Australia for a multinational air combat exercise that was hosted over northern Australia. Code-named Pitch Black, the biennial exercise started as a bilateral combat exercise in the mid-1980s between Australia and the United States. Pitch Black has now evolved into a complex training workout with over 140 aircraft and 4000 personnel taking part.

Non-violent defence diplomacy is emerging as a major growth industry in the 21st century. As Australia faces increasing competition for influence in the Indo-Pacific, defence diplomacy has assumed a distinctive bipartisan edge in efforts to strengthen regional partnerships.

The risks, limitations and challenges of Australia using its military as part of a regional engagement platform should not be undersold and need to be better considered.

Peacetime military-to-military manoeuvres can involve port visits, education programs, inter-ship communications and air-land integration activities. The argument for undertaking these activities is that they can help test defence procedures against simulated threats, mould cooperative practices, build trust among service personnel, and help mitigate the risk of potential or rolling regional flashpoints escalating into major violent incidents.

Such lofty ideals are neatly captured in the Gillard government’s 2013 Australian Defence White Paper, which describes defence diplomacy as a ‘strategic necessity and strategic asset’.

Certainly, there is a need to share operational experience and identify limitations in Australian defence force capabilities. But the argument that defence diplomacy can result in transformative strategic outcomes like the improvement of political relationships and the shaping of other countries’ military behaviour remains based on inconclusive, contested and fragmented evidence. Such ambitious assessments remain in danger of offering little more than wishful thinking, while failing to adequately reflect on priorities and constraints.

Similar lines of argument claim that defence diplomacy will provide high returns on limited investments, all while maintaining a ‘low-risk profile’. But efforts to avoid potential conflict are subject to undercurrents connected to asymmetric power imbalances and wider disputes about hegemonic leadership in the region. This means that defence diplomacy will retain a highly competitive dimension. At the very least, any push for enhanced defence partnerships will be exposed to sovereignty concerns, problems of ‘free riding’ and resource disputes.

Another risk is the danger of misrepresentation. Comments made by Australian defence personnel overseas can be read by host governments as implying commitments or perspectives that the Australian government may be unwilling to follow.

At the same time, Australian policymakers will need to be careful to not mistake being active with being effective. This will involve ensuring that training exercises do not become carelessly ensnared in major power competition, that defence diplomacy projects retain whole-of-government support and that communications are transparent about the intentions and outcomes of military-to-military exercises.

On a budgetary level, the notion that defence diplomacy programs will offer ‘value-for-money’ is also contestable. Defence engagement must have clear metrics to assess its performance and achievements in order to avoid parallelism in planning, funding and capability acquisition. In the past, efforts to measure the performance standards, show the cost effectiveness and judge the priority areas of Australia’s defence engagement have not been straightforward.

Finally, efforts to ramp up defence engagement with non-democratic partners will continue to raise vexing human rights dilemmas. For instance, Australia continues to train Myanmar’s armed forces (the Tatmadaw) in humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and English classes. This is despite allegations against the Tatmadaw of ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya population in Rakhine State.

The European Union, Britain, the United States, France and Canada have all cut ties with the Tatmadaw over its ‘disproportionate use of force’ in Rakhine State that ‘strongly indicates a deliberate action to expel a minority’. It is argued that such condemnation and suspension, even if temporary and symbolic, will help to reinforce a global culture of accountability and a closer alignment between foreign engagement and respect for human rights.

For some, the rationale for Australia’s ongoing involvement with the Tatmadaw — albeit small and with restrictions — is to advance the development of a modern defence force in Myanmar that will be open to reform, civilian control and pathways for democratic consolidation. Yet it cannot be assumedthat military-to-military engagement programs will automatically produce the desired outcome of a critical mass of senior military leaders in the targeted relationship who demonstrate changed professional outlooks.

Defence diplomacy does have many important benefits. It has proven value in assisting civil authorities when facing large-scale disaster-related tasks, as recently demonstrated by the Australian air force’s provision of assistance to Indonesia after the devastating Sulawesi earthquake and tsunami. These endeavours enhance security and indirectly generate confidence, resilience and goodwill.

But expectations need to remain modest, fixed on short- to medium-term security goals and carefully located within integrated political, foreign and defence planning frameworks. Defence diplomacy itself cannot create strategic transformations and negate the driving differences of actors involved in arenas of ongoing political competition.

This article was published by the East Asia Forum.