Australia Ahead of the Curve Blog Series #14: A larger policy community can make Australia a more constructive and influential regional power

Travers McLeod

01 Nov, 2016

This post forms part of ACFID’s blog series on Australia Ahead of the Curve: An agenda for international development to 2025. Views contained in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of ACFID or its members.

To learn more about this series, read the introductory blog post. To view other submissions and find out how you can contribute your ideas on the future of development, visit our page on the ACFID website.

By 2025, Australian diplomats and defence personnel will look out upon an older, hotter, more volatile and more porous region. Flashpoints might spring from traditional security concerns, such as nuclear proliferation and great power competition. They might emerge from non-traditional threats like political unrest, economic inequality, climate change and forced migration, which could threaten regional stability as much as any conflict or major power rivalry.

As we enter an era of unprecedented complexity and uncertainty, and an intensifying debate over the meaning of a ‘rules-based global order’, Australian policymakers must ask: what kind of regional power do we want to be?

For too long, Australian foreign policy has run on autopilot without a compass. This prompted former Prime Minister, Paul Keating, to argue recently that “we both need and deserve a nuanced foreign policy which does take account of these big seismic shifts in the world”.

For this to happen two changes are required.

First, politicians must stop downplaying or being mute on foreign, security and development policy. They should have a deeper interest in foreign policy strategy and the nexus between domestic and international policy. Second, we must unlock the gates on the foreign policy establishment and allow more non-government stakeholders and civil society organisations – both domestic and internationally focused – into this traditionally closed policy community. While many of these stakeholders are typically not involved in the international sphere, they must realise their interests are better served by engaging with ‘regional’ issues, which will become increasingly inseparable from domestic policy.

Two nascent causes of insecurity, climate change and forced migration, reveal why Australia must welcome inputs into foreign policy from a wider intellectual community. Both areas present unprecedented challenges that highlight how the foreign policy processes and inputs that worked admirably last century will be insufficient for the one ahead. However with increased and better quality input, Australia can develop a shrewder definition of its ‘national interest’ and the values that underpin its international relations. In doing so, Australia can act in the region with greater authority, cohesion and influence.

Climate security

Climate change will be a game changer for national and regional security.

Australia sits on the frontline of climate change. The top ten countries most at risk from sea-level rises and climate-induced displacement are in the corridor from India to the United States.

By 2025, over 410 million people will be at risk to coastal flooding in urban centres in Asia and the Pacific. Climate change will cause larger and more often cyclones, floods, and droughts.

Because changing climactic conditions will act as a threat multiplier there are profound implications for national security and military capabilities.

Australia’s primary allies, the United States and the United Kingdom, have already responded by mainstreaming climate change into their security policy. Australia has been caught napping.

For several years, academics and think-tanks have been pushing Australia’s defence establishment to engage with climate security. In 2015, the Centre for Policy Development argued that the climate security risks for Australia are urgent and growing and that continued inaction increases our insecurity. The Climate Council reinforced this argument.

In 2016, the Defence Department acknowledged the security implications of a changing climate, with mentions in the 2016 Defence White Paper and a considered analysis at the recent Chief of Army Exercise. We now have official recognition, albeit still limited, that our military will increasingly lead future humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions and must coordinate these efforts more effectively with our neighbours.

Australia has a genuine opportunity to lead a regional response, but a more comprehensive domestic and regional engagement strategy to address the security implications of a changing climate is required.

Even though humanitarian assistance and disaster relief will occupy more of our military’s capacity, there have been few calls for climate security engagement by the development and aid community. This must change.

A robust foreign and security policy can create sustainable connections between regional and state development, fragility, security, and individual wellbeing. It could boost the domestic capacities of our vulnerable neighbours to ensure that their health, energy, and social services capabilities are prepared for the perfect storm wrought by climate change. Improving their climate resilience improves the collective security of the region.

Forced Migration

The movement of the region’s most vulnerable people is another example of where foreign, security and development challenges intersect and where our policy settings must be upgraded. The world is experiencing the highest forced migration flows since the Second World War. Unless better managed, forced migration will have intensifying negative impacts on the region.

Asia is home to the world’s largest-known stateless group, the Rohingya. It hosts the world’s largest group of undocumented labour migrants and the most refugees and displaced people of any region. Climate change will generate more displacement. Currently the majority of climate-induced migratory flows are internal, as people move from low-lying coastal or delta regions to increasingly dense urban centres. It is only a matter of time before climate-induced movement across sovereign borders accelerates.

The case study of Bangladesh is sobering. Its capital Dhaka already receives 2000 migrants a day. By 2050, there could be anywhere between 20 and 35 million displaced Bangladeshis. Without considerable development assistance and planning, Bangladesh will be unable to cope and migrants will look externally, accelerating regional instability and exacerbating existing border security tensions. Unless the region drastically scales up its preparation, statelessness and displacement will come to dominate its international relations in coming decades.

Several organisations are already working in the forced migration space, including the UNHCR, World Bank, the International Organization for Migration, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, and Asian Development Bank. Yet building more effective regional architecture on forced migration has not been a core and constructive part of Australia’s foreign policy agenda.

To rectify this, the Centre for Policy Development has begun the second track Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration (ADFM). Convened with policy institutes from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, the ADFM is an emerging regional forum for independent and inclusive policy development. Its objective is to open lines of communication, build trust and confidence, and move towards a regional policy framework to respond more effectively to all forms of forced migration.

After three meetings, the ADFM has already produced positive outcomes, including Ministerial recognition in the Bali Process who agreed to review the Andaman Sea Crisis and create a regional consultation mechanism. Concerted progress before the next crisis can make the region a critical node for more effective, dignified and durable action on forced migration and strengthen the 2018 Global Compacts on Migrants and Refugees.

The path forward

Expanding our foreign, defence and development policy community is a necessary and overdue step if Australia is to be an influential and constructive regional power in 2025. This community will be enriched if more civil society organisations permanently engage the space where domestic and regional security, trade and human wellbeing are now inseparable.

The new Foreign Policy White Paper is a valuable opportunity for a more inclusive and integrated approach to policy development. The principles that emerge for managing Australia’s engagement with the world must reflect a decisive move away from a traditional, insular approach.  


This piece has been enriched by advice from CPD Policy Director, Rob Sturrock, and assistance from Massimo Amerena, a CPD Research Intern.

  • Travers McLeod
    Travers McLeod

    Travers McLeod is CEO of the Centre for Policy Development, an Honorary Fellow in Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne and an Associate at the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.

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