September 15, 2009: Dr. Rod Lyon

(Click to Enlarge) Dr. Rod Lyon discusses Australia's recent Defense White Paper.

Australian Strategic Policy in the Changing Asian Security Environment


(Washington D.C.) September 15–Earlier this year, the Australian Department of Defense released its newest Defense White Paper. This document, last released in 2000, illustrates the current Australian strategic plan and also projects the nation’s strategy for regional and national security up to the year 2030. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Rod Lyon, Program Director of the Strategy and International Program at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, shared his analysis of the white paper, illuminating the subtleties of the Australian perception of security in the Asia Pacific as well as the implications for future Australian interaction with its neighbors and allies.
The 2009 Defense White Paper (DWP09) features a change in tone from the 2000 version which can be attributed to the after-shocks of 9/11 and the war on terror as well as a shift of ruling parties from the Howard-led Liberal National Party coalition to the Labor Party with Rudd at its helm. While the Howard government had a very close relationship with the Bush administration and jointly invoked the ANZUS alliance facilitating Australian military support in Afghanistan, Dr. Lyon explained that the Labor Party seeks to return the national defense policy to the ‘center-ground.’ Thus, DWP09 features a return to traditional elements of national defense, focusing more on the protection of the Asia Pacific region and Australia through the use of conventional combat techniques and enhanced maritime defense forces. In scaling back the national defense policy (and its budget), Dr. Lyon observed that the Labor Party will be left with more funding to promote its other priorities.


The effects of the internal political shift in Australia, growing global concerns, and a constantly changing region are evident in the conflicting language found in the report. Dr. Lyon pointed out that globalization and U.S. strategic primacy were, in 2000, outlined as the two pillars of global stability and order. He noted that while DWP09 continues to argue for strong support for U.S. engagement in Asia until 2030, it also details the dangers of transnational threats (sometimes a product of globalization) and predicts that U.S. security efforts in Asia will continue to be tested in an increasingly multi-polar world. Similarly, Dr. Lyon explained that there is recognition that cooperation, economic activity, and interdependence with regional powers such as China, Japan, Russia, and India is often marred by conflicting interests and competition between these nations. These worries mixed with positive statements in the report indicate an uncertain view of Australia’s security atmosphere.


Dr. Lyon noted that the existence of instability in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, along with concerns regarding terrorism, climate change, and the proliferation of weapons were also mentioned in DWP09 but were not systematically incorporated into the report or defense agenda.


The tone of the DWP09 suggests that the Australian Department of Defense is starting to prioritize its security interests by geographic proximity, being more interested in crises close to home than those that occur halfway around the world. Dr. Lyon further argued that the White Paper exhibits a growing disconnect in Australia between the desire for a rules-based regional order stabilized by the United States internationally, and a preference that Australian interests at home be unencumbered by such an order. He also explained that there is reluctance to link regional security directly with U.S. engagement in Asia. The DWP09 highlights Australia’s desire to increase its self-reliance in the defense of national interests, and even hints at a larger goal to increase Australia’s contribution to the maintenance of regional stability. DWP09 does not, however, clearly describe the future of the ANZUS treaty and what future interpretations of the agreement may be expected.
The 2009 White Paper gives a detailed picture of how Australia plans to engage with the region, maintain key relationships, and hedge against unfriendly circumstances. However, Dr. Lyon pointed out that no matter what is described in the White Paper today, the Australian government will ultimately have to adjust its security strategy over time as developments in the region occur and as political leaders and parties come and go. Financing a vision of defense will also have to be considered.


Rod Lyon is the program director of the Strategy and International Program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Previously, he was a senior lecturer in international relations at the University of Queensland. His research interests include Australian strategy, global security, and nuclear weapons strategy and proliferation. In 2004, he was awarded a Fulbright Professional Scholarship to study alliance relations at Georgetown University. From 1985 until 1996, he worked in the strategic analysis branch of the Office of National Assessments. Amongst his publications is a chapter on Australia for Muthiah Alagappa’s edited volume, The Long Shadow: Nuclear Weapons and Security in 21st Century Asia (Stanford University Press, 2008).