Who cares about national security? 

by Emma Shortis


In parliament last week, responding to the temporary blocking of a legislative favour to Santos, Foreign Minister Penny Wong berated the opposition. The bill – which did eventually pass – is designed to facilitate massive expansion of the gas industry.

Wong told those opposite that:

‘Maybe those who care about national security should think about the fact that the governments of Korea and Japan have been asking us to pass this legislation.’ 

The claim that supporting the gas industry is about ‘national security’ is both wrong and dangerous.

It implies that any failure to facilitate the expansion of the domestic gas industry would endanger Australia – that those who ‘care’ about national security, by delaying the passage of the legislation, were putting Australia’s security alliances with both Japan and Korea at risk. Both nations ‘have been asking’ Australia for a friendlier legislative environment for companies like Japanese-owned Inpex, and it was incumbent on the Australian government, for reasons of security, to deliver.

This narrative is not new. Suggestions that both Australian and regional security rely on the continued or even expanded extraction and supply of gas by private companies have been around for quite a while.

In March, for example, Inpex chief executive Takayuki Ueda said that there would be ‘potentially very sinister consequences’ should Australia reduce supply of LNG to Japan. Ueda even suggested that Russia, China and Iran would likely fill any supply gaps, an outcome that ‘would represent a direct threat to the rules-based international order essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region, if not the world.’

These comments were far more hyperbolic, but the argument is the same: Australian extraction, use and export of fossil fuels is essential to international security.

This narrative is insidious.

There is, first, the obvious contradiction in Ueda’s version: if ‘reliability’ of supply is the major concern, Russia, Iran or China are hardly viable alternatives. Implicitly, Ueda conceded that Japan was willing to put its short-term ‘security’ in the hands of Russia, China and Iran, regardless of the long-term consequences.

Equating ‘reliability’ with ‘stability’ and thus ‘security’ also suggests that supply lines and trade relationships are immutable – a claim that ignores the entire history of globalisation.

Second, both Ueda’s ‘sinister consequences’ and the Australian government’s appeal to those who ‘care about national security’ suggest that stable security relationships are contingent on supplicant trade relationships – doing what Korea and Japan ask. The implication here is that if Australia does not do that, those security relationships will become unstable and might even collapse.

This argument is a sophistry. Australia and Japan, for example, have longstanding security agreements (both bilaterally and through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) that have broadened and deepened under the Albanese government. In August, they adopted the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement. It is the first visiting forces agreement Japan has struck with any country outside the United States, with which both countries maintain what they regard as essential and fundamental security alliances. All three see their deepening security ties as critical to stability in the Indo-Pacific, and to managing the role of China. No tension or change in the bilateral trade relationship over one supply line would put this at risk, and any changes could be managed with the most basic diplomacy.

Refuting this ‘national security’ argument on its own terms, though, also reveals something even more duplicitous at play.

In this framing, ‘security’ means ‘stability’ – that is, the maintenance of the status quo. ‘Security’ means nothing more than the temporary prevention of inevitable, direct conflict. It has nothing to say about genuine and lasting peace, human flourishing, or ecological security.

It also has a hierarchy.

In the same week that Minister Wong was equating Australian national security with fossil fuel expansion, the Prime Minister was signing a new ‘Falepili Union’ with Tuvalu. The treaty notes that ‘climate change is Tuvalu’s greatest national security concern’. The leaders of both nations agreed that Falepili ‘recognises the importance of collective sovereignty, whereby a country’s actions can impact on its neighbours’. They had already agreed, through the 2018 Boe Declaration, that ‘climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific’.

The events of the past week undermine this admirable sentiment. They suggest that ‘collective sovereignty’ does not really mean what it should: caring about each other and the material impact of policies that endanger the security of the Pacific and the world.

Instead, Pacific peoples could be forgiven for thinking it means supporting fossil fuel interests ahead of Australia’s ‘family’ in the Pacific, which has been asking Australia to stop fossil fuel expansion for some time. It means promising to be ‘a partner that won’t come with strings attached’ committed to ‘action on climate change’, and then turning around a year later and doing the opposite. It means accelerating climate collapse because some foreign-owned companies asked us to and pretending that doing so is about ‘security.’

The Australian government appears to ‘care’ about the genuine security of Australia and the world just about as much as a sub-imperial petrostate can be expected to. Which is to say, not much at all.

— Dr Emma Shortis is Senior Researcher in the International & Security Affairs Program.

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