Interview with Prof. Rory Medcalf

Prof. Rory has been Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University since 2015. His professional background involves three decades of experience across diplomacy, intelligence analysis, think-tanks, academia, and journalism, including as Founding Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute from 2007 to 2015. During his time in government, Professor Medcalf worked as a senior analyst in the Office of National Assessments, Canberra’s peak intelligence analysis agency. He was also an Australian diplomat with wide experience, including a posting to New Delhi.

Interviewed by Calvin Khoe

Calvin Khoe is an Associate Researcher at the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI). His research interests are among others Indonesian foreign policy, geopolitics, and security. Calvin is an International Relations graduate from School of Government and Global Affairs, Universitas Pelita Harapan. Prior to FPCI, Calvin was a research assistant at the Indonesian Institute of National Resilience (Lemhannas RI).


On the 1st of July, Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the 2024 Structure Plan. Prime Minister Morrison highlighted the changing Indo-Pacific strategic environment that has become more challenging and less benign, creating a new environment that requires an adjustment in Australia’s strategic thinking and future plans. The strategic update and structure plan sees the importance of building Australian maritime power and deterrence capability, certainly creating a projection that will make Australia’s defence capacity more independent and self-reliant.

FPCI Research and Analysis (FPCI R&A) sees this development as an important strategic update for the Indo-Pacific region, in particular for Indonesia. To discuss further and understand the thinking process behind this 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2024 Structure Plan, FPCI researcher Calvin Khoe interviewed Prof. Rory Medcalf, Head of National Security College, Australian National University.

1. The article published by on July 7th 2020 mentioned that recent geopolitical developments have changed the structure of Australia’s defence requirement. In addition, Prime Minister Morrison’s speech during the launching of this new defence initiative also underlined that Australia has moved into a new and less benign strategic area. Can you elaborate on the strategic environment or area that Australia is currently surrounded with? Can you also explain the rationale or decision making process that might take place behind this new defence update?

Thank you for inviting me, it’s a pleasure for me and I have a lot of respect with FPCI works. The Australian strategic defence update that has come up recently is a very significant document and it marks a steep-change in Australian defence policy towards a more realistic and hard-headed approach to our security environment. There is no question in the minds of the Australian strategic establishment and there is no question that the strategic environment is getting darker, less benign, and getting more disrupted.

Much of this has to do with the way that China has used its power in recent years and there is also an obvious concern about how reliable is the Trump administration. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been really unsettling the whole strategic order. All of these elements have accumulated to cause this rethink in Australian defence policy.

However, I would emphasize that in some way this is not entirely new. The update is really taking to a new height the concern about defence and security that was embedded in our defence white paper 4 years ago. As we get into the conversation, I might talk about the force structure that Australia is developing. We are really sticking with and in some ways, enhancing the Australian maritime force structure that Australia embarked on 4 years ago.

2. The term “grey area” that I found often in the document which is about a combination between military and non-military activity that provokes conflict – can you elaborate more on this term that is now being used?

So, the so-called “grey area” or “grey zone” is a term that has become increasingly common in the security discourse within the Indo-Pacific region as well as globally in recent years.

It refers to those activities of coercion and pressure and strategic advantage that a country might pursue with the use of armed forces. So for example, the kind of harassment in the South China Sea by Chinese maritime against Indonesian fishing boats and the Indonesian Coast Guard. The kind of activity that we are seeing now is economic coercion that is being applied against Australia, the use of interference, and the use of investment in critical infrastructure for strategic purposes.

This is a whole range of activities, and of course the difficulty in responding to those as a nation-state is that your response automatically be armed forces. You should develop a multi-arm and multi-agencies response from your government to manage those tensions, to discourage coercion and not to cause escalation. So that is only a part of the Australian defense journey in this document. Cyber is part of that story, it is also a part of the whole nation’s effort that Australia is mounting to protect its interests with our allies and partners in the region.

3. From Australia’s perspective, what would be the major existing regional threats to the Indo-Pacific region presently and in the near future?

There is a real risk of great power competition escalating into confrontation, perhaps even escalating to conflict. A lot of this competition is with China at its center. I see multiple great-power contest occurring in our region that involves China-US, China-Japan, China-India, and increasingly I see frictions between China and a range of countries in Southeast Asia as well. 

So, I think the greatest concern is not necessarily deliberate military aggression but it is much more great power competition escalating to conflict.  And unfortunately, as we are saying in one reason why I think Australia has become more full fright in its defence policy is that the Chinese communist party state is using many instruments of coercion, partly because they want to maintain control over its population domestically, and so it wants China to become a great and powerful country in the region and why it’s demonstrating that control.

Unfortunately, the Chinese party state is using assertiveness and coercion against a whole range of external competitors such as India, Vietnam, USA, and Japan, and it could get out of hand or out of China’s control as indeed we saw on the India-China border lately. So, Australia is really hedging against this difficult future.

4. Are you seeing this as a new trend in the upcoming years?

Absolutely, I think the pandemic has accelerated this unfortunately. I think we had hoped that the pandemic was this opportunity for nations to rise above this strategic competition, to cooperate to defeat the pandemic and protect the health and welfare of the population. 

Unfortunately, even if that is happening to some extent, this strategic competition is still continuing, and it’s even accelerating. So, Australia and other countries like Indonesia really need to be guiding against those risks, which involves increasing our own capabilities and improving our network of diplomacy with one another.

5. Why is the main force structure plan more profoundly invested in conventional standoff weaponry, particularly long-range missiles? What is the objective of this choice?

So, in fact, the force structure is not a radical departure from the plan that we already embarked in 2016 with the previous defence white paper. That is, Australia is moving increasingly to a maritime force, to sea power, to airpower, and to networking, with an advanced contemporary system of communication, intelligence, reconnaissance, data links, and so forth. We are also seeing increased investment in cyber and to some extent, the beginning of investment in unmanned systems. What is new in this defence update? I guess a re-emphasis on the maritime force posture, such as shipbuilding with a new class of ship that will be developed and brought into service and the submarine program over the long time frame. 

An interesting emphasis is on intelligence and surveillance, for example we will see dedicated sovereign Australian satellites for communication and intelligence. We will see Australia expand its radar footprint over the South Pacific. And some emphasis on strike capabilities as you mentioned about the long-range missile, in fact, we are not talking about long-range ballistic missile, which some of the media I think misunderstood. This is about anti-ship missiles with a longer range than we’ve had in the past, moving to 370 km from Australian aircrafts it deployed.  We are also looking into research in hypersonic missiles that may or may not be developed by Australia in the future. 

It’s a deterrence posture, in most circumstances, still operates in partnership with the US alliance and US-led Alliance system. However, we are seeing the beginning of a more self-reliant Australian deterrence posture if conditions continue to deteriorate. And this is not about Australia taking a major power adversary like China. But frankly, it is really about Australia being able to hold its ground for a period of time in international conflict and Australia being able to make a contribution to alliance efforts. Also, about Australia being able to make an adversary and think twice about the risks and consequences of a continued and escalated conflict.

6. The Australian defence documents that were released mentioned Indonesia, Japan, and India as Australia’s partners in building its security network in the Indo-Pacific Region. Can you explain regarding Australia’s projection of security cooperation with those 3 countries? What role is expected of Indonesia in the Indo-Pacific design, particularly with India and Japan, does Australia intend to make a regional security alliance with them?

I think the trend of the time is towards a more complex web of security relationships in the Indo-Pacific, in our region. I think that one of the valuable characteristics of our region is being multipolar. There are many potential partners to work with. Relationships such as Australia-Indonesia, Australia-India, and Australia-Japan, and relationships that we have probably under-invested in the past are now becoming more important. That does not mean we are moving towards a formal alliance structure. At this stage, only US and its treaty allies such as Australia and Japan have that formal relationship.

However, I do think as China is becoming more coercive, many countries are looking at what we can do to maintain regional stability and protect our interests without being provocative. I think we will see greater coordination and cooperation among these informal partners – sharing information, intelligence sharing, exercising together, capacity building, and helping one another with technology – not just in the military sphere but in the critical technologies and supply chains that our country needs to have a resilient economy. I see all of that happening, and I hope it will help bring China to some kind of a settling point in their ambition. China will begin to see that other countries are seeking safety and that we have legitimate interest in sovereignty, to protect in doing so. I would just add, that this is not just about bilateral cooperation. I think the other big term of the moment is “minilateralism”, small groups that are self-selected to work together and again I think there is enormous promise in the Indo-Pacific triangle: Australia, India, Indonesia or Australia, India, and Japan, and of course quadrilateral relationships like with the US because they give us options and alternatives to improve our capabilities together and to balance against China.

7. Are there any particular distinctions between Australia-Japan and Australia-India’s security relations?

The Australia-Japan relationship is older and is embedded within the US alliance system. We already have very good US-Japan-Australia trilateral strategic relations. There is a lot of logistic cooperation, intelligence sharing and so forth. However, India holds a lot of promise and is beginning to accelerate quite a lot. I think the deep mistrust that India has accumulated towards China, particularly with the violent clash a few months ago, is going to further accelerate that. So, we are beginning to see more advanced Australia-India cooperation or comprehensive strategic partnership. Talks about cooperating in maritime surveillance, in space, in cyber, and of course I think naval relationships, is really the core. We will see increasingly, I believe, the Australia-India-Japan relationships converge. The triangle of Australia-India-Japan has been a pretty powerful and a core foundation for engaging with others, such as for example Indonesia, would be at name – whether or not the US are in that particular conversation.

8. In the Prime Minister’s speech, he repeated the word “deterrence”. Can we assume that he was referring to China? How would Australia balance economic interests and defence concerns when it comes to China? How long would Canberra’s hardline approach toward China last?

What is interesting in recent years is Australia has been through quite a difficult reality check with China. We want a relationship of mutual benefit and mutual respect. Instead, we have a very big trading relationship and we have also multifaceted relationships in society, culture, and dialogue and so forth. Remember, there are many Australians of Chinese origin and they are very welcome as citizens and as contributors to Australia’s multicultural society. 

What has changed in the past few years is that Australia sees China at least its much through a prism of risk as it does to the prism of opportunity and some of those risks are also now in the economic aspect. The use of economic relations as coercion – China threatening to break part the economic relationship precisely because of the security or political decisions that the Australian government makes.  So, I think over time, Australia would try to diversify its economic relations and would try also to get that message to China that we can have a mutually beneficial trade relationship without security frictions if China chooses to adjusted behavior accordingly. What I don’t see anymore is Australia choosing to sacrifice its security, political, diplomatic interests, its values, indeed its national identity in return for purely economic benefits. I think that’s the calculus that has changed in Australia and I think, is changing in many other countries and China needs to be aware of that.

9. Does the recalibration of Australia’s defence projection and posture represent a shift towards a more independent and self-reliant Australian national defence and away from the US military? How do you see the strategic role of the US military’s presence in the region in the coming years?

I do not think Australia is abandoning the US alliance. We are obviously disturbed by some of the decisions and the behavior of the Trump administration. But we still see America as very engaged in the region certainly in the military sense, through aircraft carriers, through the South China Sea recently, exercising with India in the Indian Ocean, and with Japan and Australia in the South China Sea or in the Philippines Sea.

I think Australia will keep seeking to engage and work with the Americans. I think what has changed certainly – in my view personally – is that even a weakened America who is not able to be a comprehensive leader in the Indo-Pacific, is going to be a powerful partner in balancing and deterring China, and that is actually all we need. America does not have to have primacy in every dimension to be the kind of ally that we need. So I think, it is a new realism that is in Australian thinking while at the same time, by increasing our own capabilities that would become more attractive to America as an ally and more attractive to third countries like Indonesia as a partner.

10. What was the initial response from the US towards the update of Australian defence posture?

In my understanding, it has been very well received, certainly in the American public commentary because America wants its ally and partner to do more for themself. So, in that sense, I think there is no discomfort for the US.

11. In an article written by Ambassador Gary Quinlan in the Jakarta Post, he mentioned that Australia and Indonesia are in a position to shape the regional environment and stability based on the notion of ASEAN centrality within the Indo-Pacific. In your point of view, what are your expectations on Indonesia’s role in ensuring the effectiveness of ASEAN centrality and stability in the region? Beyond the diplomatic rhetoric, what can Indonesia and Australia together achieve strategically?

I think Indonesia is extremely important for Australia as a strategic partner, and in fact, there is some degree of confidence and optimism about the role Indonesia will play in the future. No question Indonesia is having a difficult time with COVID-19 at the moment and for some time to come. But also, Indonesia has such great prospects, a young population, a very diverse and energetic population, and a critical role in the region – a critical role geographically but also diplomatically, in the leadership of ASEAN. Australia has been very impressed by the way of Indonesia under President Jokowi has been pursuing in recent years an Indo-Pacific vision for Indonesia and for ASEAN and increasing Indonesia maritime security capabilities and standing up when necessary against coercion or the breaching of the international rules-based order by countries like China. 

I think we will see more of that and I would say that there is a lot that Australia and Indonesia can do together, in the area of maritime surveillance, monitoring of our shared maritime security environment, advocating a rules-based system within the ASEAN centric institution that we cherished in the heart of Indo-Pacific and planning now for a future beyond the COVID-19. A future where China’s role is recognized as a legitimate great power, but where China or indeed no country is permitted to dominate – that is a multipolar future in the Indo-Pacific, which I see Indonesia and Australia as being co-partners.

12. What would be Indonesia-Australia’s concrete cooperation in the post-COVID-19 world order?

The key issue and priority is building our shared maritime surveillance systems, our navies, air forces, coast guards, our armies exercising more regularly together, building a shared understanding of cyber security in the region, and helping Indonesia and other countries become more cyber resilient.

Subsequently, both countries can work together in developing a kind of middle power focus in organizations like the East Asia Summit, where we can really take a stand that is not necessarily the same like the US, but certainly in the protection of sovereignty and interests of middle powers in this shared Indo-Pacific region. I would see those as high priorities.

13. Some experts and analysts expect more initiative and collaboration between India, Indonesia, and Australia. What would be your expectation and suggestion on future collaboration between India, Australia, and Indonesia in regards to the effort of maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific?

I will emphasize that there are great prospects for minilateral triangles like Australia, Indonesia, and India – some way that 3 legs are stronger than 2 legs, and in fact 3 legs are also stronger than 4 legs because it is easier to coordinate. 

I think with Australia, Indonesia, and India we have this very contiguous maritime space northeast of the Indian Ocean. We have common concerns about the protection of maritime recourses, and we have also a common concern about the potential encroachments of a power like China into this shared space. In ways that are unilateral, we are actually happy with China to play, as long they play multilaterally and with consent. Lastly, we also have the modernization of our various maritime forces that we can coordinate better.  So, I think there are many ways in which our 3 countries can work together as multicultural societies, with the resilience and solidarity of our democratic societies, and I see that as a new priority for Australian diplomacy in the years ahead.

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