From foes to friends

21 November 2014

Increasingly the region’s militaries, including Australia’s, are looking to defence diplomacy to resolve disputes and prevent conflict. But does it work, asks Hamish McDonald.

Military diplomacy might strike some as an oxymoron, like military intelligence, as former Australian army chief Peter Leahy wryly points out. But the concept is increasingly in vogue - as a sort of “soft power” with a hard core that politicians use to show they are doing something about strategic issues.

All kinds of interaction between militaries, short of pointing guns at each other, is now coming under the “diplomatic” rubric, as a new paper from The Australian National University’s Strategic & Defence Studies Centre explores.

Defence attaches at embassies help organise joint exercises and training courses, as well as building up profiles of the host country’s forces and their leaders. Friendship in defence colleges and peace-keeping operations pay off in easing sticky situations many years later.

John Blaxland, from ANU and a former military attaché in Bangkok, says the Australian army’s decades of joint training with the Thai military got a prompt offer of an army battalion and a major-general as deputy commander for the Australian-led Interfet force that restored security in East Timor in 1999.

Helping in disasters also produces a feel-good attitude. Following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the large-scale effort in Aceh (which saw nine Australian service personnel die in a helicopter crash) helped the Australian and Indonesian militaries move beyond the resentments left by the Timor intervention.

So Asia is encouraging its defence ministers and military brass to talk to each other, making forums like new Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defence Minister’s meeting and the annual Shangrila Dialogue, held by London’s International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore, must-attend events.

Even though the latter dialogue has often resulted in “strategic grandstanding”, as when generals from the People’s Liberation Army make unapologetic statements about incidents in the South China and East China seas, the general feeling is that, to use Winston Churchill’s words, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

More than that, governments are encouraging their militaries to exercise together, often starting with things like rescue-at-sea or humanitarian relief, in the hope that familiarity breeds, if not friendship, at least a healthy respect. Australia has just hosted US marines and PLA troops in a tripartite exercise near Darwin, for example, and Singaporean units have recently exercised with the PLA in China.

Too much can be expected, of course.

“Much of the enthusiasm for defence diplomacy is based on the idea that plain-speaking military men, talking soldier to soldier, can resolve differences and build trust and understanding where civilian diplomats and politicians become mired in half-truths, evasions and circumlocutions,” says the ANU’s Hugh White, a former deputy secretary of Australia’s Defence Department.

Not all strategic differences result from misunderstandings that can be cleared up like this. Rather, it’s a matter of deeper strategic objectives.  “Those differences cannot be swept away by plain talk: they are only reconciled, if at all, by negotiation and compromise,” White says.

“There is no reason why military men should not play a role in such negotiations, but equally there is no reason to believe that they are any more suited to them than civilian diplomats.”

La Trobe University’s Nick Bisley, a professor in international relations, agrees that forums like the Shangrila Dialogue don’t solve deep-seated disputes. But he still sees much value in military diplomacy.

“It can reduce tensions and help manage crises,” Bisley writes. “Having defence personnel, both uniform and civilian, working in non-coercive ways traditionally associated with diplomats provides the opportunity to take the heat out of points of friction and to keep crises from escalating.

“It has long been thought that bad strategic decisions derive from poor information and misperceptions. Defence diplomacy’s second benefit is that it can improve information flows and enhance the mutual understanding of states’ capabilities, interests and where their ‘redlines’ actually lie.”

Brendan Taylor, head of the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, and General Leahy, director of the University of Canberra’s National Security Institute, both urge a long-term approach to building up personal contacts in other militaries.

“Military diplomacy doesn’t just happen,” Leahy says. “But it is not as though it can be planned. It requires a broad based investment, takes time to mature and doesn’t work in every case. Often it can develop from attendance at schools or courses or participation in United Nations missions years prior. More recent activities have involved cooperation on the all too frequent humanitarian and disaster relief missions.”

But even when military men get along fine, they can still find themselves at war with each other.

“Defence diplomacy with China will do nothing to address the immense implications for Australia of escalating strategic rivalry between the US, China and Japan,” writes Hugh White. “History tells us that when a real crisis strikes, goodwill between services is soon forgotten.”

White, a lone voice of pessimism among his fellow authors who see brighter prospects, recalls how a British navy battle squadron steamed out of the German naval base at Kiel on 30 June 1914. In festive goodwill its commander sent his hosts the message: “Friends in the past, friends forever.”

Austria’s Grand Duke Ferdinand had been assassinated two days earlier. A month later the two navies were taking up battle stations.

Hamish McDonald is journalist-in-residence at The Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

The ANU paper ‘Defence Diplomacy: is it worth the candle?’ is launched Thursday and can be accessed at: