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Executing Australia’s Two Grand Strategies

04 Oct 2023
By Dr Peter Layton
Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Richard Marles visit U.S. and Australian service members participating in Exercise Talisman Sabre, the United States’ largest military exercise with Australia in Townsville, Australia, July 30, 2023. Source: DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley /

Operating two grand strategies at once requires nuance and tact, without which one or both may fail. In Australia’s case, reinforcing the military agents of state power will require a sophisticated level of international engagement to sustain its position and deter aggression. 

Mid-last month, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres summed up the global situation: “Our world is becoming unhinged. Geopolitical tensions are rising, global challenges are mounting…” Others are also becoming increasingly worried. Many governments are fashioning grand strategies in response, including Japan, South Korea, and now Australia.

Grand strategies concern the relationship a state wants with another and how that state will build and apply national power to try to achieve that relationship. States with limited power are vitally interested in grand strategies, needing to focus their scarce resources on their most pressing concerns and not squander them on inconsequential matters.

Australia has developed a balance of power grand strategy that, “underwritten by military capability,” will be of a scale “sufficient…to deter aggression and coercion” and generate “a strategic equilibrium.” Such a grand strategy assumes that superior power determines outcomes. A state becomes more powerful by building up military and economic power, and by forming collective defence alliances; the Foreign Minister declares “America is central to [Australia’s] balancing.” This is a grand strategy explicitly focused at the great power level and implicitly at China.

Addressing power asymmetries, needed for an effective balance of power grand strategy, has become increasingly apparent in initiatives such as AUKUS involving nuclear attack submarines, via announcements about new long range missiles, upgrades to Australia’s northern defence bases, and in developing offensive cyber capabilities. Less obvious are the steps to harden Australia against attack by strengthening societal resilience. National security laws, for instance, have been updated to criminalise foreign interference with specific foreign telecom firms blocked, foreign investment rules toughened, critical infrastructure regulations extended, and counters to misinformation and disinformation introduced.

Looking beyond the great powers, Australia has also devised an engagement strategy focused on middle and smaller powers. This grand strategy involves working with others to achieve common goals. In Australia’s case, the nation will work with South East Asia and the Pacific “to enhance our collective security and prosperity.”

The engagement grand strategy is well underway. Numerous economic agreements have been reached including the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus, the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade agreement. Organisationally, there is now an Office of the Pacific and an Australia Pacific Security College. A national strategy aiming for greater trade and investment between Australia and Southeast Asia has been recently announced. The Australian Defence Force exercises regularly with regional nations, with its flagship regional engagement activity Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE) 2023 recently completed.

Using these two types of grand strategies has implications.

First, the two grand strategies are considered not as alternatives but rather “mutually reinforcing.” Working with regional states in a manner that makes them more resilient to outside pressures is in harmony with the balance of power grand strategy. In a practical sense, having different strategies to achieve different outcomes is important. One grand strategy cannot alone achieve all a state seeks, while combining unlike grand strategic ways is problematic. Trying to stop others while working with them is inherently incoherent. In the 1933-39 period, Britain used such a grand strategy but Nazi Germany played off both elements to their own advantage, becoming militarily stronger as a result and a much more dangerous foe.

Second, the two grand strategies might co-exist but each calls for using national power differently. For the balancing grand strategy, diplomacy is used to create alliances, aware of the need to avoid entrapment in another’s problems; international institutions can bind others to specific agreements and control their behaviour and actions in advantageous ways; economic actions aim to enlarge one’s own economic might while deliberately hindering the economic growth of antagonistic others; lastly, the military instrument of power should be focused on increasing the state’s relative power.

Being less statist, engagement is more complicated. Countries are composed of many different and diverse groups, some who might be open and well-positioned for working with Australia in matters of collective security and prosperity, and some who may not. The variety of groups can be partly realised in Australian’s new trade and investment strategy with Southeast Asia. It sees countries having twelve different sectors from agriculture through education and healthcare to the creative industries with each ranging from the state level, through large, medium, and small companies, down to individuals.

Diplomacy might then be used to gain an understanding of the internal complexities of other countries to determine the individuals and groups significant to the engagement of grand strategy; international institutions might be used to encourage ongoing interaction and information exchange that can build trust and knowledge of each other’s intentions; economic actions might work to support those without a country important to collective security and prosperity; lastly, the military instrument might aim to work with particular parts of the state’s defence and security forces.

Third, the two grand strategies call for different skills sets at the national, organisational, and individual level. The balancing grand strategy encompasses more old-school international relations involving the peak political levels of a state and global international organisations. In contrast, engagement involves broad-ranging aspects such as trade, investment, development, and people-to-people links.

Importantly the two intersect. China, while wanting to position itself as apart from developing countries, seeks to be their leader. Beijing’s message to the Global South is that developed countries have a statist focus that stresses military power whereas China seeks to help developing countries modernise through “mutually beneficial cooperation,” rhetorically at least. While of dubious veracity, China’s message can undoubtably appeal and elevates today’s engagement grand strategies to equal footing with the more traditional balancing grand strategy. Both are necessary; neither can be neglected in terms of effort and resourcing.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow, Griffith Asia Institute, and a RUSI (UK) Associate fellow. The author of Grand Strategy, his work may be accessed here.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.