"I couldn’t have imagined Spain’s interest in Asia-Pacific"

An interview with Garth Pratten, one of the representatives of Australian think tanks who took part in the III Australian Leaders Programme

"I couldn’t have imagined Spain’s interest in Asia-Pacific"

The Australian Leaders Programme 2017 included four representatives of prominent Australian think tanks. The Council Foundation, as part of its active communications policy, is publishing interviews with them.

Garth Pratten, who holds a PhD in History from Deakin University, is a senior lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and Deputy Manager at Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. He is an expert in military history and analysis.

As an expert in military history, how do you think the sector has evolved over the past few years?

I believe we’re living in an interesting period; for ten years, maybe even more, the focus has been on fighting insurgence and a very specific kind of warfare. We have many records of this: a drawn-out conflict in Afghanistan, in Iraq… and we can’t say that either has been a success, despite the substantial efforts invested.

The question right now is whether this kind of hybrid conflict among population hubs will be the pattern for the future, or whether large-scale conventional warfare will prevail. The way wars will be fought in the future is still unfolding. Will it continue to merge with computer warfare, cyber-attacks and propaganda activities, or will it go back to how it was in the past? I think it will most likely be hybrid: even if there are still conventional clashes, if we look at conflicts such as the Ukrainian one there is a combination of military force and digital attacks; a war on different fronts.

What are Australia’s main defence-related concerns at the moment?

There are a few. Firstly, domestic concerns. Australia, just like any other nation right now, must face the possibility of terrorism. There was an incident quite recently, described as a terrorist attack, which was carried out by a ‘lone wolf’. Intelligence services and the police must remain alert to this threat. Is it a threat on the same level as those faced by other countries? Probably not, as there is a series of features that help Australia keep terrorism in check: the lack of land borders, very restrictive gun laws and a thorough control of sales of the chemicals needed to build bombs. I think the terrorist threat in Australia is under control.

Outside our borders, the next security challenge faced by Australia stems from other Pacific nations. Over the past 20 years there has been significant instability and Australia has assisted in places such as the islands in the South, Timor, Bougainville… Luckily, stability seems to have been achieved in those places, but we cannot be certain it will stay that way in the future. Some of those nations are quite fragile and could be impacted by the economy, or by climate change. There could be new outbreaks of instability that Australia will have to tackle, and it is even possible that there could be problems in larger nations such as Papua-New Guinea that increase instability in the region.

Many of Australia’s challenges are dictated by China’s re-emergence (I avoid the word emergence deliberately, as it has always been a very powerful nation in the region). China is now asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea and wants to become a leader once again in Asia. Then there’s the US, whose relative power is declining in many areas, although it does still have great military power. Australia, which has traditionally designed its strategic policy in the region based on the fact that it has a powerful ally, will have to re-consider its position in the Trump era, as many policies and alliances are being questioned.

There is also the North Korea issue on the table. It is entirely unpredictable, and we also cannot be sure how the US administration will react. Since we are within range of North Korean missiles, any conflict with this country could have consequences for us. Therefore, it is important for Australia to take a hand in managing this conflict. It is also crucial to try and understand the country’s interests, and not think of it as a “mad” state. In my opinion, this is the only way to manage the problem with a favourable outcome.

As you can see, we are currently facing a long list of challenges.

The Spanish frigate ‘Cristóbal Colón’ paid a visit to Australia and carried out some training exercises together with the Royal Australian Navy, alongside New Zealand and the US. What is the purpose of these exercises?

I believe their purpose is two-fold. Firstly, it is practical. Australia has bought three warships based on the Spanish design of F-100s, and they will have the same built-in management system. This allows the Spanish ship to train Australian officers to operate the new vessels.

Secondly, there’s the fact that both Australian and Spanish vessels participate in international operations such as protection in African waters and anti-terrorist missions. International exercises are useful to coordinate efforts and learn from others.

Australia is currently renovating its fleet. What challenges will it have to face moving forward?

The Australian fleet is relatively modern, but the renewal process is common to all armed forces, especially naval and air forces. It is necessary to renovate and update technology on a regular basis to improve performance. Also, the sea is an increasingly unforgiving environment. Ships not only face attacks by sea, but also from above, and it is necessary to protect other valuable elements of the Navy such as Landing Helicopter Docks, which are also based on Spanish designs.

If Navantia’s frigate project goes ahead, Australia will have a significant number of Spanish-built vessels in its fleet.

What do you think is the main use for think tanks such as the Strategic Defense Studies Centre?

Putting forward solutions to complex problems that many people, especially governments, don’t have the time or the freedom to tackle. My centre specialises in undertaking research into the use of armed forces worldwide.

When we talk about armed forces we are talking about exerting violence. Nations need to know the implications of using force, what it can and cannot achieve and the different options and potential outcomes. Institutions like mine allow us to reflect on all the potential issues and offer advice to policymakers. The aim is not to have to use unnecessary force, but if force must be used to achieve national goals or support international missions, then we need to know the benefits and the consequences and strive to achieve our goals at the lowest possible cost.

What conclusions did you draw from meetings such as the think tank seminar during the Programme?

It has opened my eyes when it comes to Spain, a country that is not believed to have much of an interest in Asia-Pacific, and its ideas on the topics I’m most interested in. I’m impressed by the country’s views on Russia and China’s growing importance. Spain sees the Asia-Pacific region as a business and investment opportunity; as a means to increase domestic wealth, and it therefore wants to see a stable and prosperous region that will allow it to access those markets.

I would never have imagined that Spain would be particularly interested in Asia-Pacific, but this week I found out I was wrong. I also discovered that Spain and Australia share many concerns about security. They are both mid-sized countries, so their security and economy-related concerns are similar.

Although Spain’s population is twice the size of Australia’s, it is still not a large country. However, it has managed to maintain a solid industrial base, powerful naval construction capabilities and great companies, such as Inditex, which are able to compete internationally. I think Australia should take a leaf out of Spain’s book; it’s better to have a diversified economy and a significant industrial sector than to focus on services, tourism and high tech the way Australia does. This trip has been quite enlightening.

Has your perception of our country changed at all over the past few days?

In many ways it hasn’t: I had been here before and thought of it as a peaceful, welcoming country. I was here during the 2015 elections, so I already had some clues as to the changes in the Spanish political system.

I think that what has changed my views the most is its foreign policy and its inclination towards Asia-Pacific. As a former European powerhouse, one would think that Spain’s main interest lies in the North of Africa, but I see it has developed a great interest in Asia-Pacific.



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