The Indo-Pacific is facing increased and intersecting geopolitical, climate-related and health security risks. Due to concerns over growing Chinese influence in the region, Australia’s regional engagement has garnered a great deal of attention. The government (Powles & Wallis, 2022) and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) (Bassi, 2022) have been the main targets of the narrative about Australia’s engagement with its neighbours.

However, the military has a critical role to play in assisting Australia’s diplomatic relations. This is because, in a distinct manner, defence diplomacy enables the potential to build relationships and partnerships for effective deterrence against malign actors. Additionally, it demonstrates that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) values diplomacy over force when it comes to maintaining stability and friendly relations in the region.

In an era where we are observing the greatest change in our region, there is no substitute for sustained diplomacy. Political slant aside, this is evident from the ongoing efforts that successive Australian governments have undertaken to engage with the world, including our near region (DFAT, n.d.; Plibersek, 2016). In a recent ASPI report, James Wise (2022) rightly argued that foreign policy is what states decide to do and diplomacy is how they try to do what they have decided upon. This is a playbook actively being followed by China (Dziedzic, 2022; Wise, 2022). However, diplomacy is not solely the remit of government diplomats and DFAT. There are key aspects of diplomacy, critical to a successful deterrence strategy, that can only be undertaken by the ADF.

The importance of defence diplomacy has been clearly directed to the ADF. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update gave the ADF three tasks—shape, deter and respond—elevating defence diplomacy to the same level as other traditional military roles (Department of Defence, 2020). As part of efforts to build national relationships, military diplomacy has been nested under Australia’s broader diplomacy efforts as an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or’. This nuanced position is shared by the US, as aptly put by the previous US Central Command Commander General James Mattis: ‘If the US Government does not fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition’ (Silberman, 2013).

Much ink has been spilled over the disparities in funding between DFAT and Defence (Sharma, 2020; Shoebridge, 2020; Tyler, 2021). This hardly addresses the issue that diplomacy is a whole-of-government activity within which Defence has a significant role to play as part of broader, coordinated, national efforts between agencies, groups and individuals for collective security and prosperity.

Defence diplomacy enables the use of the military to strengthen partnerships and relationships in our region. This is achieved by military-to-military relationships through exercises, personnel exchanges via the embedding of staff in units, hosting staff in Defence academic institutions and conducting humanitarian assistance operations. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), for example, was established following the multilateral naval response efforts between the US, Japan, Australia and India in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. The operation was a successful illustration of the benefits of cooperation, which enabled a change of direction for India’s decades-long non-alignment policy and resulted in the establishment of the Quad in 2007.

These very relationships, military exercises and personnel exchanges provide ongoing opportunities to advance and maintain the ADF’s interoperability with our allies and key regional partners. Increased interoperability directly translates into increased capability for the ADF during crises, thereby rendering Australia better able to deter potential adversaries in the long run.

The use of defence diplomacy is not unique to Australia and its allies. A report produced by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs (Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University) discusses how the Chinese military has been using defence diplomacy in the period of 2003–2016 (Allen et al., 2017). The report highlights that military diplomacy has been used to pursue China’s overall foreign policy by shaping China’s security environment. Recent efforts have focused on demonstrating increased capability to deter and intimidate potential adversaries.

In the face of the effects of climate change in the region, the need for defence diplomacy will rise (Nicholson, 2022). In the coming years, Australia’s near region will face increasing climate security risks that will cause large population movements. This will challenge the requirements placed upon the ADF and necessitate multilateral responses (Glasser et al., 2022). Unless Australia continues to provide regional engagement, including military presence, it may lose its position as a partner of choice in the region.

Ultimately, we need to start thinking about diplomacy differently. Effective diplomacy encompasses a whole-of-government approach, which includes the ADF. By doing so, Australia will continue to build strong partnerships and alliances with its regional partners at all levels of government for the region’s collective security and prosperity.


Allen, K., Saunders, P. C. & Chen, J. (2017, July). Chinese military diplomacy, 2003–2016: Trends and implications. Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Institute for National Strategic Studies, NDU Press.

Bassi, J. (2022, 25 May). Australia’s reset with China has already happened. The Strategist.

Department of Defence. (2020). 2020 Defence Strategic Update. Australian Government.

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. (n.d.). Stepping-up Australia’s engagement with our Pacific family. Australian Government.,healthy%2C%20educated%2C%20inclusive%20populations

Dziedzic, S. (2022, 25 May). Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi visiting multiple nations as Pacific push continues. ABC News.

Glasser, R., Kapetas, A., Leben, W. & Johnstone, C. (2022, 24 February). The geopolitics of climate and security in the Indo-Pacific. ASPI.

Nicholson, B. (2022, 25 February). Defence ‘acutely aware’ of risks posed by climate change: ADF chief. The Strategist.

Plibersek, T. (2016). Australia’s international affairs: The Labor approach. Australian Journal of International Affairs. 2016 Federal Election Special Section.

Powles, A. & Wallis, J. (2022). An Albanese-Ardern alliance in the Pacific: A step forward? The Strategist.

Sharma, D. (2020, 13 July). A diplomatic step-up to match our military step-up. The Interpreter.

Shoebridge, M. (2020, 18 September). Positive agenda, not budget envy: Increasing Australia’s investment in diplomacy. The Strategist.

Silberman, Z. (2013, 8 March). The military understands smart power. U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

Tyler, M. C. (2021, 14 December). Why isn’t Australia putting diplomacy first? The Interpreter.

Wise, J. (2022). The costs of discounted diplomacy. ASPI.

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