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14 February 2019

In this special post, experts from the ANU National Security College give us their thoughts on the national security issues set to shape this year. 

Over the last few years, national security policy has been substantially shaped by issues that have taken most people by surprise. Among others, the trajectories of terrorist activity, the embrace of ‘populist’ issues and candidates in many Western countries, the uneven and often toxic effects of social media, and the increase of foreign interference in elections and political processes, were all unexpected and have dramatically shaped the national security environment.

To get on the front foot, we asked some of the experts at the National Security College for their forecast of the important national security issues and trends that will matter in 2019.

The issue: The post-truth age represents an evolving challenge for national security, particularly as hostile actors seek to exacerbate domestic social fissures.

The explanation

Two years after elections in the US, UK, and across Europe, there is a plethora of documented evidence – and legal indictments – of outside interference in elections and local political debate.

Foreign actors were able to use disinformation and conspiracy theories to manipulate already existing social tensions often picked up by politicians and mainstream media, which circulated faster than facts in the lead-up to key elections.

Traditionally, experts, including scholars, act as a vital part of the body politic’s immune response. However, the relationship between experts and citizens in democracies is collapsing, with rigorous public debate replaced by ad hominem attacks, fake statistics and alternative facts.

When truth and fact are divorced and politicians exploit the confusion for political gain, good governance suffers alongside civil society and eventually democracy at large.

Relevance for Australia and national security

Information is porous, crossing international borders at the speed of Twitter. Australia is not immune from the threat. US intelligence agencies assessed that state-backed outlets such as RT, formerly Russia Today, are instrumental in spreading misinformation given the resources at their disposal and the access they are afforded in the US.

As social media channels are used by organisations such as RT as well as known post-truth entities such as Info-Wars and Qanon to expand their international presence, Australia will need to develop some tools to counter similar approaches in its own media space and democratic process in order to immunise the community against the virus of disinformation.

The issue: The undermining of trust in politics and attacks on the integrity of elections.

The explanation

A series of reports suggest that there is declining public trust in political institutions. Whether it is the conduct of politicians themselves, the political parties, or the processes of politics, people are losing faith in politics. The US, for instance, is grappling with the fallout from Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, fears of voter fraud, and anger at voter suppression.

Though Australia’s electoral processes seem a lot more robust than that of the US, we should not think that we are immune to external influence and internal disquiet. While the centrally controlled, non-electronic voting processes present challenges for direct voting hacks, the real problem arises if existing distrust is leveraged to challenge the sense of integrity in a vote’s outcomes.

The significance for Australia and national security

In 2019, Australia must be prepared to detect and defend against efforts to undermine our elections. With the New South Wales state election set for late March, and a likely federal election in May, we need to pay attention to marginal voices on social media that bubble through to mainstream political discourse.

With social media playing a central role in providing traditional media with content, such marginal and extreme views can quickly become part of the mainstream. Looking at the US 2018 mid-terms as a warning, marginal voices grow before an election suggesting that the process is tainted before the election is even run. Then, if any irregularities or upsets occur in the vote, they can point to this as part of a wider corruption of the voting process. This then both feeds off and enhances the existing distrust of politicians, major parties, and politics more generally.

The fear here is that social media allows those on the margins to undermine people’s trust in electoral processes.

The issue: Competition for status in Antarctica, pressure to gain access to more or new marine living or non-living resources, and failure to address comprehensive environmental commitments will provide the grounds for an erosion of the current norms of the Antarctic treaty system.

The explanation

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic treaty in 1959. Australia was one of the original 12 signatories. There is now a renewed geo-political interest from a range of powers in this area. Other nations are investing substantially in Antarctic science, logistics, and infrastructure.

Some states are now considering Antarctica and the Southern Ocean through a strategic lens. There are interests in fisheries and the wishes of some states to consider resource exploitation, even including harvesting icebergs and expanded tourism.

Given this year’s anniversary of the Antarctic treaty, Australia needs a renewed polar focus to ensure that the norms and values of the treaty are maintained. The biggest threat to the Antarctic treaty is ‘drift’ in its underlying norms that encourage cooperation and collaboration among all countries with an interest in the region.

The significance for Australia and national security

The Antarctic region is of immense strategic importance to Australia, not only because we claim 42 per cent of Antarctica, but also because the Antarctic treaty provides that all of the planet below 60 degrees South is a demilitarised zone.

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty, we should be using our good standing to highlight its flexibility and utility. The Antarctic treaty’s right of inspection of bases down south should be more regularly exercised by Australia. This will assist in transparent and full reporting under Article VII – the requirement to disclose the use of military personnel and equipment.

The situation: China’s aggressive behaviour in multiple domains is likely to receive an increased response in 2019, forcing Xi Jinping and his Party to reconsider their approach to their international relations.

The explanation

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party has become far more aggressive in how it pursues its regional and global goals since the Global Financial Crisis. China’s Belt and Road Initiative has strained relations due to predatory lending practices, expansion of naval deployments, and the mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs in its western region.

Over the same period, China has been warring with the US over trade, militarising the South China Sea, stiffening relations with Taiwan, taking Canadians as diplomatic hostages, interfering in Australian politics, punishing South Korea economically, and is pushing on India’s border with military force.

As its primary international lever loses its leverage, nations will be less fearful of missing out on Chinese investment and be more willing to speak out against its ruling Party and Xi Jinping in an increasingly louder international chorus.

The significance for Australia and national security

Australia’s interests in this dynamic are manyfold. We have an economic interest to protect, which sits alongside our political sovereignty and is linked to our geography. We are part of the region most impacted by China’s aggressive behaviour – the Indo-Pacific – and we sit below a pivotal actor.

Should Indonesia, which is growing more disillusioned by promises of Chinese investment, decide to condemn the Party’s human rights abuses against Muslim Uyghurs with conviction, it will likely embolden other Muslim nations to follow suit and sharpen a point, ultimately tipping a cascade of pushback against Beijing. And with 2019 seeing a presidential election in Jakarta that’s already tinted with religion, it’s a distinctly likely outcome.

It is unclear how Xi Jinping might react to a concerted outcry against China’s regional arrogance: he may dial things back or he might double efforts going for broke. Either way, and especially since Australia has been leading the resistance to Chinese political interference, policymakers in Canberra need to be prepared for a turbulent 2019.


The issue: Global attempts led by governments to improve cyber security will continue to be ineffective due to competing ideologies, inconsistent application of security measures, and fundamental misunderstandings regarding the nature, origin, and potential harm of cyber threats.

The explanation

The global cyber environment is fast-reaching a tipping point. 2018 saw an increase in cyber incidents and attacks, and this trend is likely to continue in 2019. These increases, alongside advances in artificial intelligence, the exponential adoption of the Internet of Things, and a global economy increasingly dependent on internet connectivity, are creating fundamental shifts in the way society operates. Governments are unable to keep pace with these shifts, and security is lagging dangerously as a result.

The significance for Australia and national security

The Australian government is not unique in identifying cyber security as a serious risk. It has allocated funding and personnel (no small feat in the current Australian Public Service environment), reorganised hierarchies, released an updated Cyber Security Strategy, and shifted the responsibility for cyber security among its ministers.

But despite these efforts, Australia has not yet managed to create a coherent arrangement of measures to protect national security in cyberspace. We’ve been lucky so far. The New Year may well be the year that that luck runs out.


The issue: In the face of China’s dominance of electronics manufacturing, governments will likely have to choose between the security of their communications and the benefits of Chinese trade far sooner than they might like.

The explanation

China manufactures approximately 70 per cent of the world’s smartphones and 90 per cent of the world’s computers, and even non-Sino enterprises source anywhere from 50 per cent to 75 per cent of their components from Chinese factories.

In late 2018, Bloomberg reported that Chinese operatives had secreted tiny hardware backdoors into the supply chain of servers that ultimately found their way to large US tech companies. While the veracity of the claims have been challenged, any further indication during 2019 of supply lines being infiltrated for the purposes of espionage will see governments forced into action.

The significance for Australia and national security

In the areas of its direct control, the Australian government will need to either accept the substantial costs associated with extensively vetting and monitoring the electronics and telecommunications equipment it uses, or accept a lower standard of security.

Regardless of the choice its government makes, Australia will still face huge external risks due to China’s domination of the consumer electronics market. The use of compromised devices by its various employees, contractors, and associated personnel could result in coercive actions against key individuals, and the use of compromised computers, cloud servers, and network equipment by private companies could deliver a foreign government huge amounts of data for use in foreign interference operations and undermine Australia’s national security.

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