The Costs Of Australia’s Decision To Increase Defense Exports

On the 29th of January, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a plan to boost defense exports, promising that such a move will yield increased job and investment opportunities. The move to make Australia one of the world’s 10 biggest arms exporters within the next 10 years is an attempt to adhere to the coalition’s campaign promise to facilitate “jobs and growth.” While this initiative may in time have a positive impact on the nation’s economy, it will likely tarnish Australia’s image as a peacekeeper in the region and be inimical to world peace on a greater scale.

The Turnbull government plans to grow Australia’s defense sector by providing 3.8 billion in state-backed loans, distributed by the Australian Export, Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC). Official government figures place Australia’s defense exports at a value between AUD $1.5 and 2 billion per year, currently the 20th largest in the world. While aiming to improve this rating, the scheme will also facilitate the 200bn upgrade scheduled for Australia’s defense apparatus over the next 10 years.

Christopher Pyne, Minister for Defense Industry, made assurances that the scheme would only allow weapons to be sold to countries meeting “stringent requirements.” This comes in light of two visits by Pyne to Saudi Arabia within the last 18 months, targeted at increasing defense exports to the Middle Eastern kingdom. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia are often seen as highly controversial, evident in criticism from the minority Greens party and various non-government organisations. The criticism comes in light of the Saudi-led coalition’s involvement in the war in Yemen, where it is alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights. Australia must accept a degree of responsibility for the conflicts to which it provides arms.

Furthermore, the scheme remains controversial even if Australian weapons only find their way into the hands of nations that meet the previously mentioned requirements and respect a rules-based international order. By increasing arms exports Australia is facilitating arms stockpiling, which will be reciprocated by other actors which do not necessarily adhere to international human rights obligations and the law governing armed conflict. Such escalation is potentially inimical to global peace as it fosters mistrust and can act as a catalyst for conflict.

Marc Purcell, CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, condemned the Coalition’s initiative, saying that “[t]he world does not need Australian weapons adding fuel to the fire.” This came in light of statements elucidating the Council’s stance that increased military spending stands to inhibit peace. In addition to the global consequences which arise from the policy, commentators have argued that it could also affect the welfare of Australians through its impact on the nation’s economy. Andrew Davies, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy institute, argued that by subsidizing the defense industry skills would be diverted from other manufacturing heavy industries which are more beneficial to the Australian economy.

The decision by the Turnbull government to increase defense exports in order to stimulate the Australian economy is a worrying one. Although it may provide some benefit with respect to employment and investment, as the Coalition promises, the flow on effects of such a policy may outweigh the benefits. Contributing to arms stockpiling will contribute to arms escalation on a global scale. Furthermore, increased use of Australian weapons will lead to an expanding role of moral responsibility regarding conflicts which the nation has no direct involvement in.