Maritime Trade, COVID-19 And The Future Of Australian Resilience

06 May 2020
Caption: HMAS Melbourne sailed into her home port for the final time. The 138-metre long Guided Missile Frigate arrived at Fleet Base East bringing her 27 years of service at sea to an end. Photographer: LSIS Tom Gibson. Copyright: Commonwealth of Australia.

Key Points:                                                                                                                         

  • A newly released report has highlighted the difficulties for the Australian Defence Force to safeguard maritime trade in periods of tension and conflict.
  • Globalisation and other factors have made Australian society highly dependent on imports leaving us ill-prepared to handle a possible future crisis scenario.
  • In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic there is a need for the Commonwealth to re-examine ways in which Australia can tangibly improve its national resilience.

Earlier this year the Australian Naval Institute (ANI) and the Naval Studies Group at the University of New South Wales (Canberra) released a joint report titled: Protecting Australian Maritime Trade. The study was commissioned based on the findings of the 2019 ANI Goldrick Seminar.

Maritime Vulnerabilities                                                                                                                       

The report concluded that Australia was substantially more dependent today on maritime trade, than any time since the arrival of the Second Fleet to Sydney in 1789. Indeed, the meagre national fuel stocks is one such case in point.

The trade analysis in the report underscores Australia’s vulnerability to any significant disruption. In part and generally speaking, this is due to a combination of factors that emphasis globalisation, the decline in local manufacturing and the growing complexity of society. 

If this seemed an overstatement, then the shortages of a variety of goods as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic should have dispelled any doubts. With this in mind it is apparent that a different sort of crisis, such as a major regional conflict, could have easily had greater impact. 

In any case, the COVID-19 pandemic has served to highlight to contemporary Australia that global supplies cannot always be guaranteed and that borders can be closed and countries isolated.

The other dimension to Australian maritime trade is its importance for facilitating about $35bn of exports around the world. Some of these exports such as LPG from the North West Shelf and Queensland ports are critical to the maintenance of energy supplies to Japan and South Korea.

The report also highlighted that in times of conflict or tension the ADF may not be able to protect all the ships that ply their trade to Australia. This would mean prioritisation as to which ships are escorted, while reducing the number of ships coming into Australian waters.

Building National Resilience

What can be done to reduce risk and generate improved national strategic resilience? The report offers a direction rather than a solution. 

In the first instance, it suggests that the Commonwealth needs, to better analyse maritime trade and Australia’s strategic vulnerabilities, and then take a risk based approach to employ a suite of measures to reduce critical vulnerabilities. Further, the report provides some detail as to how the United Kingdom and the Australian governments systematically applied this approach before World War II. 

It will be opportune when Australia emerges from the COVID-19 crisis for the Commonwealth to think strategically on how Australia’s future economy should develop. Ideally the amount of essential imports should be of a size that could be credibly protected in reasonably envisaged crisis scenarios. 

Energy security is clearly an important issue. A suite of measures is required to reduce the number of tankers required to maintain the economy. This gives the identification and exploitation of local energy supplies (either green or carbon based) a greater urgency.

In terms of local manufacturing, while it is unlikely to see the clock being turned back to the 1960s heyday of Australian production, there are clearly items that must be locally made and stockpiled where necessary. At the very least the encouraging the reconstitution of local industry capabilities to manufacture key medical supplies and equipment is essential.

One point not made in the report is that with increased trend of automation in manufacturing processes, labour costs are less of a determining factor to location of production. This creates opportunities for Australia provided there is conducive government policy, the right entrepreneurial skills, tax settings and available workforce.

Hopefully, the both Commonwealth and Australian society writ large can capitalise on the opportunity the COVID-19 crisis presents us to recalibrate a more nationally resilient economy. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s only, and do not necessarily represent the views of WA DEFENCE REVIEW.

About Peter Jones

Peter JonesVice Admiral Peter Jones (retired) is the President of the Australian Naval Institute and an Adjunct Professor with the Naval Studies Group at the University of NSW (Canberra). He is the author of 'Australia’s Argonauts' and leads the production team for the 'Australian Naval History podcast' series.