Counterterrorism Diplomacy

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Counterterrorism (CT) will increasingly be a vector for access and influence in our region. In May of 2017, ISIS aligned militants seized parts of Marawi in the Southern Philippines initiating a nearly six month long siege before the return to government control. By June, Australia, the United States, China, Russia and Israel had offered or were already providing military assistance. The effects of that assistance endure well beyond the cessation of hostilities – our own relationship with the Philippines has improved as a result.[1] It is worth considering CT diplomacy in more detail, particularly how the actions of competitors in our region effect our diplomatic access and influence. 

What is CT Diplomacy?

I use the term ‘CT diplomacy’ to describe those CT activities conducted with a foreign nation that, at least in part, aim to enhance military and/or government relations. Therefore, CT diplomacy covers a wide range of engagements from the provision of ammunition to a foreign CT unit, through to training and advice, all the way to the deployment of military forces into a conflict. The result of CT diplomacy is generally twofold. Most noticeably, it supports the combatting of terrorism, often in pursuit of the security of both states. Secondly, the less visible outcome is the opportunity for diplomatic engagement and dialogue; hence, improved relationships.

Terrorism as a diplomatic topic offers what few others can, an almost universal moral alignment against its practice.[2]Diplomats, or more broadly principals establishing relations with an international interlocutor, can rely on terrorism as a suitable discussion point. Condolences can be delivered, reassurances provided, alternate approaches discussed, or support can be offered; all while on a relatively safe footing. Cultural and religious complexities require a deft touch. Difficult engagement can be dialled back to simple messages and empathy. That ease of engagement, and the continued prevalence of terrorism, ensures that CT diplomacy will remain prolific. We should expect greater competition for CT relationships in our region as a result. 

Discerning the impacts

With competition comes the likelihood of an increasingly contested and congested CT landscape. Regional partners might be flooded with CT engagements, quickly surpassing their capacity to absorb support and limiting further opportunities for engagement. But not all engagements are well thought through; by donor or beneficiary. Those in need rarely have the time to make a considered choice, or access to viable alternatives. The result could be a haphazard approach to force development and capability acquisition that sacrifices a coherent strategy for short-term gain.

In May 2017, one month into the Marawi conflict, gifted Chinese military materiel arrived in the Philippines. In a hand over ceremony notably attended by President Duterte, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua stated, “It is a demonstration of our growing bilateral relationship. It’s also a demonstration of a new era of friendly and cooperative relationship between our two militaries.”[3] This rhetoric demonstrates a strategic goal of access and influence carried in tactical acts of CT diplomacy. Later, President Duterte would credit a Chinese sniper rifle[4] with the death of the militant leader. In one simple move, China deftly demonstrated the impact of rapidly delivering CT services to a state in need. Nevertheless, single acts do not necessarily cause enduring changes. Chinese to Philippine military relations remain limited, predominantly along CT and humanitarian aid and disaster relief lines.[5] However, the long-term effects may take shape below the strategic political level. 

Even if gifted equipment were to receive poor reviews from users, its impact will bleed into the political, diplomatic and military systems. Parts are needed for repair of existing weapons, replacement systems may be desired, ammunition is a persistent demand, and specialised training may be sought or offered; all of which establish long-term relationships between the provider and the receiving country. Though a receiving state may eventually decide not to purchase or accept support, relational ties may already be established. Once introduced, soldiers establish familiarity with gifted weapons, while senior leaders, diplomats, politicians and logisticians develop relationships with foreign interlocutors, potentially resulting in foreign access and influence. Countering that influence is difficult without persistent commitment.

Inaction or reductions in commitments to partner forces provide the gaps that competitors could exploit for access and influence[6]. Recent testimony from the Commander of United States Africa Command, General Townsend, is indicative of the emerging issues caused by competition in CT. His assertion that ‘[in] Africa, counter [violent extremist organisations] is global power competition’,[7] demonstrates the interwoven nature of global competition and CT. Allowing voids in CT assistance to exist enables foreign powers to seize those opportunities to develop access and influence – potentially limiting our ability to affect strategic goals in the future.[8] The relationships built with partners during times of need are the bedrock of enduring partnerships. As they say in the U.S. military community, you can’t surge trust.


The implications for Australia are twofold. Force posture and operational readiness needs to reflect a capability to provide CT assistance to regional partners on short notice across a broad variety of capabilities. The role of experts in areas such as capability acquisition and force development will be important in the provision of useful advice to friends and partners. Finally, the ADF will face increasing competition for CT engagement with our partners. If engagement is limited, or partners are left in need, even those considered ‘partners of choice’ may find alternate political or economic reasons to favour external partners. Once others fill those gaps, re-opening the door will be difficult. 

About the author

Nathan Bradney is currently based within the United States Joint Staff with a focus on global counterterrorism. He holds a Masters of Strategy and Security and is completing a Masters of Special Operations and Irregular Warfare, both through the University of New South Wales, Canberra.

[1] Chief of Joint Operations hails success of Operation Augury-Philippines <>

[2] For a Chinese example see: Richard Weitz, “Chinese Relations in Eurasia: The Case of Kazakhstan,” in Chinese Strategic Intentions: A Deep Dive into China’s Worldwide Activities, ed. Nicole Peterson (Boston, MA: NSI, 2019), 102.

[3] Pia Ranada, “Philippines: China gives P370M in guns, ammunition to PH.” Rappler, 28 June 2017. <> (12 January 2020)


[5] Raissa Robles, “Why don’t Manila and Beijing have closer military ties, despite Duterte’s ‘pivot to China’?” This Week in Asia, 5 October 2019. <>

[6] Examples in South-East Asia include China as already discussed, India: and Russian arms sales: or

[7] Stephen Townsend, Statement of General Stephen J. Townsend, United States Army Commander United States Africa Command before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Washington D.C.: United States Africa Command, 30 Jan 2020), 10. <> (30 January 2020)

[8] See, Stephen Townsend, Statement. And Richard Weitz, Chinese Relations in Eurasia, 129.

Image courtesy Australian Defence Force.