The alibi of cultural kinship with the West that has facilitated so much of Australia’s strategic dependency must, in the decades ahead, become tempered by a much greater spirit of strategic independence—an independence facilitated by an Asian geopolitical destiny
In order to thrive in the twenty-first century, a country with an interest in the use of the sea needs to develop and implement a coherent maritime strategy—galvanizing the sea power of the state and society.
—Chris Parry, Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century (2014)
In national security affairs what often marks Australia’s experience is an insular imagination, a feature that is most striking when it comes to understanding the importance of the sea. Despite being an island-continent dependent on seaborne trade for prosperity, Australia has undergone a two-century-long adolescence in appreciating the strategic significance of the ocean. This situation is largely due to the historical circumstances of European settlement and the naval dominance of first Britain, and then the United States, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively. The great umbrella of British and American sea power has long allowed Australia to adopt an attitude of mare incognitum. As a result, although the country is “girt by sea”, the most important aspect of Australian identity is not a sense of island-awareness but a continental consciousness that manifests itself through a literature that celebrates landscape and a martial tradition that upholds the exploits of soldiers.
Yet Australia’s historical indifference towards the significance of the sea is being eroded by the geopolitical transformation of the Asia-Pacific region into the world’s new economic heartland. In January 2013, the Gillard government’s Strong and Secure: A Strategy for Australia’s National Security reflected this transformation in global power by stating, “We are entering a new national security era in which the economic and strategic change occurring in our region will be the most significant influence on our national security environment and policies.” Similarly, the 2012 White Paper Australia in the Asian Century notes that, “as the global centre of gravity shifts to our region, the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity”. More recently, the 2016 Defence White Paper affirms that “the geography of the archipelago to Australia’s immediate north will always have particular significance to our security”.
Regional strategic change and Asia-Pacific proximity mean that Australia will have to develop a new appreciation of the importance of the maritime environment—a process which will require a revolution in Australian geopolitical thinking. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky: Australians may not be very interested in the sea, but the sea is increasingly interested in them. In the decades ahead, the combined forces of global networks, the economic dominance of Asia and its Indo-Pacific trade routes—alongside the emergence of China as a strategic competitor of the United States—will demand of Australia a greater maturity of outlook in maritime security matters.
If Australia is to ensure its future geopolitical interests and its economic prosperity, it must make a strategic and philosophical compact with its Asian oceanic domain. A rendezvous between cultural history and physical geography must be forged on the anvil of enhanced maritime awareness. Such a process will be challenging and unpredictable, and will require a difficult and protracted journey of geopolitical re-orientation throughout the twenty-first century. Given that Australia’s strategic history is so firmly based on an ideology of “great and powerful friends” and on the physical isolation of the island-continent, it is a journey that is by no means assured of reaching a successful destination.
Any national re-orientation in geopolitical thought will need to involve two vital maritime facets. First, Australia must acquire a greater understanding of the workings of maritime strategy—an awareness that embraces a systemic view of sea power—and one that is appropriate for an age dominated by the international political economy of globalisation with its trade, financial and information networks.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, Australia must seek to underpin a maritime strategic outlook with a national narrative on the importance of the sea to the country’s destiny in a globalised age. If Australia is to undertake a geopolitical re-conception of itself not merely as a vast continent but as an island-nation at ease with the promise of economic prosperity emanating from Asia, then it must view the seas around it as highways to a prosperous future. By embracing full-blooded maritime thinking Australia can best shape its future as an open society. This is a challenge that will test the Australian people’s capacity for re-invention.
The burden of the past: Developing a systemic view of Australian sea power
The enduring paradox of Australian history is one of an island-continent inhabited for over two centuries by a largely Anglo-Celtic people without a significant maritime identity. A popular book by the Australian writer Tim Winton perhaps unconsciously captures this paradox in its very title—Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (2015)—and celebrates “how the land makes us who we are”. While most Australians reside on the littoral and an effective Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has existed for over a century, neither a coastal lifestyle nor possession of an array of warships is synonymous with an appreciation of the strategic value of the oceans. Unlike its mother country Britain, a natural sea power, Australia has no cultural affinity with the sea. Instead, a pervasive sense of sea-blindness—what the historian Duncan Redford calls “the inability to connect with maritime issues at either an individual or political level”—is evident in much of national life.
The timelessness of the “immortal sea” as celebrated in England’s literature by writers from Wordsworth to Conrad has no counterpart in Australia. In Australian literature, the sea is replaced by the vast interior of a “timeless land” as described in the work of writers as varied as Eleanor Dark and Ion Idriess. Dependence upon English-speaking maritime powers has allowed Australians to concentrate on a continental identity connected to landscape. A.D. Hope writes in his poem “Australia” of a vast continent in which Australians resemble “second-hand Europeans [who] pullulate timidly on the edge of alien shores”. It is an outlook that facilitates both strategic dependence and philosophical insularity—both of which reflect the impact of the Federation-era ideal of “a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation”.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, given that maritime security was assured by Western great power protectors, Australia’s contribution to upholding a favourable international order—from the Boer War through the two world wars to Vietnam—was based on deploying mainly land force contingents. The Australian experience of war has long been defined in the national imagination by volunteer soldiers at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and is symbolised by the power of Anzac mythology. While army-centric expeditionary warfare of the kind recently seen in Afghanistan and Iraq is unlikely to disappear from Australia’s defence arsenal, the country needs to consider the maritime component of strategy in much greater breadth. The tide of global economic development towards offshore Asia—with its archipelagos, peninsulas and island chains—is increasing the imperative for a sophisticated grasp of joint forces employing a maritime strategy. The importance of the maritime domain has been conceded by the strategic direction and force structure imperatives of recent defence documents including three Defence White Papers in 2009, 2013 and 2016.
This essay first appeared in the June edition of Quadrant.
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The May 2013 Defence White Paper concluded that “Australia’s geography requires a maritime strategy. Such a strategy is seen as essential in deterring attacks against Australia and contributing to the security of our immediate neighbourhood and the wider region.” Since 2009, long-term capability acquisition has concentrated on re-equipping the RAN for a larger blue-water role—including a welcome return to capital shipping in the form of two large helicopter carriers. The combination of air warfare destroyers, landing helicopter docks for the RAN and a new combined-arms amphibious approach by the Army through Plan Beersheba—alongside plans for new submarines—can be seen as an attempt at generational change towards the use of the sea in Australian strategic thinking. The 2016 Defence White Paper attempts to give much-needed flesh to the bones of future capability by setting out “the most ambitious plan to regenerate the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War”, pledging a revived naval shipbuilding industry and promising that defence spending will reach 2 per cent of GDP by 2020-21.
To bring RAN capabilities into the twenty-first century, an estimated $195 billion will be required to refit the Australian fleet over the next decade or more—including a commitment to building twelve new “regionally superior submarines”, nine new frigates and an array of patrol vessels—and all of this funding must be found from within a national budget under severe pressure from falling revenues, rising debt and increasing social welfare and health care costs. Although the latest Defence White Paper is accompanied by a ten-year investment plan designed to culminate at 2 per cent of GDP over the next five years, it remains to be seen whether funding can be sustained at the political level in the years ahead in the face of electoral pressures. As Bob Carr put it at a Canberra strategy seminar in 2005, “those who dream of increased defence spending should contemplate another vision: old men on hospital trolleys—future money will go into health and welfare for an ageing population”.
In Australia’s defence debate the beginning of wisdom for any analyst is an ability to distinguish between rhetorical aspiration and consistent policy-making. The omens are not encouraging. In May 2015, the Swiss-based International Institute for Management Development World Competitiveness Yearbook showed that Australia had dropped four places in the world’s economic competitiveness rankings—to twenty-eighth—since 2014 and had dropped fifteen places since 2010. In addition, Australia’s gross government debt rose from $59 billion in June 2008 to $430 billion (or 26.3 per cent of GDP) in June 2015.
As Professor Stephen Martin, the chief executive of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, notes, for the first time in nearly two decades, Australia has fallen behind New Zealand in competitiveness and is continuing to lose ground in the key areas of government efficiency and economic reform. Such harsh realities do not favour a future of higher defence spending irrespective of which party occupies the Treasury benches. Air Marshal Sir John Slessor’s pithy warning from 1954 on defence spending is highly relevant:
it is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of social services. There is a tendency to forget that the most important social service a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.
Compounding the challenge of defence spending is the poll-driven malaise that has gripped the Australian political system since 2010—a malaise which has led not just to five prime ministers in five years but to the appointment of six defence ministers in eight years. Given such flux, and the publication of a more coherent 2016 Defence White Paper notwithstanding, there is no guarantee that the domestic political economy will be capable of matching Australia’s strategic ambitions over the next decade. If the demands of a difficult budgetary and policy environment were not enough to test Canberra in defence matters, Australia is further challenged by two other crucial issues: a rapidly shifting geostrategic environment in the Asia-Pacific region and increased American expectations of Australia’s role as an ally in the region.
Australia is located in an Asia-Pacific geostrategic environment that reflects the most dynamic economic region in the world. Led by the rapid rise of China, the region currently accounts for 40 per cent of global GDP and two-thirds of global economic growth. By 2050, it is estimated that Asia will produce half of the world’s economic output. Eight of the world’s ten busiest container ports are in the Asia-Pacific region, and almost 30 per cent of the world’s maritime trade passes through the South China Sea. In 2014, two-thirds of Asia’s oil passed through the Indian and Pacific oceans, and Asian seaborne trade is likely to double in volume by 2035. By 2040 there is expected to be a 56 per cent increase in global energy demand, making the security of Asia’s sea lines of communication such as the Malacca and Lombok straits vital.
In Australia’s “front yard” of South-East Asia, the ten countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) now number 620 million people with a combined gross domestic product estimated in 2012 to be worth US$2.2 trillion, a figure that is estimated to double on present trends by 2022. Both Australia and the countries of South-East Asia vividly reflect the rise of China as an economic behemoth. China takes 29 per cent of Australian exports and is the nation’s largest trading partner. Meanwhile, direct Chinese investment into the ASEAN countries is over 60 per cent—a situation that when combined with China’s growing military strength is likely to make South-East Asia a zone of global strategic importance for the first time since the middle of the Cold War. Chinese growing economic influence and military strength present Australia and the ASEAN nations over the next three decades with unknown consequences.
The economic and strategic transformation of the Asia-Pacific has attracted sharp attention from Australia’s key defence ally, the United States, as reflected by a clutch of recent documents. In March 2015, the Pentagon released A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, which seeks to address the shifting Asia-Pacific balance of power. The document notes that Asia’s defence spending now eclipses that of Europe and that American security and prosperity are “inextricably linked to the immense volume of trade that flows across the Indian and Pacific oceans”. The document calls for a “global network of navies” both to ensure freedom of the seas and to hedge against China’s emergence as a maritime rival. In an interconnected world that pivots on Asia-Pacific trade, the Cooperative Strategy seeks to embed American and allied sea power into a “cooperative systemic strategy” that integrates allied and partner naval forces into the guardianship of the liberal political economy of globalisation as symbolised by the countries of the American-inspired Trans Pacific Partnership. A systemic approach to sea power embraces deterrence, sea control, power projection, maritime security and “all-domain access” and seeks to link US and partner naval capability to the realms of political, diplomatic and economic influence.
This systemic approach is reinforced by the Pentagon’s report The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy of August 2015, which outlines a comprehensive approach to enhancing America’s efforts to “safeguard the freedom of the seas, deter conflict and coercion, and promote adherence to international law and standards”. Four lines of effort are highlighted: strengthening US maritime capabilities; building the maritime capacity of allies and partners; leveraging military diplomacy to reduce risk and build transparency; and strengthening the development of an open and effective regional security architecture. The report is a clear response to what the document calls “China’s rise as a political, economic and military actor [as] a defining characteristic of the 21st century”. Between 2012 and 2015, China’s defence budget doubled, making it the second-biggest spender in the world after the United States. From 2001 to 2011, Beijing’s average annual defence spending increase was over 10 per cent, with a 12 per cent increase for 2014-15. The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy sketches a broad, complex Sino-American relationship that falls short of incipient conflict but contains elements of both co-operation and competition.
The most novel aspects of the American desire to reinforce the regional balance of power involve a commitment by Washington to a new South-East Asia Maritime Security Initiative designed to build the capacity of ASEAN countries alongside the notion that there is a “strategic convergence” between India’s “Act East” policy and the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region—that will assist in hedging against the growth of China’s influence in the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific. Since the publication of The Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy there has been a November 2015 joint statement creating an ASEAN-US Strategic Partnership aimed at upholding a rules-based regional architecture in the Asia-Pacific. In February 2016, a US-ASEAN special leaders’ summit meeting was held in California during which President Obama declared the US relationship with South-East Asia to be on “a new trajectory” of security and economic co-operation.
The final American document that must be considered is the January 2016 bipartisan report by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies titled Asia-Pacific Rebalance 2025: Capabilities, Presence and Partnerships: An Independent Review of US Defence Strategy in the Asia-Pacific. This exhaustive study argues that, despite announcing a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific in November 2011, the United States has not yet crafted a strategy towards the region that aligns ends and means. The report accepts China’s rise as a fait accompli, noting that by 2030 the People’s Liberation Army Navy is likely to acquire multiple aircraft-carrier strike groups, a situation that may well transform the geopolitics of offshore strategic Asia. As the authors rather bleakly acknowledge, it is likely that, within fifteen years, “the South China Sea will be virtually a Chinese lake, as the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico is for the United States”. To counter a swiftly shifting balance of maritime power, the report envisages an enhanced role for American allies and partners. The document notes: “as the United States rebalances to the Asia-Pacific and redistributes its military presence, Australia’s value as a political ally and military partner—combined with its geographical location—are reinforcing its strategic importance to the United States”.
The unmistakable message for Canberra is that Australia’s regional role is likely to become more important to the US than at any time since 1942. Australia is seen both as a maritime sanctuary against long-range ballistic missile attack on US fleet elements and also as a safe launching pad for rapid force projection by American joint forces to critical areas throughout the Asia-Pacific. The report notes that Australia is the key geostrategic link between the Pacific and Indian Oceans with ports such as Darwin in the Northern Territory, Fleet Base Stirling in Western Australia and northern air bases at Tindal and Scherger providing potential facilities for American naval and air assets. As it puts it, Australia’s geopolitical importance is “now more central to the US” and “Washington’s expectations of Canberra are growing”:
Canberra’s assistance is increasingly required in the Asia-Pacific region … As maritime security challenges in the Asia-Pacific intensify, the US-Australia alliance is likely to have more of a regional focus than it has in recent decades and a stronger emphasis on cooperation in the maritime realm. To help manage shared challenges, the United States will increasingly rely on Australia for some critical capabilities.
Such capabilities are likely to embrace support for an expanded Marine presence in Darwin to include a Marine Air-Ground Task Force; use of counter-air and surveillance assets; expanded strike roles and an array of unmanned systems.
The conjunction of strategic change in the Asia-Pacific and pressures of alliance burden-sharing are likely to put pressure on a greater Australian contribution towards forging a systemic maritime strategy. As the British maritime analyst Geoffrey Till notes, Australia must support a collaborative and contributory strategy simply because the country “is thoroughly enmeshed in a global sea-based trading system, not least as a major supplier of commodities to China. A threat to the system’s operation represents an indirect threat to Australia’s interests.” While the 2016 Defence White Paper concedes the importance of naval capabilities and of working with the US and other allies to uphold an interconnected rules-based global order with free access to the global commons, it falls short of articulating a conceptual framework for a systemic maritime strategy. Indeed, most of the strategic content of the document is descriptive rather than conceptual, with no mention even of the term “maritime strategy”.
Instead, the document prefers to embrace what it calls three interrelated strategic defence interests (a secure Australia; a secure region; and a global rules-based order). “Australia’s security and prosperity,” the document states, “is directly affected by events outside our region and is not just linked to our geography or confronting threats solely in our maritime approaches.” An optimist might argue that such a statement is evidence that, like Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, who was astonished to discover he was speaking prose, the authors of the White Paper are outlining the basics of a systemic maritime strategy but without acknowledging such a situation. Given the serious lack of balance between resources and capability development in its 2009 and 2013 precursors, the 2016 document’s focus on investment and modernisation over declaratory strategy is perhaps understandable. The publication states that what really matters is that “modernising our maritime capabilities will be a key focus for Defence over the next 20 to 30 years”.
Unfortunately, the by-product of such a powerful capability commitment is that it perpetuates a long Australian tradition of confusing naval warfare with maritime strategy. Put bluntly, embracing a systemic maritime strategy poses an intellectual challenge to the ADF in general and to the RAN in particular. Like many Western peer navies, Australia’s naval profession has long been geared towards operational warfighting and platform management rather than maritime thought and strategy. In the RAN seamanship, engineering skills and technological mastery of a complex naval profession determine careers, not strategic knowledge and the intricacies of sea power theory. As Winston Churchill noted when First Lord of the Admiralty: “the seafaring and scientific technique of the naval profession makes such severe demands on the training of naval men that they have very rarely the time or opportunity to study military history and the art of war in general”.
As a result, too much of Australia’s current sea power debate is concentrated upon statistics and technology—on numbers of submarines, the uses of large amphibious ships and the huge financial expense such capabilities entail. There is far less appreciation of the intersection between political economy and strategic rationale in terms of ends, ways and means. It is unclear to anyone but a specialist where an under-sea warfare capability and amphibious operations actually fit in modern naval warfare—and more importantly, what these capabilities mean in a broader strategic context. For example, there has never been a formal strategic analysis in the public realm justifying the number of conventional submarines Australia’s security actually demands—numbers fluctuate from six to twenty-four boats. This is a remarkable situation given that the next thirty years are likely to witness rapid technological developments in robotic submersibles, sensor systems and mine warfare at sea alongside “mix and match” naval vessel modularisation, space-based surveillance and open-systems architecture. What these new capabilities may mean for long-term national maritime strategy is largely missing in Australia’s strategic debate.
If, as the British sea power analyst Chris Parry has suggested, “in the second half of the century, it is possible that the majority of warfare and routine operational tasks will be conducted remotely by unmanned and robotic applications” then the long-term implications need to be carefully debated in Australia over the next few years simply because their strategic and economic implications may be transformative. The rise of machine warfare at sea has profound consequences for a country like Australia, given our low demography, budget restraints and a vast seaboard of 36,000 kilometres. In the public interest, there needs to be a campaign of intelligible debate that is designed to relate political economy to technological development and national strategy. Future naval capabilities from platforms (surface combatants and submarines) through to robotics and unmanned underwater vehicles to ballistic missiles and precision strike regimes must all be viewed in the context of a systemic approach to maritime strategy. Discussion of Australian maritime affairs must not be allowed to continue as strategy by slide rule in an incomprehensible blur of capability statistics and naval jargon.
Yet another reason for the lack of maritime strategic thinking in the ADF emanates from the RAN’s service culture. With the possible exception of the loss of carrier aviation in the 1980s, the RAN has never faced the strategic crises of the Australian Army in the twentieth century. In the bleak inter-war years of the Singapore Strategy and again in the difficult Defence of Australia geostrategic era of the 1980s and 1990s, the Army came close to losing national relevance—in the form of being denied, or stripped, of a combined arms capacity—the acme of professional status in any effective land force. An equivalent situation for the RAN would have been a history marked by notions that no naval vessels were ever required beyond coastal patrol craft. The near-death experiences of strategic relevance experienced by the Australian Army have given its officer corps a keener interest in strategic affairs than their RAN counterparts.
What Peter Haynes has said about the United States Navy in his 2015 book Toward a New Maritime Strategy: American Naval Thinking in the Post-Cold War Era can easily be applied to the RAN: “The Navy saw its purpose as being contingent operationally, and not instrumental strategically.” Indeed, the contemporary RAN seems to share the crisis of identity that Geoffrey Till identifies as afflicting most of the navies of the world’s democracies. It is a crisis of identity that arises from two contending views of naval development: a traditional modern, or operational model on the one hand, and a more systemic postmodern strategic model on the other hand. The modern model of a navy draws on a narrow Mahanian reading of warfighting to the effect that peer competition between navies will always determine a contest for command of the sea because what matters is hardware and firepower. In contrast, the postmodern model involves a broader geostrategic reading of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s writings on sea power in which leading Western navies view themselves as collaborative defenders of a favourable global system. Neither model is mutually exclusive or new to naval history, but which one to prioritise depends on a combination of philosophy and resources.
If a given navy’s leadership views American-led globalisation as impermanent, a temporary phase of co-operation that does not invalidate great power rivalry, then it is likely to emphasise the modern model based on operational warfighting. If, however, a country’s naval leaders view American-led globalisation as something more permanent—in effect a beneficial interconnected geopolitical order that must be upheld—then navies are likely to shift towards a more postmodern outlook based on a co-operative strategy that is designed to maintain a successful system. Ideally, a navy should seek to embody both mastery of naval warfighting and a systemic view of sea power in its intellectual arsenal, but given the realities of resources that limit scale and force structure such a synthesis is often elusive.
This is true of Australia, where investment in maritime capabilities and shipbuilding is now focused on repairing the past neglect of the 2009 and 2013 White Papers and enhancing modern naval warfighting skills rather than on refining a co-operative maritime strategy. In the years ahead, much of the energy of the contemporary RAN will be absorbed by the task of mastering innovation in the form of new ships and boats. As Nick Childs, the naval analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies notes, for the first time in its history, the RAN “is on the verge of being able to generate a maritime task force similar to that which the Royal Navy can currently employ”. Not surprisingly, Plan Pelorus, the RAN’s vision of the future, describes the service’s main mission as being “to fight and win at sea”. Over time, however, Australia will need to increasingly embrace the details of a systemic maritime strategy simply because it has an existential stake in helping to uphold the American-led global order that has produced seven decades of security. Like their American counterparts, one of the main tasks facing Australia’s uniformed professionals will be, in the June 2006 words of an American Chief of Naval Operations and later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, to “rid yourselves of the old notion—held by so many for so long—that maritime strategy exists solely to fight and win wars at sea, and the rest will take care of itself”.
In Australia, a similar view has been echoed by a recent Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs (currently Vice-Chief of the Defence Force) who in 2012 called for the creation of “a maritime school of strategic thought” in Australia embracing all aspects of national power. Griggs’s successor as Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Tim Barrett, has continued the initiative to cultivate a maritime school of strategic thought by suggesting that a modern RAN needs to be “a national enterprise, bringing together the private and public sectors of the economy to deliver a fundamental security objective—security above, on and under the sea”.
The forging of a multifaceted and strategically sophisticated approach to the use of the sea is likely to be a protracted test of the intellectual resources of both future ADF professionals and the small Australian maritime strategic studies community. Given the shifts that are occurring in the Asia-Pacific strategic environment, it is a task so important to the national interest that it can no longer be delayed without incurring risk.
Reconceived geopolitics: Developing a national maritime narrative
In 1957, the geopolitical thinker Saul Bernard Cohen predicted that Australia’s destiny was to become the southern anchor of offshore Asia. Revisiting this proposition in 1999, Cohen had not changed his mind, writing, “the question now is not whether Australia is Asian but how it can best adjust to being Asian”. It is important to understand that Cohen’s proposition was not aimed at diminishing Australia’s history of European settlement or at demeaning its Anglo-Celtic cultural identity. Rather, he sought to signal Australia’s need to find a synthesis between history and geography, continent and island—an approach that is surely best facilitated by cultivating an outward maritime outlook aimed at increasing both security and wealth. Australia can only prosper if it helps to uphold an open world economy with access to international trade and investment; the nation must simultaneously engage in Asia but also exploit its extensive cultural-historical ties with the US, Europe and the Commonwealth. In short, there needs to be a reaching-out strategy, not a drawing-back strategy, and one based on a sense of national confidence, not parochialism.
Reflecting on the trajectory of Australian economic history in his Lowy Institute study Quiet Boom: How the Long Economic Upswing is Changing Australia and its Place in the World (2006), a former Keating Labor government adviser, John Edwards, observes that the resilience of the Australian economy has always depended “not on Australia’s distance from the world economy or caution over foreign borrowing, but precisely on its integration into the global economy and particularly its integration into a global financial system”. Edwards goes on to ponder the changes wrought by the long economic boom of the 1990s and first half of the 2000s:
What happened [in Australia] was an economic expansion so sustained, so deep and widespread in its impact, so novel in its characteristics, that the lives of Australians, their hopes and plans, their work and leisure, their wealth and incomes, the way they saw themselves and their country and the ways it related to other countries, even the way they thought about their past, began to be changed by it.
Edwards is surely right that an economically transformed Australia faces a challenge in the way its citizens “see themselves”; the need is to forge a new national narrative. It is unclear if, how and when this will occur. Some outside observers of Australia, such as the British writers Nick Bryant and Simon Winchester, register scepticism on the subject. Others such as the Australian writers Michael Fullilove and Asher Judah are more optimistic and promote the idea of a transformed, outward-looking “larger Australia”. For Bryant and Winchester, in their respective books, The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a Great Nation Lost its Way (2014) and Pacific: The Ocean of the Future (2015), Australia remains in thrall to its past. It is a past of European settlement marked by Blainey’s “tyranny of distance” and by apprehension about the forbidding size and harsh interior of a continental-island that inclined a small Anglo-Celtic population situated in the vast Asia-Pacific to fear abandonment from its European antecedents. The result has been an ingrained attitude of dependence—internally on state and federal government largesse and externally on the security afforded by the great Western naval powers. Both writers identify a national outlook that is insular—what James McAuley once styled in his poem “Envoi” as “a futile heart within a fair periphery”—a penchant for national self-doubt tempered only by a spirit of resilience.
Nick Bryant argues that, with the shift in global economic power from the Atlantic to the Pacific, for the first time in its history Australia is situated nearer the centre rather than the periphery of global economic and geopolitical activity. While the country “is in the right place at the right time”, its prospects remain hampered by the chronic introversion of a political class whose approach inhibits any sense of national vision from emerging. Bryant cites the view of the international historian Niall Ferguson, who after a visit to Canberra in July 2010 compared the tone of the capital’s political proceedings to that of a local municipality: “More like Strathclyde Regional Council than a debate for the leadership of a major power in the Asia-Pacific”. The national narrative remains archaic—hamstrung by parochial interests and by what Bryant believes is an obsolete “vocabulary of peripheralism”—recalling an older and much smaller Australia of the twentieth century rather than the cosmopolitan and larger country of the twenty-first century.Simon Winchester identifies “an awful undertow” of complacency and small-mindedness at work in the public life of contemporary Australia—a situation that keeps the country “pinioned and fettered” to a past that has largely disappeared—but whose long shadow acts as a form of stasis, preventing any serious contemplation of the challenges of the future.
Some of these criticisms by foreign observers have been confronted by Australian writers such as Michael Fullilove and Asher Judah, who have called on Australians to confront the future with greater boldness and imagination. Like Bryant and Winchester, Fullilove in his ABC Boyer Lectures published as A Larger Australia (2015), bemoans the insular “small country politics” that bedevil contemporary Australia. Political debate elevates personalities over policies—so diminishing the intellectual requirements for both foreign and defence policy analysis—at a time of global strategic change. He calls for a “larger politics” based on an increased sense of Australian self-confidence that welcomes greater immigration, a more muscular defence force and a more assertive foreign policy. “Australia,” Fullilove contends, “is not a middle power. Australia is a significant power with regional and global interests—and we should act like one.”
Asher Judah in The Australian Century (2014) suggests that Australia is at a crossroads. It faces the choice of becoming a dynamic Euro-Asian state engaged in region and globe or of facing the fate of a state that failed to live up to huge potential—namely Argentina. In 1910 Argentina was the most dynamic country in Latin America and the tenth-wealthiest country on earth. Over the next half-century the country’s political class degenerated into factionalism, creating a spiral of debt, bureaucracy and dysfunctional government that crippled its future. By 2010, Argentina was sixty-second in the world in terms of wealth.
Surveying an Australia in which a combination of growing debt, low demography, unresponsive politics and unsustainable welfare payments risk eroding prosperity, Judah compares Australia today to Argentina 100 years ago. Judah believes that Australia’s salvation lies in re-conceiving itself as an island state—less as a partially settled continental country than as “an archipelago of population islands”, an urban aorta of coastal centres and hinterlands that generate 62 per cent of national economic activity. Australia masquerades as a continental nation when, in fact, it is “an efficiently organised and arable archipelago” boasting the twelfth-largest economy in the world; the ninth-largest international stock exchange; two trillion dollars worth of investment and the fifth-most-traded currency on the planet. Trade with South-East Asia totalled over $100 billion in 2014 and almost two-thirds of Australia’s exports now pass through the South China Sea. The national challenge is clear: it is to overcome a legacy of continental inwardness and inhibition in favour of a confident and outward vision that is more relevant for an island nation intimately connected to the world economy.
It is not necessary to accept Judah’s bleak Argentina analogy to appreciate the importance of his call for a geopolitical re-conceptualisation of Australia as an “archipelagic powerhouse”. Like Fullilove, Judah believes this vision can only be achieved by a combination of skilled immigration, engagement in the Asia-Pacific region and a culture of dynamic entrepreneurship—a mixture that will help to create an outward-looking Australia of perhaps up to 45 million people by 2045. The engine of prosperity for a future Australia is likely to be a new global middle class expanding from 1.8 billion in 2015 to 4.9 billion by 2035 and much of this growth—fuelled by urbanisation, maritime trade and educational demand—will be in the Asia-Pacific. To exploit such a huge market Australia must look outward, towards the sea, while the country will require a political class capable of promoting an outward spirit of vision and confidence.
While preparing Australia to meet the challenges of an Asia-Pacific economic future will require statesmanship and policy sophistication that transcend the realm of maritime strategy, the reality of oceanic geography will increase the importance of a sense of national maritime awareness. There are two areas in which those concerned with Australia’s maritime identity and geopolitical destiny can make a major contribution in explaining the role of the sea to both policy-makers and the electorate. The first area concerns the need to create an Australian National Institute for Maritime Affairs (NIMA). It beggars belief that a country with Australia’s huge Exclusive Economic Zone of 10 million square kilometres (10 per cent of world’s oceans) and a search-and-rescue zone of 53 million square kilometres—alongside dependence on foreign trade, offshore territories and borders and sea lines of communication—does not possess such a national body. An NIMA is necessary in order to tackle the malaise of national “sea-blindness” and to assist in defining a long-term future relationship between the nation and the sea in a manner which integrates diverse naval, commercial and shipping activities together. A national institute could serve as a centre for excellence on all matters connected to the promotion of Australia’s maritime domain from state-based shipbuilding through border protection to an array of economic links with South-East Asia and the Pacific Islands.
An NIMA would also be a major asset in developing a “conversation with the country” to highlight the importance of all the elements that constitute the maritime domain. As the Australian maritime analyst Brett Biddington writes in Girt by Sea: Understanding Australia’s Maritime Domain in a Networked World (2014):
Perhaps the most outstanding task [in Australian maritime affairs] is for a narrative to be developed that explains the importance of the safety and security of Australia’s maritime domains to the nation’s broader national security interests and economic well-being. These matters have not been well-articulated to the broader public in a comprehensive and comprehendible way … [What is needed] is a story that draws the strands together.
What the 2012 Asian White Paper calls the “prospects of proximity” in Asia must become part of a broader maritime narrative embracing the political establishment as well as security analysts, scholars, and business and industry groups. The aim must be to explain to the nation how long-term engagement and co-operation with the economic players of the dynamic Asia-Pacific Rim will enhance Australia’s national prosperity and physical security. In maritime affairs, the most pressing challenge for Australians is one of imagination; to confront what might be called Australia’s second self as an island nation. The need is to articulate an over-the-horizon perspective that grasps that the future stability of the regional geopolitical architecture is directly related to sea-going trade and national prosperity. In the words of the historian Paul Battersby in his study of the northern archipelagos, “the starting point for such a project is not simply to reconcile Australia’s history with its geography but to re-imagine them”.
A second area of attention concerns the role of the Defence establishment in providing expertise and knowledge that promote an effective maritime dimension in national strategy. There is a need for the ADF in general, and the RAN in particular, to explain in clear and compelling terms the advantages to Australia of a maritime-systemic strategic approach and to explain the character of sea power and the role of joint forces in the new millennium. It is a major weakness that the current ADF lacks a central joint service and futures analysis centre along the lines of the successful British Defence Ministry’s Doctrine, Concepts and Development Centre (DCDC) at Shrivenham in Oxfordshire. For too long, the ADF has been content to rely on single-service studies centres, which no matter how useful they may prove at the operational level, are too narrow in their focus and have little impact on higher-level strategic analysis.
In a globalised security era, when the RAN has returned to capital shipping, the Army is busy converting itself into an amphibious force and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is re-equipping with the Lightning joint strike fighter, the ADF’s service studies centres need to be carefully linked to a new joint studies organisation dedicated to the strategic level of research and analysis. A joint studies organisation is required to help promote two important strategic realities. The first reality is that a national maritime outlook involves more than a navy and embraces all of the armed services. The second reality is that a maritime strategy must strive to be “whole-of-government” in character and include not only the military but also other instruments of national power ranging from diplomacy to the market economy. As Chris Parry explains:
A maritime strategy that translates into real political, diplomatic and economic benefit nowadays is one that enables a country to exploit the advantages of globalisation in all its forms. As well as providing the ways in which threats to the country are deterred and defeated, armed forces are actively used to further a country’s commercial and national interests in the wider world.
This holistic, joint service approach needs to be vigorously pursued by the Australian armed forces. “A maritime strategy,” American sea power analyst Peter Haynes reminds us, “has always been more directly concerned with the relationship between the state and global markets … A maritime strategy ties [together] economic, political and security interests.” To help bring about such intellectual unity of effort, the creation of a DCDC-style research and analysis organisation, suitably adapted for Australian conditions, is surely a critical defence requirement in the years ahead.
During a visit to Australia in August 1950 the British philosopher Bertrand Russell urged Australians not to be shackled by their past or to “acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence” but to pursue a splendid enterprise “inspired by a golden vision of a possible future”. The Australia of today is, of course, very different from that of 1950 but at a time when much of the country’s political class is trapped in a coma of suspenseful indecision, Russell’s “golden vision” seems more relevant today than sixty-five years ago. The first half of this century is likely to see a transformed world and to yield a complex and globalised seascape—one that is at once competitive and unpredictable, with the world’s population expected to reach nine billion by 2045.
The central region of economic and strategic activity will be the oceanic geography of Asia-Pacific, and to manage this reality Australia will require a broad-based and well-articulated national maritime strategy. Increasingly, Australia’s history and geography will require synthesis, not separation—for in terms of geopolitics and economics, if not in cultural values, Australia’s future lies north through the seas of the Asia-Pacific. Australia is not by identity and history an Asian country but in geography and economics it is drawn inexorably towards an Eastern orbit. Such a situation requires a statesman-like diplomacy of careful balance that melds core civilisational values with the economic needs of prosperity.
The alibi of cultural kinship with the West that has facilitated so much of Australia’s strategic dependency must, in the decades ahead, become tempered by a much greater spirit of strategic independence—an independence that is facilitated by a rendezvous with an Asian geopolitical destiny conceived in outward terms. It is a rendezvous that is in all its essential features a philosophical challenge—one that must blend a number of opposites into a new national tapestry: an Anglo-Celtic political history with an Asia-Pacific economic geography; regional defence imperatives with the demands of globalisation; a cherished American security alliance with closer Chinese economic relations; and the integration of older continental and expeditionary military traditions into a modern and integrated maritime strategic framework.
In the Asia-Pacific century ahead, navigating and balancing such competing demands will require inspired leadership and clear strategic thinking from all political parties. While that may seem unlikely given the parish-pump politics of recent years, it is not beyond the ingenuity of future generations of Australians to forge a twenty-first-century country that unites the enduring cultural values of the West with the new economic opportunities of the East. Such an endeavour will require an outward national spirit of maritime strategic activism—and perhaps even a spirit of Antipodean buccaneering—in which the surrounding seas are seen less as drawbridged moats for physical security and more as a kind of Spanish Main of open highways to wealth and prosperity.
In 1912 the poet Bernard O’Dowd, in a celebration of continental consciousness, called Australia the “Eldorado of old dreamers”—at once a temple to be built, a scroll to be written upon and a prophecy to be fulfilled. The challenge before Australians in the new millennium is both different and similar: it is to recognise its continental alter ego—its second self, in the form of island-consciousness—and yet still to seize the O’Dowd vision of Eldorado, only this time in the rhetorical form of a younger dream, one of a maritime destiny with its promise of limitless horizons.
Michael Evans is the General Sir Francis Hassett Chair of Military Studies at the Australian Defence College and a professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Deakin University. This article is based on an address to the Royal Australian Navy’s Sea Power Conference in Sydney in late 2015 and represents his personal views.