Australia’s Maritime Identity

sinkingIn 1962, the English writer Jeanne MacKenzie published a perceptive book called The Australian Paradox in which she suggested, “to see that Australia is a set of paradoxes is, perhaps, the beginning of an ability to understand it”. MacKenzie pondered several paradoxes. These included Australia’s abundance of physical space but the psychological void of an expatriate “otherness”; the idealisation of the bush and the reality of suburbanism; the power of the Anzac tradition and the historical truth of a nation which had divided politically over military conscription; and the triumph of the material over the metaphysical in the national psyche—which she thought made Australians slaves to the standard of living, rather than exponents of the art of living.

Yet MacKenzie failed to identify the greatest paradox of all in Australia’s history: namely that the country is an island-continent inhabited by a people without a maritime identity. While most Australians reside on the seaboard, a coastal lifestyle with its affinity for aquatic activity and beach holidays is not synonymous with a maritime consciousness. Nor is possession of a navy evidence of genuine sea-awareness. Historically, traditional land powers such as France, Germany and Russia have developed naval fleets not out of natural affinity, but because strategic ambitions required sea power to complement the role of their armies. Napoleon’s declaration that his aim was “to conquer the sea with the power of the land” sums up much of the ideology behind the creation of continental navies.

In contrast, a genuine sense of maritime consciousness is concerned with the culture of the sea in the sense of the Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s phrase, that “the sea is history”. Such a historical outlook is associated with countries such as Portugal, Holland, Britain and the United States; it is a natural inclination from peoples who both identify with, and value, sea power and seaborne trade. English and American literature reflects the influence of the sea. In the case of Britain, writers on maritime themes include Captain Marryat, Joseph Conrad and Patrick O’Brian. In the case of America, authors as diverse as Herman Melville, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., and Ernest Hemingway have explored the experience of the sea. It is no accident that the two greatest maritime theorists in history are an American, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and an Englishman, Julian Corbett.

Australia is the world’s largest island-continent, lying between the Southern, Pacific and Indian oceans and enclosed in the east and north by the Timor, Arafura, Coral and Tasman seas. Given this geopolitical character as part of the maritime Asia-Pacific rim and Australia’s dependence on oceanic trade and sea lines of communication for its prosperity, one might expect Australians—like their British and American cousins—to be natural seafarers. Historically, this has not been the case. As John Gillis notes in his 2004 study Islands of the Mind, “confusion still lingers about what to call Australia: children are taught that they live in ‘the-world’s-largest-island-the-world’s-smallest-continent’”. It is certainly true that the country’s continental ethos, its army and its pastoral and mining industries have always been of more importance than its maritime awareness, its navy and sea-based industries. This is an extraordinary paradox that any contemporary student of Australian strategic history must confront and then seek to explain, if he is to ponder future national security requirements in any realistic manner.

Australia’s immaturity of maritime outlook has not gone unnoticed by successive generations of scholars. In 1959, in his book Bush and Backwoods: A Comparison of the Frontier in Australia and the United States, H.C. Allen was struck by the fact that “America has a great maritime tradition, which Australia, having been perhaps too long reliant on that of the mother country, really has not”. Two decades later, John Bach’s Maritime History of Australia bewailed the absence of a sense of the sea in the Australian psyche, observing, “European Australia should have been the archetype of a maritime nation. The offspring of a mighty [British] sea-power, it might have been expected to look instinctively to the same source for its strength.” In 1998, Frank Broeze, in his study Island-Nation: A History of Australians and the Sea, highlighted how Australia’s states have been captive to a “regional littoralism” in which continental size has restricted the evolution of a national maritime outlook. While New South Wales and Queensland look out on the Pacific, South Australia abuts the Southern Ocean and Western Australia overlooks the Indian Ocean. The nation’s maritime diversity between east and west is further compounded by the fact that the Northern Territory’s seaward focus is on the Timor Sea and into South-East Asia through the Indonesian archipelago.

In this article I argue that the peculiar trajectory of Australia’s national culture has impeded a sense of a maritime consciousness and that this situation is particularly reflected in strategy and defence policy. Historically, the imperial, literary, political and economic aspects of Australian cultural awareness have tended to uphold a strong continental ethos, elements of which have transmuted themselves into a view of defence that has prevented the emergence of a mature appreciation of the strategic value of the sea.

First I assess the way in which British naval power from 1788 until the fall of Singapore in 1942 fostered in Australian strategic thinking a tradition of maritime dependence on the colonial motherland and permitted a volunteer military tradition to flourish. Second, I outline the manner in which a lack of responsibility for national defence permitted an unhindered focus on settlement and internal development of a vast continent—a process which created a cult of the inland in the Australian cultural imagination. Finally, I explore the potential for developing a new maritime consciousness as a globalised Australia begins to emerge as an economically significant twenty-first-century middle power.

A tradition of maritime dependence

In his 2005 book Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, John Hirst observes that

for most of human history defence spending has been the biggest item in government budgets. In the Australian colonies it was one of the smallest, which allowed government funds to be spent on the internal development of the colony.

From settlement in 1788 to Federation in 1901, Australia was part of the world’s greatest seaborne empire and its security was underwritten by Britain’s global naval supremacy. The metropole subsumed Australia’s maritime identity into an imperial system, absolving the colonists from any direct responsibility for defending themselves in international affairs. Australia’s colonists were able to settle an island-continent while cultivating a sense of mare incognitum. With physical safety ensured by the Royal Navy, colonial Australia could afford to focus on social and economic development and the evolution of constitutional government. The transition to democratic self-government in the 1850s and 1860s saw colonial governments such as New South Wales and Victoria duplicate the virtues of British political stability, providing security for property rights and individual liberty under common law.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the defence of the Australian colonies was conceived in imperial rather than in national terms. Indeed, it was only in 1901 with the creation of Federation that the problem of defence became a serious political consideration. While modern Australia’s founding fathers, Edmund Barton, Joseph Cook, Andrew Fisher and Alfred Deakin, came to view defence policy as a national responsibility they continued to view any Australian effort as part of a wider imperial system. Australia’s geographical size and small population meant that national defence could only be practical if it sought to reinforce and, in turn, be reinforced by the resources of empire. In this course of action, Australians were merely following the advice of the great American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan, who recommended in 1902 that Australia should “frame its [defence] schemes and base its estimates on sound lines, both naval and imperial; naval by allowing due weight to battle force; imperial, by contemplating the whole, and recognizing that local safety is not always best found in local precaution”.

In his 1992 book on Australia’s political economy, The End of Certainty, Paul Kelly describes how in the first decade after Federation in 1901, the “Australian Settlement”, was forged, a socio-economic system that was a synthesis of national imperatives and imperial strategy cast in terms of a fortress defence:

Australia was founded on faith in government authority; belief in egalitarianism; a method of judicial determination in centralised wage fixation; protection of its industry and its jobs; dependence on a great power (first Britain, then America), for its security and finance; and above all hostility to its geographical location, exhibited in fear of external domination and internal contamination from the peoples of the Asia/Pacific. Its bedrock ideology was protection; its solution a Fortress Australia, guaranteed as part of an impregnable Empire spanning the globe.

In strategic consciousness, post-Federation Australia remained in the grip of what Gregory Melleuish has called, in his study The Power of Ideas, “the meta-narrative of Empire”. Indeed, as one Defence Minister, Senator E.D. Millen, stated in 1920, being part of the empire meant that “the White Australia principle is as vital and as essential as the Monroe Doctrine is to the United States or the Freedom of the Seas to Britain”. Thus, when Prime Minister Billy Hughes attended the Versailles Conference in 1919, he, like his predecessors, located Australia’s national strategic position in the context of an imperial defence system. With fear of Japan in mind, Hughes declared that the archipelagos of South-East Asia “were as necessary to Australia as water to a city. If they were in the hands of a superior power there would be no peace for Australia.”

Yet, while a strategic challenge such as Japan might be identified, any local maritime approach towards resolution was elusive, for it was not sailors on the high seas but volunteer soldiers at Gallipoli and on the Western Front that provided the new polity with its martial ethos. Indeed, Australia’s interpretation of its military identity was defined by Charles Bean in whose hands the Anzac outlook was married to an outback tradition to create the legend of the Digger as a “natural soldier”. At its heart, the Anzac military tradition remains a creed of the soldier and owes little to the sea.

Australia’s “sea blindness” has been much lamented by figures as diverse as Frederick Eggleston, T.B. Millar, Kim Beazley and Alan Robertson. In 1930, Eggleston noted that Australians did not “have that sense of the sea and our surroundings which is generally developed in an island people”. Millar, in his 1965 book Australia’s Defence, was moved to remind his readers that Australia was an island-nation at the mercy of changes in the global balance of power and as such did not have to be invaded in order to be defeated. In the late 1980s, the architect of modern Australia’s continental Defence of Australia doctrine, Kim Beazley, could proceed with his policy on the basis that “Australia is not a maritime nation and its people do not sustain much of an interest in Australian maritime strategy”. For most of its existence what has passed for a maritime understanding of the sea in Australian defence is, in former naval officer Commodore Alan Robertson’s memorable words, “a continentalist’s idea of maritime strategy”. Colloquially, in terms of philosophical outlook, most Australian strategists have been dingoes rather than sharks.

An Australian maritime outlook has also been further retarded by the character of a national political debate that is marked by division over how the country might best develop its own defence. The seminal issue was the bitter conscription disputes of 1916–17 and 1942 which shattered any consensus on the shape and direction of national defence. The defeat of conscription in 1916–17 was a disaster for the evolution of coherent defence policy in Australia—not least because it severed the political bond between the duty of bearing arms and the rights of citizenship. In this sense, Bruce Grant is right when he writes that Australia has “a martial history of symbolism and emotional significance, without experience in applying the first principle of the martial arts, which is that of self-defence”. The conscription debates made discussion of defence less a priority of the state than an issue of partisan politics. This legacy ensured that Australia’s military tradition would become a volunteer one associated mainly with soldiers, thus restricting any evolution towards a maritime ethos of warfare.

Even when Australia fought in a great maritime campaign in the South-West Pacific in the Second World War from 1942 to 1945, it did so relying on American sea power to replace that of Britain’s after the fall of Singapore. It is significant that the amphibious operations of the 7th and 9th Divisions of the 2nd AIF in the South-West Pacific islands continue to be overshadowed in the national iconography by the 1st AIF’s experience of continental battles in France such as Bullecourt, Hamel and Amiens. In 2015 when Australia celebrates the centenary of Gallipoli, festivities will be less about a seaborne assault in the Dardanelles than on the soldiers who, upon landing, created the Anzac legend fighting the Turks at Lone Pine and The Nek.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century, then, Australia possesses a strategic culture which, while it embraces a naval tradition, lacks the essential maritime identity necessary to ensure a comprehensive approach to its defence. Since 1916, paradox and discord have occurred over the two most fundamental aspects of defence policy: who should serve and where? As Paul Kelly writes in 100 Years: The Australian Story, “Australia [has] been a pro-war and anti-conscription country—a unique mixture.” Similarly, John Hirst observes in a study of Australian democracy that since the schism of 1916–17, “[the proposition] that defence of the nation is a single project, and that the State should have the power to command all men to serve—these commonplace ideas have not been accepted in Australia”. The result has been anomalies such as the “two armies” policy of the Second World War, creating a situation in which, in the words of Hirst, “defence has been the empty core of Australian nationhood”. Yet, despite these failings in strategic policy, the greatest barrier to Australia developing the kind of maritime strategy it will require in the twenty-first century is as much cultural as it is political, and nowhere is this more evident than in literature and art.

The continental imagination

The way in which a country’s literary culture develops plays a vital role in determining a nation’s sense of political identity and self-consciousness. Australia is no exception to this rule. As Vance Palmer wrote in the Melbourne Age in February 1935:

We have to discover ourselves—our character, the character of the country, the particular kind of society that has developed here—and this can only be done through the searching explorations of literature. It is one of the limitations of the human mind that it can never grasp things fully till they are presented through the medium of art.

Palmer was reflecting on the reality that for much of Australia’s existence there has been a division in artistic culture between universalists who have upheld Britishness and European ideas and nationalists who have upheld Australianess and local ideas. With physical security guaranteed by British warships, Australian settlement was free to concentrate on the interior geography of a vast continent. In the nineteenth century, the major concern of Australian colonists became the struggle to master the land. In the words of Tom Inglis Moore in his 1971 book Social Patterns in Australian Literature, in the course of the nineteenth century there developed “a literature born of the land”. It is no accident that in 1973 Geoffrey Serle chose to call his important study of creativity in Australian culture From Deserts the Prophets Come. The line was drawn from A.D. Hope’s poem “Australia”, the quintessential literary description of Australia as “the last of lands” but one from whose alien shores and inland sands a new people might emerge.

The sense of security that emanated from a global combination of British mastery of the seas and the intellectual supremacy of ideas of the European Enlightenment fuelled a quest for a colonial and later national identity. It is another of the paradoxes of Australian history that British seaborne security and European universalism came to encourage an inward-looking literary nationalism in the nineteenth century. Indeed, between settlement in 1788 and the consolidation of the self-governing colonies in the 1880s, Australia underwent what Greg Melleuish describes as a “transformation from an outward-looking and dynamic view of the world and historical processes to one that saw the world in static and national terms”.

Under such conditions, it was not mariners but explorers such as Sturt, Leichhardt, and Burke and Wills who captured the Australian imagination. In the words of Alan Moorehead, the explorers elevated their trials with an implacable interior into “a mystique, a cult of barrenness and asceticism”. This mystique of the Australian landscape was reflected in the works of such writers as Marcus Clarke and Rolf Boldrewood and later by the bohemians and journalists of the Bulletin. Australian literary culture celebrated the struggle with the land as symbolised by convicts, pioneers, bushrangers, diggers and drovers. By the 1890s, Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson emerged as the two great national poets who would immortalise the bush as a Lost Eden and the bushman as “the true and admirable Australia and Australian”. Joseph Furphy’s 1903 novel, Such is Life, about rural workers in the Riverina of New South Wales, is perhaps the most celebrated example of the bush genre in Australian literature.

Those few Australian writers with any interest in the sea such as the poets Roderic Quinn and Edward James Brady could not counterbalance Australia’s overwhelming literary preoccupation with its landscape. One looks in vain through Australian literature to find a parallel for Herman Melville’s celebratory remark: “Meditation and water are wedded forever.” As it was in literature so too was it in art. The seascapes of John Passmore have never matched the popularity of the Heidelberg painters of the 1880s, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder who, like their literary compatriots, idealised the landscape, the outback and the pioneer spirit.

As Frank Broeze has noted, the Heidelberg School of the 1880s and 1890s celebrated “a visual continentalism” that complemented and reinforced the literary impact of the writers and poets—so infusing image and word into an Australian patriotism. It was the romanticised interior that came to inform the works of later painters such as Russell Drysdale and Sidney Nolan and writers such as Patrick White, Ion Idriess and Russel Ward. For example, White’s novel Voss, based on the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, is characterised by a striking imagery of landscape in which “the great empty mornings were terrible until the ball of the sun was tossed skyward”.

The victory of an inward-looking, nationalist paradigm in Australia’s literary culture and sense of identity became increasingly evident in the first half of the twentieth century. Indeed, in some respects it is possible to detect in some Australian writing an antagonism to the sea. In Ian Mudie’s 1940 poem “Underground” the land is deliberately celebrated over the sea:

 Deep flows the river,
deep as our roots reach for it;
feeding us, angry and striving
against the blindness
ship-fed seas bring us
from colder waters

For Mudie, it is the outback, not the ocean, that grips the minds of Australians “like heart and blood, from heat to mist”. As a member of the nationalist Jindyworobak literary movement, Mudie viewed the sea as alien and representative of an unwelcome pseudo-Europeanism and transplanted Englishness. The leading figure of the Jindyworobak movement, Rex Ingamells, was strongly influenced by D.H. Lawrence’s 1923 novel Kangaroo—a book which remains unrivalled in its brisk evocation of the connection between landscape’s “spirit of place” and the evolution of a national psyche in Australia.

For Lawrence, the Australian preoccupation with a harsh, alien landscape characterised by “grey, charred bush … so phantom like, so ghostly, with its tall, pale trees, and many dead trees, like corpses” encouraged a metaphysical dread in the form of a withered and empty space in the national consciousness. There was, wrote Lawrence, a “withheld self” in the Australian psyche that lacked the vision of a people with an outward-looking spirit associated with other European communities more reconciled to their natural environment. It is certainly true that, while Australia has occasionally thrown up individual writers of international standing such as Miles Franklin and Katharine Susannah Prichard, it has only been since the 1970s that Australian literature has developed a greater collective capacity to overcome “the withheld self”. The ability to be simultaneously nationalist and universalist—to reach a mature situation in which, in Percy Stephensen’s words, “art and literature are nationally created, but become internationally appreciated”—is a relatively recent Australian phenomenon.

For the most part, however, cosmopolitan authors such as Patrick White, Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally and David Malouf demonstrate little interest in their writings in exploring the sea or any reasons for the absence of an Australian maritime consciousness. Even Christopher Koch’s insightful novels about Australians confronting violence and war in South-East Asia do not evoke any sense of maritime milieu. In some ways, the writer who is nearest to the sea is the West Australian Tim Winton, whose books often concern the interface of ocean and land. Yet Winton’s works are more properly described as coastal and regional rather than maritime and national in spirit.

Despite a greater integration of universal and national themes, then, much of Australian literature continues to be focused inwards to the land and self rather than outwards to the sea and the world. This tendency has not passed unnoticed by foreign literary observers. As the English writer Matthew Parris observed in his February 2010 essay “Sleight of Land”, the Australian island-continent remains a Prospero’s kingdom, “but a kingdom where the spirits [of the land] have not quite been brought under control”. Similarly, the French scholar Jean-François Vernay, in his 2009 survey The Great Australian Novel: A Panorama, concludes that a sense of physical isolation remains central to the Australian psyche:

A key element of the Australian psyche is having the feeling of living on the margin of society, with the geographic centre an unwelcoming desert and the identity centre being somewhere else in some far-away otherness. There is a diffused feeling of belonging without really belonging to a place, a land, a people.

It is this insular national spirit which now contends against the rise of globalisation and its impact on Australia and it is to this interplay that we must now turn our attention.

Towards a maritime strategic consciousness

It remains debatable whether Australia will discover a maritime identity in the course of the twenty-first century. It is unknown whether, as a people, Australians have any interest in correcting the judgment passed on the country by James Bird in his 1968 book Seaport Gateways to Australia: “Australia is a maritime nation and scarcely knows it.” There are, however, some contemporary signs of a greater outward awareness that might signal a changing national consciousness. The Australia of 2013 is not the polity of dependent colonial self-governments of 1883; nor is it the tentative federal experiment of 1913—little more than a decade old and on the brink of plunging into a disastrous world war. Still less is Australia the inward-driven, tariff-laden and protectionist country of 1983 agonising over international economic competition and on the cusp of declining into Paul Keating’s “banana republic”.

The Australia of 2013 is a product of thirty years of profound socio-economic revolution involving an embrace of both globalisation and free-market liberalism. In combination, these forces have created a more confident country that increasingly balances universalism against insularity. As Paul Kelly has observed in The End of Certainty, the struggle to free the Australian economy from the Federation-era “Australian Settlement” that enshrined protectionism, the White Australia policy and imperial dependence was at its heart a struggle between contending visions of past and future. Between the 1980s and the first decade of the new century, the “internationalist rationalists” of free-market reform triumphed over the “sentimentalist traditionalists” of state control, bringing Australia into a new age of prosperity and growth.

Australia’s developmental statistics over three decades are impressive. Between 1990 and 2010, the Australian economy tripled in size. Per capita GDP grew by 182 per cent following the reform and internationalisation of the economy in the 1980s and 1990s—a process driven by the combined forces of information technology, the rise of Asia and a domestic minerals boom. Today, with a population of nearly 23 million, Australia possesses the thirteenth-largest, and the seventh-most-developed, economy in the world. The country is a member of the exclusive G20 and the East Asia Summit and is a foundation member of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum. In 2008, the Australian dollar became the sixth-most-traded currency on world markets and, on current trends, by 2025 Australia’s average real income is expected to be $73,000 per person, putting the country into the world’s top ten.

Such global outwardness in economics and trade might be expected to encourage a stronger Australian maritime school of thought. Yet as Michael Wesley has cautioned in his 2011 study There Goes the Neighbourhood: Australia and the Rise of Asia, Australia remains a deeply contradictory country of “insular internationalists”—wealthy and lucky, but also complacent and incurious about its future status. The Gillard government’s October 2012 White Paper Australia in the Asian Century illustrates Wesley’s point. In a document of over three hundred pages of pedantic detail, as opposed to sharp analysis, there is no specific consideration of the maritime implications of deeper Australian engagement with Asia. The document largely contents itself with the statement: “As the global centre of gravity shifts to our region, the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity.”

The problem here is that, historically, the “prospects of proximity” with Asia have never been comfortable for Australia. It is no accident that aspects of an old Jindyworobak-style national insularity remain strong—most strikingly in defence policy—which has struggled to keep abreast of unprecedented socio-economic change between the late 1980s and the first decade of the new millennium. In yet another striking paradox, in 1987—even as Australia began the process of opening its political economy to the world—a nationalist and continentalist doctrine of Defence of Australia (DOA) was proclaimed by the Hawke government. It was an introspective posture which flew in the face of an emerging global era as the Cold War disappeared into history. In many respects the DOA doctrine of the 1980s and 1990s was a strategic manifestation of the insular nationalism associated with the literary continentalism of Henry Lawson and the economic protectionism of John McEwen. Defence planners adhered to the traditional view of Australia as an Antipodean Eden but one that was perched uncomfortably close to the edge of an alien Orient. Australian strategy thus became focused on defending the “sea-air gap” to the north, with Suharto’s regime in Indonesia seen as a potential threat to security.

Under DOA doctrine, the military’s force projection capacity was stripped away in favour of a geographical denial strategy based on land-based aircraft and submarines. In the course of the 1980s, the last Australian aircraft carrier was decommissioned and amphibious warfare capability all but eliminated, making the Royal Australian Navy less a blue-water than a brown-water force. The focus on creating an inward-looking ADF resulted in an Army that gradually came to resemble a strange cross between a Home Guard and a Long Range Desert Group. Military exercises in the wastes of northern Australia took place against imaginary incursions by thinly-disguised Indonesian forces—who in the late 1980s and early 1990s masqueraded as “Musorians” and “Kamarians”—fictions necessary to preserve diplomatic niceties with Jakarta.

None of the adherents of DOA appeared to have read Major-General Sydney Rowell’s perceptive memoir, Full Circle, in which he recalls how, in early 1942, he educated the Americans about the way in which Australia’s unforgiving northern geography would deal with potential invaders. Asked by an American general what he would do if the Japanese landed divisions at Broome, Rowell replied laconically that he would send for the Australian Army’s Salvage Corps “to pick up the bones [because] there is no water between Broome and Alice Springs”. Rowell’s wisdom was lost on later generations. As a result, the inward-looking DOA doctrine of the 1980s and 1990s was decoupled from foreign policy and represented the antithesis of a maritime strategic outlook. Indeed, through seeing South-East Asia as a military enemy to be feared rather than as a security partner to be embraced, the combination of moat mentality and fortress defence that prevailed in late-twentieth-century strategic doctrine recalled the nostalgia of the “Australian Settlement”—a political edifice that was disappearing like sand through fingers under the impact of economic reforms.

Since the turn of the century, as Asia and its Indo-Pacific sea lines of communication have increasingly become the economic sinews of a new prosperity, Australia’s defence policy has rapidly obsolesced in two key aspects. First, it is increasingly evident that any form of continental defence based on a narrow conception of geography is inadequate in globalised security conditions. Second, the old technique of expeditionary warfare using mainly soldiers to help uphold international order cannot compensate indefinitely for the lack of a genuine maritime strategy focused on an economically dynamic Asian region. The main change in defence policy over the past quarter of a century has been the realisation by policy-makers that Australia must seek to come to terms with its offshore maritime environment.

The strategic direction and force structure imperatives of defence documents between 2003 and 2013, including two Defence White Papers, have been marked by a steady abandonment of DOA principles. Sensibly, capability acquisition has concentrated on re-equipping the navy for a larger blue-water role—including a welcome return to capital shipping in the form of large helicopter carriers. The combination of air warfare destroyers, landing helicopter docks, and a new amphibious approach by the Army, represents the beginnings of generational change towards the use of the sea in Australian strategic thinking. The January 2013 document Strong and Secure: A Strategy for Australia’s National Security states, “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”.

Taking its cue from national security policy, the May 2013 Defence White Paper states, “Australia’s geography requires a maritime strategy” in which Indonesia is viewed not as an adversary but as a partner. Yet again, however, we need to be cautious in accepting this statement at face value. It remains to be seen, in the light of the worst cuts to the defence budget since the 1930s, whether this commitment to a maritime strategy will survive beyond the rhetorical flourishes that are so beloved of the authors of Australian Defence White Papers.

In any event, support for an effective Australian maritime strategy needs to be forged not so much in the Defence Department’s Russell Offices but on the broader anvil of greater national awareness. It is cultural philosophy rather than political economy or military strategy that is the greatest barrier to Australia’s international future as a sea-conscious, outward-looking nation. Any enhanced maritime perspective must be meticulously crafted to reflect the nation’s identity as a Western middle power and a close ally of America located in the world’s new Asian economic heart. Such an outlook will require statesmanship, higher defence spending and deeper philosophical reflection on Australia’s place in the world. And the future will not wait for Australia in terms of either its demography or its strategy. In 2010–11, for the first time in Australia’s history, China, not Britain, was the main source of immigration in permanent residents. In 2013, the outlines of an Indo-Pacific strategic arc are beginning to emerge as the Indian Ocean surpasses the Atlantic to become the world’s busiest trade corridor. Currently, one third of the world’s bulk cargo and two-thirds of its oil pass through the Indonesian archipelago en route to North and South Asia.

In geopolitical terms, the shift of global economic power from West to East will make Australia a maritime strategic anchor that is situated adjacent to the vital trading routes between the Indian and the Pacific oceans. As Michael Wesley notes, while Australia has never considered itself a South-East Asian country—and by extension a genuine maritime state—it may nonetheless in the years to come become one in the eyes of large Asian countries such as China, Japan and India. Moreover, the United States strategic “rebalance” towards Asia—announced in the Australian parliament in November 2011 and symbolised by a US Marine Corps presence in Darwin—reflects a distinct maritime flavour. Future American force dispositions in South-East Asia may require Australia to host US Navy vessels at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia; to boost the air-maritime facilities of the Cocos Islands for allied use; and to pursue still deeper security co-operation with the Association of South-East Asian Nations.

In the face of these developments, Australia’s intellectual and policy elites must strive to reconcile the nation’s terrestrial cultural identity with a new maritime consciousness and construct a modern narrative of Australia as an island-continent connected to both globe and region. In global terms, Australians need to appreciate that the European Union is Australia’s largest trading partner; that the United States is the nation’s largest investment partner as well as its vital military ally; and that Asia is Australia’s largest export market. In regional terms, Australians need to understand that their country is not so much separated by a sea-air gap as connected by a sea-air-land bridge to the South-East Asian and Pacific archipelagos that encompass the Cocos in the north-west running through Indonesia and Papua New Guinea to the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia in the north-east.

In particular, the “prospects of proximity” in Asia must be debated in a sophisticated geopolitical context in which Australia’s leaders seek to reassure the nation that long-term engagement and co-operation with the economic players of the dynamic Asia-Pacific rim will be positive, enhancing both national prosperity and security in the twenty-first century. The choice of futures before Australians needs to be sketched clearly: to engage confidently with the maritime environment that links them to the wider world in order to prosper economically as a new “greater Australia”, or to shrink inwards, to withhold engagement and retreat into an old “little Australia” of insular continental geography. Since the latter choice is a prescription for autarky and national economic decline, some type of enhanced Australian maritime consciousness that embraces foreign policy, trade and security is likely to emerge in the decades ahead from a new synthesis of history, geography and national culture. But the speed of such change and the philosophical contours of the journey remain impossible to predict.




For most of Australia’s history, it has been the blast of the sun on land, not the swell of the sea against shore, that has marked both cultural outlook and national identity. In his 2007 short story “The Water Person and the Tree Person”, Robert Drewe reflects on the enduring power of the landscape. He writes of an Australian sea kayaker paddling into an estuary and looking back towards his holiday cottage only to see the unrelenting grey-green bush of D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo loom menacingly back at him. Evidence of his human habitation is reduced to the extent that the kayaker’s abode appears “tiny, and strangely deserted … as one-dimensional and insubstantial as a film set”. Here we witness yet again the paradox of the world’s largest island serving as a literary metaphor to illuminate the “withheld self” that Lawrence identified as being central to Australia’s detached, yet powerful, continental identity.

Lack of a maritime consciousness has been a striking feature of the Australian psyche and one that will not be easily or quickly remedied. To paraphrase Lord Bryce, the history of maritime thought in Australia is like the study of snakes in Ireland: there are no snakes in Ireland. Yet we must not despair. The larger and more prosperous Australia becomes, the greater its awareness of the sea will also have to become.

A nation’s cultural identity is not fixed in stone; nor is there any permanent obstacle to Australia developing a compatible understanding of its future development in maritime as well as continental terms. In the course of the twenty-first century, it is likely that the accelerating domination of a globalised economy and the increased multicultural demography of a middle-power Australia will gradually erode the more insular proclivities of earlier generations. The way forward is to use the sheet anchor of stability that is Australia’s Anglo-Celtic national identity to absorb changes that come from being part of a global civilisation.

The need is for an innovative Australian polity that sees its development in complementary rather than competitive terms—a country that can reconcile a proud British-derived liberal democratic culture with newer Asian geo-economic and international dynamics. Australians must view the surrounding seas as highways to a better future, not as moats to defend vanished eras; it is within maritime South-East Asia, not against it, that Australia will find its best guarantee of security and prosperity.

Just as nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australians laboured physically to master a vast continent in order to build a modern nation, so too must future generations begin the psychological conquest of Australia’s tendency towards national insularity and an indifference towards maritime consciousness. Unlike in earlier times, Australia’s European history and its Asian geography cannot be binary absolutes to be chosen one over the other. Rather they represent affinities; they are additives to be exploited by a confident nation in pursuit of what John Howard called in 2001 the “special intersection” of history and geography that now defines modern Australia.

A refocusing of Australia’s national culture to meet the more universal realities of maritime awareness is the key to the nation’s true maturation as an island-continent “girt by sea”. This is not a question of abandoning a rich and great past, but of adapting it to meet a changing present and an unfolding future. Australians, while upholding their cherished Anglo-Celtic governmental traditions and distinctive continental ethos, must increasingly seek to expand the national cultural narrative to encompass the oceans of South-East Asia and the Indo-Pacific. We must be less like A.D. Hope’s “second-hand Europeans [who] pullulate timidly on the edge of alien shores” and more like the brave young inland riders in Roderic Quinn’s poem “The Sea-Seekers”, who, on seeing the vast ocean before them, plunged their mounts joyfully into the foaming waves and “shouted to the Morning Seas”.

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.


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