When discussing what ‘strategy’ is—or isn’t—we surely need to distinguish between strategy and grand strategy, not least because of the longer timescales, wider disciplines and deeper understandings involved with the latter.
Australian grand strategy stems from our enduring geographic, demographic and economic underpinnings. It also takes account of potentially less-enduring aspects, such as international law and practice, and domestic constitutional, political and socio-cultural inputs. Our grand-strategic goal for the next century or longer is perhaps best summarised as maximising our sovereign freedom of action as a nation-state.
Uniquely, Australia will remain an island-continent, at least until the next ice age uncovers the land bridge to Eurasia again. The strategic value of that geographic status is enhanced by Australia being the only continent wholly the territory of one country. While rich in many offshore and onshore natural resources, over 80% of our landmass is arid or worse—thereby placing limits on population spread, and ultimately size, not applicable to other populated continents. Technology is unlikely to cancel out those geographic and demographic constraints for the imaginable future.
In a grand-strategic sense, our freedom of action also depends on preserving sole sovereignty over our continent. National unity is therefore essential and much more than just a federalism, citizenship-equity or patriotism issue. Moreover, controlling potential population flows into Australia on our terms has profound national sovereignty implications—missing, incidentally, from most asylum-seeker debates.
Since the land bridge disappeared, Australia has twice faced direct, existential-scale, threats to the society and polity of those living here. First, the settlement of Australia by the British ended existing Aboriginal political, economic and social structures. Second, the rise of Imperial Japan from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, posed the risk at best of total subjugation of our strategic freedom of action and, at worst, outright conquest.
Two other general strategic risks had potentially existential consequences. In the early to mid-20th century there was a possibility Imperial Germany, and perhaps later Nazi Germany, might end the British global maritime supremacy that underwrote Australia’s whole way of life as a state dependent on seaborne trade. In the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War, and particularly the threat of global nuclear catastrophe, also meant modern Australia as we know it might end.
All those existential threats and serious risks have come by or over the sea. Moreover, the two most important battles shaping modern Australia each resulted from maritime trade rivalry and associated conflicts. The global maritime supremacy won at Trafalgar in 1805 enabled the British to settle and develop Australia throughout the 19th Century unhindered by the strategic rivalries that had so troubled their activities in North America in previous centuries. And the global maritime supremacy established by the US at Midway in 1942 has underpinned Australia’s wellbeing for most of the last century.
In grand strategic terms modern Australia has always been a maritime-trade dependent country and will be for the imaginable future. From 1788 until quite recently all our major trading partners (UK, USA, post-war Japan) were also major allies, but that no longer applies. Does that matter? Does the economic resurgence of China fundamentally change Australia’s security over the long term? Or is it only a highly-revisionist China that constitutes such a risk, and if so, is it a short- or long-term one?
Although many have tried, no entity on the Eurasian landmass has yet succeeded in sustaining regional, and later global, strategic supremacy as both a continental and a maritime power. Similarly, since the rise of maritime powers located outside Eurasia in the 16th to 20th centuries, not one has sustained the ability to subdue even parts of that landmass by other than a maritime strategy (perhaps supplemented by continental alliances). That has remained true even after the advent of airpower, nuclear weapons and ICBMs.
Even if China was able to buck the trend by becoming rich enough before it got old, the longer timescales integral to grand strategy apply. Could that double supremacy be sustained? In particular, could it be sustained in the more-likely-than-not case that China’s political system eventually becomes one where the government is truly accountable to the Chinese people and much less likely to overturn rules-based international stability?
We’re looking at a race against time over the shorter term, not the longer one. The chief risk is that the existing international system breaks down before China’s authoritarian regime does, with China resorting to strategic coercion, regionally or globally, to get its way. That might include, in Australia’s case, attempts to ‘Finlandise’ our strategic freedom of action.
The so-called ‘China choice’ debate misses much of that logic. Even excluding a host of historical, political, legal and cultural factors, does anyone seriously believe Australia won’t continue to be a maritime power and seek mutual security in strategic alliances with other regional and global maritime powers within a rules-based international system?
Neil James is executive director of the Australia Defence Association. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.