Ben Moles’ post on Australia and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ is lucid and thoughtful. But its perspective may be too narrow. It is true that the physical and diplomatic reach of Australian policy as presently defined are largely confined to the Australian continent, the waters immediately adjacent to it and to diplomatic activity carefully confined to wherever Australian diplomats think they can have greatest impact, that is, the nearest parts of Southeast Asia.
If that were all, how would we explain Australia’s recent participation in military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan? Why would we have acquired fresh links to NATO and why would the government have expanded the use of Australian bases and facilities for allied, especially American, activities with semi-global reach? Why, for that matter, do Australian ministers take it upon themselves to lecture China on issues like ‘human rights’ and African leaders on the wickedness of their inter-tribal wars?
The answer is threefold. Firstly, rhetoric and lecture are largely cost-free, so foreign ministers can pronounce on matters in which their country has no real stake, but voters might feel gratified to see that ‘Australia is making a stand’.
Secondly, real power balances, especially among great powers, nowadays have less to do with ordinary ground forces or even large fleets of aircraft or ships, than with small but highly trained special forces and, above all, high-technology weapons and equipment. A couple of years ago we learned about the Stuxnet virus that caused great damage to the Iranian nuclear programme. It is safe to assume that cyber warfare has progressed a generation or two since then. It seems even safer to assume that the command of space and of space-based communications now carries much the same strategic weight as the Bletchley code-breakers did in 1944 or that nuclear weapons did in 1945.
Our continent is a resource that we and our allies can use, to produce an effect that stretches far beyond our own shores, or even the reach of our own very limited military capacities. The recent announcement of the expansion of American anti-missile capabilities in East and Southeast Asia is only one sign of the times.
Harry Gelber is emeritus professor at the School of Government, University of Tasmania.