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Rethinking Australia’s wartime maritime trade

Posted By on April 4, 2024 @ 13:54

Last week, ASPI released an important new report [1] on Australian maritime trade. This is a critical subject, about which far too little is written. However, the report examines peacetime trade with the expectation that the experience can be directly translated to wartime. This assumption is problematic and has led to some questionable conclusions about the impact of a conflict on Australian maritime trade.

There are a number of very significant differences between maritime trade in peacetime and wartime that need to be factored into any calculations. The first of these is the difference between trade and supply. In a conflict, Australia would not need and would not have much of its peacetime trade. Instead, it would be focused on importing the minimum [2] ‘necessary to keep the country running indefinitely to meet basic requirements’ and exporting key materials essential for Allied war economies.

The second point is that these flows of vital imports and exports would not necessarily come from, or go to, the same places as in peacetime. In the Second World War, Britain was forced to shift away from Middle Eastern oil, and instead rely upon supplies from the Americas [3]. This was not a result of the absence of Middle Eastern supply, but instead was the product of the closure of the Mediterranean shipping route, and the inefficiency of deploying tanker tonnage around the Cape.

A similar pattern would be seen for Australia in the event of conflict today. South Korea is one of the largest suppliers of refined fuel for Australia [4]. If there were a war in Northeast Asia this would stop – not only because of the difficulty of shipping it to Australia, but also because of the challenges for the Koreans to get raw crude, and because of the Korean government’s need to ensure its own energy security.

The report paints a different picture. It explores the example of the Second World War, suggesting that trade during the conflict ‘continued’ between Allied countries, noting that in 1942-43, Australian exports ‘were only slightly below pre-war levels, while imports had more than doubled’.

A closer examination of the statistics paints a very different picture [5]. Exports to Britain halved between 1938-39 and 1942-43, while imports from the US increased by 544% over the same period. In terms of commodities, certain sectors that produced essential raw materials for Allied war industries—such as wool—boomed, while others suffered badly [6].

These patterns were shaped by the exigencies of war, mediated through Allied bureaucracy. The ‘world shipping crisis [7]’ sparked by the war ensured that committees in London and Washington dictated what goods got shipped to and from Australia, and when. This was not business as usual, and we should not expect it to be in the future.

The combination of the shift from trade to supply, and the alterations in the sources of supply, will radically reshape the flows of shipping to Australia. The need to secure that supply will further shift the patterns away from a peacetime model—trade will not simply continue to run on established routes. The most effective way to protect trade is to ensure you avoid the enemy [8]. It is for this reason that trade was so heavily rerouted through both world wars. Shipping is also a very precious commodity [9] in wartime, and therefore if it is possible to source supplies from less dangerous alternatives, these will be used. Australian oil is likely to come from refineries in India or the Americas, not Asia.

Routes will also reflect Australia’s alliances. Many of the most important elements of supply for Australia in wartime will be military equipment, personnel, and the logistics and infrastructure to support them. This is most likely to come across the Pacific, not from Asia.

In the event of conflict, Australia’s most important connections will not be the shortest, or the most profitable, instead they will be those that are most defensible and tie the country to its key allies. It is for these reasons that, in wartime, Australia’s key strategic lifelines will not run north-south through the archipelago, but instead will run east-west across the vast expanses of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This shift will be far more apparent than in previous wars because Australia’s leading peacetime trading partners are no longer the same as its key allies.

There are even greater issues with some of the other key findings of the report. One of the most surprising is the suggestion that trade is remarkably resilient to disruption, citing the experience of the Second World War. Here again, the lack of context makes these remarks problematic. During the Second World War, Allied maritime supply did prove resilient, although this often came at the cost of capacity, and shipping was the critical bottleneck in the Allied war effort [10]. This resilience was not, however structural and instead was the product of a concerted effort by governments. Through the first half of the twentieth century, the Australian government deployed huge time and resources developing and implementing naval control of shipping [11] and other measures for the protection of the merchant marine [12]. These measures were driven by a deep understanding of the potential vulnerability of maritime supply.

That vulnerability is all too evident if one looks at German maritime supply in either world war, or Japan in 1944-45. Shipping is resilient if, and only if, you can provide a significant degree of sea control. As soon as that disappears, then the trade stops. When discussing trade protection, people routinely reference the Battle of the Atlantic, but they generally fail to appreciate the true nature of that campaign. As historians are at pains to point out, the primary protection for trade came not from Greyhound-style escorts, but from the British fleet, which guaranteed command of the sea [13]. This reduced the Germans to mounting a campaign of ‘guerrilla warfare at sea [14]’. The resilience of trade in the face of such a campaign is not surprising, nor does it bear any relation to what would happen if command of the sea was even contested, let alone lost.

One of the central, if unacknowledged, assumptions within all of the scenarios discussed in the report is that the ability of a US-led coalition to guarantee command of the sea outside the first island chain remains unchallenged. That is a very big assumption.

The report provides an excellent picture of Australian trade in peacetime, and the challenges that might be faced in a period of coercion. It does not, however, do what it claims to do, namely provide any basis for considering what might happen in wartime. Australian maritime supply will not just carry on flowing through the extremely vulnerable chokepoints to our north. Governments will need to control, ration, and make difficult strategic choices about how to best reroute shipping, and where to access critical supplies. Perhaps most important of all, there will be no maritime supply unless we have a naval force capable of providing the overarching protection for it.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/rethinking-australias-wartime-maritime-trade/

URLs in this post:

[1] important new report: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/trade-routes-vital-australias-economic-security

[2] minimum: https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/australia-s-essential-need-not-seaborne-trade-seaborne-supply

[3] instead rely upon supplies from the Americas: https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Oil.html?id=1yS1AAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y

[4] largest suppliers of refined fuel for Australia: https://www.energy.gov.au/energy-data/australian-petroleum-statistics

[5] statistics paints a very different picture: https://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/trade-and-investment-data-information-and-publications/trade-statistics/trade-time-series-data

[6] boomed, while others suffered badly: https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1417748

[7] world shipping crisis: https://books.google.com.au/books/about/Merchant_Shipping_and_the_Demands_of_War.html?id=m1K3AAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y

[8] effective way to protect trade is to ensure you avoid the enemy: https://www-tandfonline-com.wwwproxy1.library.unsw.edu.au/doi/abs/10.1080/01402399008437400

[9] a very precious commodity: https://www.smh-hq.org/jmh/jmhvols/813.html

[10] critical bottleneck in the Allied war effort: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/conflict-over-convoys/23D08B6187C480185B5A3EB6412C63D0

[11] naval control of shipping: https://unsworks.unsw.edu.au/entities/publication/ea5165f9-9b83-4368-93bc-7d5c4405e2f7/full

[12] protection of the merchant marine: https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20230921134616/https:/www.navy.gov.au/media-room/publications/cwealth-war-book

[13] guaranteed command of the sea: https://www.kentuckypress.com/9781949668001/decision-in-the-atlantic/

[14] guerrilla warfare at sea: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/united-states/naval-balance-not-just-numbers-game

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