The Geopolitics of Australia
The study of international relations frequently focuses on policy, both those who make policy and the policies that are made. Embedded in this model is the assumption that policy makers have power and given power, have choices. Obviously to some extent that’s true, but far more important than policy options are policy constraints. The things that cannot be done define the menu for policy makers.
Geopolitics is frequently used as an alternative term for “international system.” It is, in my view, more properly a method for understanding how the international system works. Geopolitics assumes two things. First, it assumes commonality in human nature. When confronted by physical reality, humans are more alike than culture might predict. Second, it is focused on place. The characteristics of the place where a community or nation are located define the fears and needs of that community. Politics and geography are intimately related. Obviously I am not arguing that this is the sole determinant of national policy. I am arguing that it is a critical element and that, therefore, understanding Australia’s geopolitics is critical to understanding how it behaves in the world.
Let’s begin with the simplest and most well known facts. Australia occupies a continental island. The island’s geography and climate is such that large-scale human habitation is impossible in vast areas of the country. The center-of-gravity of the Australian population is in the southeast corner of the country with over 80 percent living in urban areas. Half of Australia’s population lives in three cities: Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. The peculiar distribution of Australia’s population is one of the foundations of its national security.
The Australian island faces blue water on three sides, with significant, populated landmasses thousands of miles away. The exception is New Zealand, which lacks the resources to pose any threat to Australia. The closest landmasses lie to the north, on the line Java-New Guinea-Guadalcanal. Rather than posing a threat to Australia, this line serves as a shield against threats from Asia. The geography of the line makes it hard for an invader to occupy and hold and harder still for an invader to use it as a base of operations.
Australia’s national security is therefore based on three things. First, it would require a huge effort to invade Australia from the West, South or East. In the West and South there are no jumping off points. In the east, a power that held New Caledonia might, over time, be able to build up forces for an invasion. However from where there are powers that might invade Australia and where there are jumping off points for an invasion, Australia is protected by two factors.
First, the jumping off points are, as I have said, hard to take, harder to exploit. Second, an invasion of Australia from the north would face the reality that Australia’s population distribution means that seizing northern or northeastern Australia achieves nothing. Over a thousand miles of poor or non-existing roads over which an army could hardly be supplied separates the north from the Australia heartland.
The Japanese encountered Australia’s double shield. First, Japan failed to capture New Guinea. Second, it realized that an invasion anywhere along Australia’s northern coast would be pointless. Thus, any attack from East Asia southward would first have to deal with the archipelago blocking access to Australia and then deal with the fact that in many ways, Australia is at the other end of the island. Even if Indonesia unified and developed sufficiently to possess the ability to mount an attack on Australia, it would face a grueling fight against killing country before it could begin to engage Australia.
From a military standpoint, therefore, Australia is one of the most secure countries in the world. It is in a fairly isolated region, and where vulnerable, geography works in its favor. At no time in its history, including World War II, did it face a serious threat of defeat and occupation. It is therefore interesting that Australia has spent so much of its history engaged in warfare. Indeed, there are many Australian policy makers who have argued that Australia’s national strategy does not require significant military expenditures. Yet Australians have fought in Africa, Europe and Asia. This is the mystery of Australian geopolitics that has to be explained.
Australia has a Gross Domestic Product of about $1 trillion USD. It exports about $160 billion a year and imports about the same amount. Nearly half of its exports are minerals (including gold) and 10 percent agricultural products. Although nearly 70 percent of Australia’s economy is service based, only about 20 percent of its exports are services and 17 percent are industrial. Put another way, 80 percent of Australia’s exports, about $128 billion must be physically transported from Australia to its customers. Of this amount about $77 billion dollars worth are coal and iron ore. 7 percent of Australia’s GDP derives from the export of these two bulk commodities alone.
About 40 percent of Australia’s exports go to Japan, China and South Korea in that order. Exports to these countries are overwhelmingly minerals and agricultural. The United States, Great Britain and New Zealand import about 17 percent of Australia’s exports, with a higher percentage of services. About half of all U.S. and British imports from Australia consist of services. 33 percent of Australia’s imports come from China, Japan and Singapore, while about 13 percent come from the United States and 20 percent come from Europe. The majority of all imports from all sources are industrial and petroleum related.
It is clear that Australia is not self-sufficient. As with many nations it depends on international trade to maintain its standard of living. Were all international trade suspended, Australia would not collapse. It would, however, suffer a significant contraction of its standard of living. Where Australia differs from most other countries is in two respects. First, and by far the most important, it is completely dependent on maritime trade, a characteristic it shares with other island countries. Second, it is very heavily dependent on low cost per pound exports, more so than other industrial countries. In exporting ores it must utilize more ships relative to value than other major nations as far as its exports are concerned.
This dependency is Australia’s vulnerability. If for any reason its international trade were to be disrupted, Australia would not be destroyed but it would be crippled. Australia is like an armored creature, invulnerable to all attack, save for its circulatory system, which lies outside its armor and is beyond the animal’s protection. Rather than being more secure than most countries, Australia is actually less secure because it does not have the means for either guaranteeing the appetite of foreign customers for its goods, or protecting the sea lanes for its shipping. It is also inconceivable that Australia would be able to accumulate the power needed to secure its trading interests. Therefore, Australia is a country whose prosperity at least, is beyond its power to control. Rather than being geopolitically secure, it is continually vulnerable and in a state of dependence on others.
In terms of numbers of ships, the major routes from Australia run from east coast ports to Japan, passing between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Another route is to Chinese ports through the Lombok Straits. Other routes connect to the United States and to Europe, but it is the route to East Asia that is both critical and inherently vulnerable in three ways—blockade in the archipelago, blockade at trading partners’ ports and, obviously, disruptions in trading partners markets.
Over the past few years we have seen the emergence of piracy at the Horn of Africa. For the first time in many decades, a sub-national group has been able to disrupt shipping on a major trading route. This has forced a multi-national task force to be formed in order to combat it. It has, to some extent, been successful, but it has created massive overhead, both in insurance, the cost of naval deployment, and occasional ransoms.
Modern merchant vessels are not built to defend themselves. They have small crews and depending on the cargo, a firefight could be disastrous. A speedboat with a small armed and determined crew has been shown to be quite capable of capturing a merchant ship, some carrying cargoes of substantial value. In the case of Somalia, the pirates are motivated both by the desire for money and political ends. The money they get as ransom allows them to buy weapons which makes them more powerful in their internal fights. The fact that they have these political goals is what keeps the situation under control. If for some reason they shifted from a seize and ransom mode to a seize and sink mode, the viability of the Suez route would be much more precarious.
The Java-PNG-Solomons route is filled with passages that could be vulnerable to this tactic, and with any number of groups that might at some point resort to such tactics. Moreover, there is far more sophisticated means available for interdicting shipping than is being used at the Horn of Africa. In the narrow passages, unsophisticated artillery might be used. It has been over thirty years since the first generation of anti-ship cruise missiles were introduced. Should this technology proliferate to small guerrilla forces, they could easily shut down maritime traffic in particular straits. Should a major power in the region decide that it is in their interests to sponsor a widespread guerrilla rising, Australian trade would be blocked or forced to reroute on expensive routes. Given tight price competition on some of Australia’s exports, this could have a substantial impact on Australia.
There is a final consideration—the possibility of Indonesia stabilizing and strengthening dramatically. Given the divisions in Indonesia this might be improbable, but certainly not impossible, particularly if another great power, such as China or the United States, saw that it was in its interest to underwrite. Were that to happen, then passage through these waters would be at Indonesia’s discretion, an unpredictable situation. Similarly there is the possibility of a major power occupying all or part of Indonesia, and blocking Australian access.
A second class of interdiction would be a military confrontation between one of Australia’s major customers and a foreign power, the most obvious example being a confrontation between China and the United States. The United States has a massive advantage at sea, just as it has a disadvantage anywhere on the mainland of Asia. One of the favorite American responses to political challenges is the imposition of sanctions, which frequently includes interdiction of shipping.
The Chinese regard a blockade by the United States of southern Chinese ports as the single greatest threat they face. The United States regards this as its single most effective weapon against China. Neither side is anywhere close to such a confrontation, and it is properly unthinkable at the moment. But geopolitics teaches us to focus on capabilities, because intentions shift and are frequently shaped by uncontrollable forces. Prior to September 11, no American was contemplating a war in Afghanistan. In addition, Australian strategy, like that of all countries, must be shaped by worse case scenarios, as they are quite common.
A third scenario would be conditions that would decrease appetite for Australian goods. This could range from economic dysfunction to internal social unrest to international trade tensions leading to trade wars that Australia gets caught up in. Obviously, economic dysfunction such as the financial crisis of 2008 is beyond Australia’s control. But it was not inconceivable that some of the countries involved might have responded in ways that made Australian exports uncompetitive or which blocked them altogether. Should there be unrest in China for any reason, such as increased labor unrest, access to ports could be blocked.
Most important is the fact that Australia, as a trade dependent country requires an international trade regime that secures its interests. Since Australia lacks the weight in the international system to impose a desirable regime, it must be part of a coalition pursuing those ends. If there is no coalition whose interest aligns with Australia’s, should Australia’s coalition lose, or should the fabric of the international trading system tear apart, Australia by itself would not be in a position to secure its interests.
Australia, rather than being in a secure corner of the world, actually lives in a complex and dangerous universe. It is not an existential threat: Australia’s survival is not at stake, but a cut in GDP from international instability could certainly put pressure on Australia’s social fabric and has the ability to push it into depression under certain circumstances.
Australia’s geopolitical problem is that its national interest cannot be managed through its national power. Its interests stretch far beyond Australia, but its power does not. The geopolitical reality of a large country with a small population heavily dependent on international trade produces the need for a national strategy that goes beyond hoping for the best.
Australia does not have to spend money on homeland defense, beyond what is needed for counter-terrorism. It is not possible logistically to invade Australia, nor is there any power that would wish to do so. There are few countries that wish Australia harm. Australia’s danger is that other powers, in pursuing interests that have nothing to do with Australia, will act in such a way as to harm Australian interests.
Australia has no choice but to align with a greater power. In doing so, it must choose a power that needs Australia for its own ends and would therefore be interested in protecting Australia’s national interest. It would be an asymmetric relationship in which Australia would need the relationship more than its larger partner. Therefore, the partner would always be in a position to extract some price from Australia. The greater the dependency, the higher the price would be. It follows from this that it is in Australia’s interest to minimize dependency by managing its own security interests as far as possible.
These interests divide, as we have seen, into three parts. First, protect the sea lanes south of and through the Java-PNG-Solomons line in order to minimize cost of transport for minerals and agricultural goods. Second, maintain access to Chinese and other Asian ports. Third, maintain a global trade regime that benefits Australia.
The second and third strategic imperatives are beyond Australia’s ability to control. The first might be controlled by Australia but only at a substantial expense. Maintaining control over these waters is not simply a question of a naval force. The threat to shipping could come from land-based launchers. Aircraft would be needed to strike the launchers and ground forces needed to take and hold territory from which missiles might be fired. In the end, it is not clear that Australia could build a force sufficient to the mission, and certainly not in the time frame in which the problem might arise. If the problem came from a united Indonesia or from a major foreign power, Australia’s force might be insufficient. It might just be more cost effective to take the long way around. Moreover, securing the archipelago would not touch the other problems. Australia would be investing a great deal of money on a strategy that might mitigate one problem (and might not) without touching the others.
The strategy of non-alignment, as we have seen suffers from the fact that Australia’s interest might be damaged without any ill intention on the part of anyone. Japan in 1942 did not have Australia in its sights. The damage it did Australia was incidental to its other interests. The second option is alignment, raising the question of who to align with.
In creating alliances, where there are options, it is best to ally with the country that poses the greatest danger to you. By doing so, Australia achieves two ends. It eliminates its worst potential enemy as a threat and it is able to draw on its power. The key is that the worst potential enemy must have sufficient power to support you in pursuing your ends, and would be motivated to do so.
In the case of Australia, the worst potential enemy is always whoever is the world’s greatest maritime power. Australia is a maritime nation. A great maritime power has the ability to do tremendous damage to Australia. It also has the ability to guarantee some if not all of Australia’s interests. Thus, for example, from its founding until 1942, Australia was aligned with Great Britain. Britain not only refrained from harming Australia but also protected Australia’s sea-lanes while allowing it access to the British trading regime—the Empire.
The British case is important to consider. There were certainly feelings of mutual affinity, but that did not mean that the British did not extract a high price for maintaining the relationship. Britain’s problem was that it was maintaining an Empire with insufficient force. The Empire was under constant attack and Britain required Australian military support; the Boer War, the First and Second World War all cost Australia dearly. It was the price Australia had to pay for a relationship with the world’s major maritime power. Australia could have chosen to abstain from these wars but the consequence would have been substantial vulnerability. It could have chosen to ally with Germany or Japan, but neither could guarantee Australia’s interests, and each had interests that could make alliance a trap. Whatever sentimentality was attached to the British-Australian relationship, it was in fact a cold-blooded exchange of maritime security for support in Britain’s wars.
Australia necessarily stands in the same relationship with the current dominant maritime power, the United States. No country could hurt Australia as much as the United States could. Whether in some form of conflict with China, or with some sort of strategic alliance with Indonesia, the United States could place Australia in an extraordinarily difficult position without meaning too. Should the United States wish to hurt Australia, it could do so with little risk to itself and with great effect. Given American power and unpredictability, aligning with the United States and thereby neutralizing some threats while causing the United States to take Australian interests into consideration in dealing with other threats is the starting point of an Australia strategy.
The United States has the ability to support or supplant Australia in maintaining secure paths through the archipelago. Whatever force Australia constructs would ultimately be insufficient for this task and the Australians would have to call on an outside power anyway. Only the United States has the force needed to supplement Australia. However, this would not be a primary concern to the United States. Therefore, as with Britain, the Australians would have to pay a price elsewhere, as it is doing, fighting in American wars.
The problem with the relationship with the United States is that while the quid pro quo of support in the archipelago for Australian troops in Iraq or Afghanistan is stable and mutually beneficial, the United States and Australia have differing interests in China. For Australia, China is a critical market. For the United States, China is a troubling supplier. Expressed in terms of the Yuan or tariffs, the United States wants to limit the amount of goods China sells in the United States. That hits Australia in two ways. First it would reduce the amount of raw materials China needs. Second it opens the door for a Sino-American trade war that would trap Australia between a great customer and its strategic partner.
This is the problem that Australia must manage. China is as much a maritime victim as Australia. Its Navy is quite weak particularly in terms of significant surface vessels. It has no ability to conduct major fleet operations at a distance, and certainly not in the face of U.S. opposition. Aligning with China—or Japan—would not solve the Australian sea-lane problem nor would it address the other two problems. First, what would happen if the U.S. blockaded China? Second, what would happen if China’s appetite for minerals declined for economic reasons or social unrest? On the other side of the equation, should U.S.-Chinese hostility spiral out of control, Australia would find itself on the wrong side of a major customer.
The rational Australian response it seems, would be to eschew both alliance possibilities and remain neutral. That would leave it with the archipelago problem as well as being frozen out of China’s markets by U.S. unilateral action. Neutrality gains very little. The desire to stay out of trouble doesn’t mean that trouble won’t find you.
There is finally the international trading regime to consider. The Australians aligned with the British in order to be part of the Empire, a trading scheme. The current international trading system is certainly not under the control of the United States, but at about 25 percent of the world’s GDP, the United States has substantial influence. The shape of the international trading system, whether the British Empire or the World Trade Organization is a matter of fundamental importance to Australia, as is access to the American markets on favorable terms.
On the whole, the alliance that Australia has chosen would seem rational, even with the price that it must pay, which is participation in American wars. The price is not as high as the British charged, but then the United States guarantee of economic security for Australia is in no way as air tight. There are risks on all sides. It would appear that the risks of an American alliance are substantially smaller than other alliances. But it is not a relationship without risk.
We have now moved from a vision of Australia as a secure and prosperous country, to a vision of Australia with complex and potentially dangerous choices in its foreign policy. Australia is a maritime trading country that is too weak to protect its maritime interests. In addition it trades with countries that are far more powerful than it is, and that do not take Australian interests into account in making their plans. This creates a dangerous world for Australia and one in which it must make choices that carry risks with them. As important, not making a choice can carry the greatest risk. Australia’s survival might not be at stake, but potentially, its well-being is at stake. Australia cannot eliminate its dangers, but it can try to control them, albeit at a high price.
In the end, I would argue that the policy that Australia is following is the most rational one. This is not surprising. What would be surprising is to find a sophisticated nation-state following policies that are not in its interest. Geopolitics argues that nations that don’t follow their interest don’t survive, and that therefore nations that exist follow their self-interest. That may appear tautological but is not. It simply means that when leaders face choices, they find far fewer available than students of public policy might think. Politicians are trapped by circumstances.
Certainly Australia is trapped by its circumstance. The same thing that guarantees Australia’s survival, its geography, threatens its well being. For all of its history, it has had to make itself of value to greater powers in order to secure its strategic interest. Being useful has frequently meant sending its children to fight it’s partner’s war. Soldiers are what great powers need the most and for which they will pay the highest price. In the end, this is what the geopolitics of Australia comes down to.