James Holmes

The Geopolitics of Australia

“Australia is an island, a continent and a nation” lying at intersect of North America and the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

To travel in the Asia-Pacific is to reacquaint yourself with geography. Case in point: Australia. For Americans, Australia is Foster's, throwing meat on the barbie (a term I haven't heard once this week) at Outback Steakhouse, and Crocodile Dundee. None of those are bad things. But there's more to the country than that. A quick survey of the environs:

First, Australia is an island, a continent and a nation all at once. It bears some resemblance to the United States in that sense, albeit without even the friendly, and far from geopolitically troublesome, neighbors to its north and south. Isolated from external threats by water, Australia, like the United States, has the option — and at times displays a propensity — to turn inward, neglecting the sea and the navy. I'd be a rich Naval Diplomat if I had a dollar for every time I've heard this lament from Australian officers at this week's Sea Power Conference. Seafaring culture demands care and feeding to thrive.

Second, the nation straddles the juncture between the halves of the grand Indo-Pacific theater, or the "Indo-Asia-Pacific," to use the unwieldy, not terribly helpful term now occasionally heard in defense circles. Australia's position astride the Indo-Pacific seam could impart a horizontal, east-west character to maritime strategy. Forces based here, that is, could swing into action far more readily than could forces based at the extreme ends of the theater, such as Japan or Bahrain — home to the U.S. Seventh and Fifth fleets, respectively. A central geographic position bestows options on mariners wise enough to exploit it.

Third, such forces could range around the periphery. Australia holds an exterior position vis-a-vis Southeast Asia, outside the southern rim of the South China Sea. This makes the South China Sea unique among semi-enclosed seas. It's rather as though a massive island were positioned due east of Puerto Rico, letting the island's inhabitants maneuver outside the Caribbean and Gulf while influencing the shipping lanes connecting those expanses with the broad Atlantic. If Canberra can look east into the Pacific or west into the Indian Ocean, it can also look north into the South China Sea or operate outside the perimeter of that contested expanse. This vertical dimension, along with the horizontal dimension, adds up to a lot of vectors demanding policy and strategic attention, particularly for a middle power like Australia. An Australia attuned to its maritime surroundings should fare well managing its near seas. An inward-facing Australia could run afoul of savvier competitors.

Fourth, Australia is something like Cuba was for Mahan. Again, it occupies a blessed geographic position. It's big, and it boasts plentiful resources relative to its modest population. It would be hard if not impossible to blockade. Defenders would simply shift resources overland, using overland transport to evade the blockading force. And it's defensible. It lies largely out of reach of potential adversaries' weaponry. Forces could disperse to points around the long coastline or the continental interior to elude bombardment or a blockade.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

And finally, Australia is geographically interdependent with the islands connecting it to North America by sea. In the early 1890s, when Mahan was hectoring Washington to annex Hawaii, he pointed out that that archipelago lay along the sea lanes connecting the Panama Canal with East Asia and the routes connecting western Canada with Australia. It was the only convenient stopping point for American or British shipping amid a desolate stretch of ocean. That basic geographic fact rivets attention on the trans-Pacific seaways. The U.S. Navy and Marine campaign in the Solomon Islands (1942-1943) sought to preserve this lifeline between North America and Australia when Imperial Japan tried to sever it. South Pacific geography, then, imposes yet more demands on Canberra's and the Australian Defense Force's attention.

All in all, this is a complex and demanding environment. One wishes Australian maritime proponents well as they try to resuscitate and preserve the nation's seafaring culture. Canberra's foreign policy and strategy could come under duress without it.