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Continuity and change in Australian foreign and defence policy

By Keith Suter - posted Tuesday, 13 June 2023


There have been four historical trends in Australian thinking since 1788.

One has been the fear of invasion. An example, which does not receive enough attention in the history books, was the risk of a German invasion in World War I. Imperial Germany held a colony just north of Queensland, in German New Guinea (now part of Papua New Guinea) and had imperial ambitions for Asia and the Pacific. Its East Asia Naval Squadron, based in China, was defeated in the naval Battle of the Falklands on December 8 1914, thereby ending the biggest German naval threat to this region.

A second trend is the fear that Australia cannot defend itself. Australia has a minute population and yet is responsible for about 5 per cent of the Earth's land x`surface. Flying from Sydney to London means spending about a quarter of the journey just flying out of Australia's airspace. Australia is not only responsible for the continent, but also all the surrounding islands, each of which has a 200 mile exclusive economic zone. It is also the largest single claimant in Antarctica (with a claim about the size of Queensland).


There is therefore a need for a great and powerful friend. Traditionally this was the UK, 1788-1941, with the US taking over that role after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. As a quid pro quo, the colony of NSW sent troops to assist the UK's late 19th century military operations in Africa. Australia is the only country in the 20th century to fight alongside the US in every war in which the US was involved.

Finally, there is a low level of public engagement in this subject. Like a homeowner with an insurance policy, Australians are confident that if something goes wrong, "they" will take care of it. Sport, for example, has a much higher priority than national security in the media and public discussions.

Another continuity for about the last century is the low level of success in offensive warfare. It pays to be the defender. Germany in two World Wars, Japan and Italy in World War II, Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War (one of last century's longest conflicts), and currently Russia's invasion of Ukraine are all examples of that failure.

Technological changes may swing the pendulum back to offense, but for the moment offensive war is both illegal (under the UN Charter) and ineffective.


One change is the return of China to the global scene. About four centuries ago, China was responsible for about a quarter of global economic output. When the UK moved from being an agricultural society to a manufacturing one (in the 18th century Industrial Revolution) China stayed with an agricultural economy, and so slipped down the economic league table.

In recent decades, it has changed dramatically, with one of the world's largest migrations caused by hundreds of the millions of Chinese people leaving their ancestral agricultural villages and moving to the cities to work in factories. The UK was the "factory of the world' in the 18th century; now China holds that title.


China's "return" to global prominence (not "rise") has triggered fears of a war between China and the US. Harvard's Graham Allison has coined the expression "Thucydides Trap". Thucydides (c.460-c.400 BC) was one of the originators of the formal study of history and wrote about the clash between Athens and Sparta: an established power being challenged by a rising one.

Allison has looked at the last 500 years, and its 16 arms races, 12 of which resulted in war, such as the German challenge to the UK's global naval supremacy which led to two World Wars. He sees a similar situation today, with the US being challenged by an increasingly powerful China.

A second change is the comparative decline of the WEIRD World: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. This is the old "first" world of the US and its allies, such as Australia. The WEIRD world used to run the globe but that is now changing.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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