Australia, little country lost

Jun 5, 2023
Frederick McCubbin Lost 1907

You could hear, when Biden squibbed the Quad, the Austral-Americans deflate.

They watched aghast when Captain Ahab abandoned them, and the sinking big idea of Austral-American grand strategy, the Indo-Pacific, disappeared somewhere in the China Sea.

The idea of an international order espoused by the Austral-Americans, to honour Paul Keating’s term, is the free and open Indo-Pacific. This big idea is going the way of the Holy Roman Empire, the first Thousand Year Reich.

That first faux successor to the ancient Roman Empire, restored in the West by Charlemagne in 800, consecrated by the Catholic Pope, lingered on in decrepitude till its final elimination by Napoleon in 1806.

But the Enlightenment’s Voltaire had already used his mightier sword to decapitate this concept of international political order. The Holy Roman Empire, Voltaire wrote in 1756, was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.

And so it is with the Free and Open Indo-Pacific.

It is not free. Is New Caledonia free? Are the Falkland Islands free, or a prize of British aggression? Are those territories of American military conquest, Wake, Guam, Philippines, Hawaii or even Okinawa really, truly free? Is Australia, after AUKUS, still sovereign and free?

It is not open. The American navy patrols the trade choke points of these oceans like nuclear-armed Pirates of the Indo-Pacific. America’s trademark diplomacy is sanctions, and economic coercion has a long proud tradition in Anglo-American privateering in these oceans. Just ask China about gunboat diplomacy.

Astonishingly, it is not even the Indo-Pacific, the human and geographic reality of all the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper defined the Indo-Pacific as the “region ranging from the eastern Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean connected by Southeast Asia, including India, North Asia and the United States.” Clear as the wine-dark sea, yes? The Austral-Americans do not explain why they have no interest in the Indian Ocean, west of Mumbai, and so ignore the Gulf, whence comes our oil, and Africa, whence come many migrants and refugees. We all know why the Austral-Americans seek to turn the Pacific into a Euro-Atlantic lake.

Indian diplomats usually add a polite ‘inclusive’ to this big idea, but Australian elites struggle to do that sincerely. The Austral-Americans would have to admit these geostrategic masterminds had ignored Russia and contained China. They had left out two great Pacific powers. Surely, the Austral-American planners of the dud subs of AUKUS know the Russian nuclear submarine fleet sails from the Sea of Okhostk?

The Indo-Pacific concept charts an unreliable map of the multipolar world. No wonder Australia is a little country lost. But our broken policy elites insist they know the way home. Some Austral-Americans even lay claim to inventing this concept and convincing America to take this misread map seriously.

But wiser heads, who know these oceans well, are not so readily fooled. Dr S. Jaishankar, Indian External Affairs Minister, and its former Foreign Affairs Department Head, wrote about the many claimants to this big idea in his The Indian Way (2020). He described the long, true history of exchange across these seas, before and after the British.

“The Indo-Pacific may be in fashion as a strategic concept now. But it has been an economic and cultural fact for centuries. After all, Indians and Arabs have left their imprint all the way up to the eastern coast of China, just as the people of South-East Asia did on Africa. In fact, this reality is not remote at all and the seamlessness of waters only sharpened the appetite of the Western powers who entered it. The British Empire operated its own version of the Indo-Pacific that was neither free nor open.”

For too long, Australia has been a little country lost, crying out to Uncle Sam, who is cruising by in the South Pacific. Perhaps Foreign Minister Wong should take some time out when she next visits India, and learn from Dr Jaishankar, or even read the Mahabharata, which shaped his world view so profoundly.

At the very least she could follow his lead and ask true professionals to conduct a searching audit of our foreign policy. I do not expect she will. But if she did, what options might appear?

The last fifteen years of disastrous foreign policy make it hard. We cannot make a hard pivot to China. We have chained ourselves to a dying empire.

At the very least, Australia could stop listening to the bad advice of the lost Austral-American geo-strategists. We could ignore Elbridge Colby and Rory Medcalf. We could put in the dustbin of history, their Mackinder and Mahan, and that bitter Polish émigré, Brzenzinski. Anglo-American dreams of world dominion have distorted our foreign policy imagination for too long.

We could use the better map, charted by India. Australian elites might read Dr Jaishankar’s book, The Indian Way. They might heed his advice, and follow his determined course. After all India, the great victim of Britain’s last Indo-Pacific strategy, can see through the fog of America’s Indo Pacific strategy, the latest vision of a new unholy Eastern Roman Empire.

Then we could stand with India in the Quad, rather than kneel before the USA.

If we do, we might find ourselves not an outpost of dying Atlantic empires, but an assertive, cooperative neighbour of the most dynamic zone of the world. The Yuxi Circle, a 4000 km circle radiating from Yuxi in Myanmar, includes more than 4.3 billion talented people, astonishing civilisations, and precious resources. We might realise we border this circle, unlike Britain, unlike America.

We might finally put to rest Mackinder’s ghost, and his dream that America and Britain together can control the world island by controlling its heartland, Russia, and looting her resources. We might see opportunities to join the Indian and Pacific oceans with the northern, thawing sea route, the Arctic, controlled by another great, commodity-trading Asia-Pacific coastal power.

We might work with India to partner with the Great Ocean states, those small island states that we still sometimes patronisingly call ‘our Pacific family’.

We might even learn to be civil again to China, and to Russia.

In penance, we might blind the cyclops in our heart, Pine Gap, and take out one of the evil five eyes of the world. And then Australia might do something to bring peace and order to a multipolar world. We might recreate one of our few notable cultural achievements, an open, tolerant multicultural society, in the diplomatic palaces of the world.

Then, the little country, Australia, may no longer be lost in space, and finally see itself clearly one of the great, trading, host islands off the southern tip of coastal Eurasia.

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