IAN BOWIE. Australia’s Place in the World

Sep 25, 2019

In geopolitics, Geography matters. Dimensions such as distance, relative location, area, terrain and economic reach between countries all influence how countries are positioned in the shifting sands of global power. Australian perceptions of geographic dimensions are often distorted by the manner in which our continent is shown on maps of the globe.

A useful corrective to these perceptions is available online in Tom Epperly’s tool for generating azimuthal maps at https://ns6t.net/azimuth/azimuth.html. An azimuthal equidistant map shows all points on the map at proportionally correct distances from the centre of the map, along azimuths or lines from the centre; north (0/360°) need not be toward the top.

Thus, an azimuthal map centred on Canberra with azimuths projected out to include the entirety of the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans and the land areas draining into them shows Australia to be towards the centre of an oceanic hemisphere and geographically remote except from the nearby islands of Indonesia and the south west Pacific.

This map shows Australia as geographically isolated (which is even clearer if the map is rotated clockwise). Other azimuthal maps generated similarly, centred on Beijing, Washington, London and Delhi, also suggest that Australia is unlikely to be in the forefront of their geopolitical thinking.

Canberra is more than half way across the globe (more than 10,000km) from North America, nearer to Africa, nearer to Antarctica and nearer still to parts of south-east Asia. It is nearer to south-east Asia than to India or China, while its distance from China is similar to that of Alaska (which is rather closer to China than any of the coterminous states of the United States of America).

In this perspective it is hard to see Australia as either a prime target or an indispensable partner in any economic or military confrontation between northern hemisphere powers. As a small middle-order power Australia would have little impact on the outcome of any such confrontation and might simply be ignored until after the confrontation.

Of course, Australia might chose to become involved in such a confrontation for reasons that could include: a desire to maintain global order; a need to protect vulnerable trade routes; a need to secure porous borders (including air and cyberspace); and a lack of capacity to ‘go it alone’ regionally for example in meeting obligations to its island neighbours.

However, such a choice would not be an imperative. Even though the importance of relative location in geopolitics has diminished in a globalised world, the Canberra-centred map appears to support a need for Australia to take a more self-reliant political, economic and military stance in its foreign policy than Australians have become accustomed to.

In its geographical isolation, Australia is exposed on many fronts. Australia’s foreign policy needs to be based on more than memories of the protective umbrella of a mother country (or of the World War II scenario in which Australia was important in the United States’ island-hopping strategy to regain its influence in the western Pacific).

Geography suggests that it is impracticable for Australia to seek to project power across the globe when it is exposed within its own geopolitical neighbourhood. Australia needs to start securing its interests closer to home.

Ian Bowie is a retired Australian academic. He taught and researched in geography, environmental management and town & country planning in universities in New Zealand, Australia and Scotland.

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