Soundings Papers: Australian Rendezvous: Maritime Strategy and National Destiny in the 21st Century

Soundings No. 12
Soundings No. 12

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Michael Evans

In national security affairs what often marks Australia’s experience is an insular imagination, a feature that is most striking when it comes to understanding the importance of the sea. Despite being an island-continent dependent on seaborne trade, Australia has undergone a two-century long adolescence in appreciating the significance of the sea in strategy. This situation is largely due to the historical circumstances of European settlement and the dominance of first Britain, and then the United States, at sea in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. The great umbrella of British and American naval power has long allowed Australia to adopt an attitude of mare incognitum. As a result, although the country is ‘girt by sea’, the most important aspect of Australian identity is a not a sense of island-awareness but a continental consciousness that manifests itself through a literature that celebrates landscape and a martial tradition that upholds the exploits of soldiers.

Yet, in the first quarter of the 21st century, there is growing evidence to suggest that Australia’s historical indifference towards the significance of the sea is being eroded by the geopolitical transformation of the Asia-Pacific region into the world’s new economic heartland. In January 2013, the Gillard government’s national security strategy reflected this transformation in global power by stating, ‘we are entering a new national security era in which the economic and strategic change occurring in our region will be the most significant influence on our national security environment and policies’. Similarly, Australia’s 2012 Asian White Paper notes that, “as the global centre of gravity shifts to our region, the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity”. More recently, the 2016 Defence White Paper affirms that “the geography of the archipelago to Australia’s immediate north will always have particular significance to our security”.