In the final instalment of this three-part series, Ian Kemish outlines how a concern to manage international security threats was firmly embedded in Australian national thinking in the early post-federation years, how events since then have served to entrench this view, and why it is important that we change.
Press and parliamentary debate from the early post-Federation period confirms that a concern to manage international security threats was by then the defining feature of the Australian mindset about the Pacific. Several other characteristics of today’s debate about national security were also in place. Even then, arguments in favour of greater national sovereignty in defence jostled with the belief that Australia’s security interests were best preserved through alliance with a major power that shared what we would describe today as our “values”. In the early twentieth century this was characterised in unapologetic, racial terms. Speakers in the first Australian Parliament opined that European powers might reasonably lay claim to parts of the Pacific which an underpopulated Australia could not maintain, but “the establishment of an Asiatic presence in Oceania would be a different matter” which the Commonwealth should reasonably oppose.
The militarisation of Japan from the 1890s onwards had come to be seen as a significant risk for Australia in the early post-Federation years, and Japan’s destruction of the Russian imperial naval presence in the region in the war of 1905 heightened these concerns. Britain’s decision to enter a commercial and defence alliance with this “Asian threat” in 1902 was to remain the source of considerable consternation through the post-Federation years.
In 1908 Prime Minister Deakin invited the US navy to conduct a high-profile visit to Australian ports to send a clear signal to a militarised Japan that Australia had powerful friends. This visit was welcomed in enthusiastic terms by the Australian public and press. Even then, however, there were voices critical of relying too heavily on the United States. The Bulletin’s editors said that “if Australia gets into serious trouble with its Brown Brother, there may be one chance in ten that the United States will be our ally.” These comments (unrestrained racism aside) find some reflection in the views of those Australians who argue for greater strategic autonomy today.
By the early 1900s, then, a national way of thinking had become entrenched which saw the Pacific in much the way it was depicted by government ministers and the media during the 2022 election campaign: a vast, empty, threatening region where the involvement of an alien power endangered Australian security interests.
Of course, there were to be further important developments, as the 20th century progressed which would contribute further towards the current national mindset. The full-scale war Japan waged across the Pacific in the 1940s against the US and its allies, including Australia, has been crucial in shaping Australia’s defence posture and misgivings about Pacific threats today. China’s emergence as a major power, with its aggressive approaches to regional security issues and bilateral disputes, has eroded Australian trust in China.
It must also be acknowledged that Australia’s relationships with Pacific countries have also evolved substantially since the early Federation years. Australia respected the post-war drive for independence in the Pacific, became a founding member of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), and Canberra has subsequently been a key supporter of national development aspirations in the Pacific through the investment of billions of aid dollars. There has also been substantial development in Australian diplomatic capabilities in relation to the Pacific, and Australia’s current leaders are taking a more respectful and two-way approach to regional partnerships. Criticisms might continue by Pacific leaders of Australia’s climate change policies, but our official approach has come a long way. The current Australian government seems to understand better than its predecessors that we undermine our national effort to build engagement and counter harmful influences if we project only these strategic concerns
But a broader, national cultural shift is required. The near-absence of Pacific perspectives in Australian press coverage and public discussion during the 2022 campaign and since suggests, worryingly, that our broader national perspective has still not evolved far enough since the early years of the 20th century—when there was, of course, no mention at all of how the people of the Pacific themselves might feel about things. The echoes of our early years still ring in our contemporary public discussion about the Pacific, contributing to an often-insecure, commonly narrow, projection of public views about the region.
Pacific leaders could not have made it clearer that their principal security concern is climate change. This is the central point of the PIF’s Boe Declaration on Regional Security of 2018 and other important regional statements. And they have consistently expressed their concern about the negative effects of militarisation—including by western countries, and notably at the time of the original AUKUS announcement. Their other priority, naturally enough, is progressing their own economic development, where they are as much interested in market access as aid. Genuine partnership means consistently showing that we understand and support these priorities.
But showing support for the Pacific nations as they progress their own aspirations does not require ignoring the risks which, many Pacific leaders agree, come with Chinese behaviour in the region. There are concerns about the impact of China’s aggressive public information activities on media freedoms, a lack of transparency in the links between Beijing and some regional leaders, and the potential for Chinese military and police training to undermine local commitment to freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate. The Western public narrative emphasises a concern that Beijing’s assertive maritime strategies elsewhere, from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, are guiding Beijing’s approach in the Pacific. But there is also a broader contest of values at play. The Albanese government’s predecessors, stretching back to the early colonial administrators, were not necessarily always wrong in pointing to the potential security threats arising from the activities of hostile powers in the Pacific. The real failing, then and now, has been to project only these concerns in the way we talk to, and about the Pacific. Even if the aim were only to build our own influence in the region, it is important to recognise the people who live there and to respect their perspective, which prioritises human development and the risks associated with climate change above strategic rivalries among the great and middle powers. The Pacific is not a vacant expanse, after all.
Ian Kemish AM is a Griffith Asia Institute Industry Fellow.