This is the first in a three-part series in which GAI Industry fellow Ian Kemish AM explores the history of Australia’s public mindset towards the Pacific. This series is drawn from a longer recent article in the Australian Journal of Politics and History which can be found here.
The Morrison Government’s burnishing of its national security credentials during the 2022 federal election campaign, and its depiction of the Pacific region as a geo-strategic theatre brimming with threats from an increasingly assertive China, combined awkwardly with the revelation that Solomon Islands had secretly finalised a security agreement with Beijing on the coalition’s watch. This was to lead the Australian press to devote an unusual level of attention to developments in the Pacific, with Australia’s approach to the region becoming something of a battleground in the struggle to win government. This coverage, and accompanying commentary from Australian public figures, tended to depict the region as nothing more than a vacant expanse full of risk, where China was locked in a dangerous contest with the West, led by Australia as its chief representative in the region.
This narrative reflected a natural media interest in the competing national security credentials of the two domestic political sides. And China’s undoubtedly more active military posture in the region, combined with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the “no-limits” partnership between these two autocracies, made the geo-strategic picture an important story of public interest. But the near-absence of reference in the public debate to the people of the region themselves—the challenges they face, especially climate change, their priorities, and their aspirations—seemed to confirm a sense in the Pacific that Australian public interest in the region is only aroused when other major powers are threatening to move in on our “backyard”, to use a habitual, neo-colonialist term that was redeployed during the campaign. In other words, strategic denial is the overwhelming motivation or instinct underlying both the Australian Government’s approach and the Australian public mindset where the Pacific is concerned.
There are long-standing historical foundations for the depiction of the Pacific as only a place of threat, rather than collaboration or opportunity, and the near-exclusive accompanying focus on denying strategic space to foreign powers which we believe represent threats to our interests and values. It is important to understand how this defensive Australian mindset toward the Pacific has emerged throughout our history. Self-knowledge is generally accepted as an important precondition for behavioural change. And change really is needed.
The impression our public narrative creates—that Australians are more interested in excluding others than they are in the region itself – is regrettable because it devalues the collective efforts of generations of Australians, including diplomats, soldiers, aid specialists, traders and even politicians who have engaged with the region in an open and positive spirit. It also ignores the thousands of people who are connected through family, cultural and other historic ties with both Australia and the Pacific. And importantly, the adverse perception we encourage through our public discourse also risks undermining legitimate Australian diplomatic efforts to build constructive influence in the region and, in the process, to manage the truly detrimental effects of Chinese behaviour in the region—more on this in the third post in this series.
Australia’s First Nations people had their own links with the region, and of course there were strong links between the people of the Torres Strait and Melanesia in particular. A desire to deny the Pacific to others can first be identified as a train of thought in the original planning for the New South Wales colony. The earliest proponents of the project in London argued that it would provide a base from which to attack Spanish commerce in the ocean, and a desire to deny French occupation of what was to become Australia was also clearly in the minds of the colonial architects. In 1786, British Home Secretary Lord Sydney noted that a settlement at Botany Bay would “be a means of preventing the emigration of Our European Neighbours to that Quarter”.
The first Australian administrators believed that they had been charged by their imperial masters with authority over the Pacific. Governor Arthur Philip’s appointment made him “Governor in Chief” of not only the eastern half of the Australian continent, but also “the islands adjacent in the Pacific Ocean within the latitudes aforesaid of 10°370’ South, and 43°390’ South,” a vast expanse of ocean radiating out from the eastern coastline between Cape York in the north and the southern tip of Tasmania. Here lay the seeds of an attitude of Australian “ownership” towards the Pacific.
The next post reviews how this mindset evolved through the 19th century amidst a strong sense of isolation and multiple perceived threats to the Australian colonies.
Ian Kemish AM is a Griffith Asia Institute Industry Fellow.