21st-Century Geopolitics Of Oceania: Australia
Australia is a massive continent-country located in in a far-flung, yet nevertheless strategic, corner of the world. The nation of a little less than 25 million people is highly developed, yet the economy is disproportionately dependent on commodity exports. Australia is the world’s top iron ore producer and exporter, its biggest coal exporter, and the second-largest LNG exporter (expected to become the largest by 2020), so Canberra is clearly a natural resource force to be reckoned with on the global marketplace. This has been both a blessing and a curse; a godsend in times of high prices, but a structural weakness when the markets are oversaturated and prices collapse. In spite of this, the country has been unable to adequately diversify to the point where its economy is no longer jolted by a decrease in demand from its top trading partner, China, such as in the steel industry for example, and the free trade agreement signed between both countries in 2015 has diminished the prospects that this relationship will change anytime in the future.
Even so, Australia is in a unique position because its economy is heavily dependent on Chinese commodity consumption while its political orientation is decisively pro-Western and at times antagonistic to Beijing’s interests, especially concerning Canberra’s approach to the South China Sea. Just like with its dependency on commodity exports, this too could be seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Australia could keenly balance between the existing Unipolar World Order that it’s already a part of while simultaneously making inroads to find its place in the emerging Multipolar World Order, but it just so happens that the heavy pressure coming from the former’s American hegemon has interfered with this delicate process and more often than not leads to counterproductive stances on key international issues. The reason why all of this is important to pay attention to in the first place is because the continent-country sits at the southernmost edge of the Indo-Pacific crossroads, and a shift in its geostrategic loyalty could be game-changer in the 21st century.
In seeking to better understand the situation in the land “down under”, the research will list several key trends that the author has identified and then briefly elaborate on each of them below. The point isn’t to present a fully comprehensive view of all of the disparate influences impacting Australia’s future trajectory, but rather to introduce the most important ones and explain their relevancy to the reader. It’s hoped that this work can stimulate a broader discussion within Australian society and beyond about the role that this continent-country is slated to play in the coming decades, and that this conversation can then have a meaningful effect on altering the course of the debate.
Without further ado, the research will begin by talking about Australia’s domestic issues and then transition to its geopolitical ones.
The Ideological Laboratory
One of the most interesting things about Australia is that its distant geography has allowed “radical” ideologies to flourish here, especially those which would have otherwise been snuffed out or suppressed in their home countries or regions. For example, Macedonian expatriates kept their country’s nationalism alive during the Cold War in ways that were impossible to express during the time of Communist Yugoslavia, just as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) did the same for the decades that their party was banned until its legalization by Damascus in 2005. For a period of time, both ideologies were seen as “radical” by their relevant authorities and the Australian community played an important role in keeping them alive and relevant, but they eventucvally became “mainstream” in their home regions after a while and were consequently proselytized there afterwards by those same Australian expatriates who nurtured them during the extended interim.
The instances of Macedonian nationalism and the SSNP might be seen by many as “positive” examples of this phenomenon, but there are also many negative ones as well, with the first ones that come to mind being Croatia’s Nazi-era Ustashe movement (whitewashed by their supporters as “Croatian nationalists”) and the Wahhabis that fled for Australia during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War. These latter two groups bided their time in the “down under” until the “opportune” moment arrived for them to return to spreading their ideologies in their homeland. This saw some members of the Ustashe and Wahhabi communities provide material, and in some cases, even personnel, support to their relevant international conflicts and lobbying groups in the Balkans and the Mideast, respectively, which in a sense turned them into indirect Hybrid War weapons against their fellow compatriots “back home”.
It’s here where Australia’s grand strategy in willingly functioning as an ideological laboratory comes into play. Canberra and its Western/unipolar backers know that a wide variety of people have immigrated to the continent-country, many of whom have historically fled conflicts in their homelands, so it’s useful to monitor, cultivate, guide, and then deploy (whether physically or virtually via online networks) some of these forces back to their countries of origin after a period of time, whether during “opportune circumstances” or with the intent of provoking the aforesaid, in order to yield tangible political gains or advance a larger plan. This by no means should be taken as blanket statement inferring that all diaspora groups and movements are exploited in this way, but just that some of them nevertheless are, though with the risk of tremendous blowback such as what has already been seen through the Australian state’s relationship with Wahhabism.
Australia’s role as an ideological laboratory contributed to the government’s “multicultural” approach to immigration and consequent neglect in integrating and assimilating new arrivals. After decades of this dangerous policy, the country is facing a serious identity crisis which has resulted in a flurry of cultural clashes over a broad array of issues curiously reminiscent of those that Americans have recently fought with one another over, thereby allowing one to draw some parallels between the two immigrant-founded countries. Just like the US, Australia used to be a majority-European-descended state which attempted to foster a unique sense of national identity, but its demographics have changed in recent decades as a result of different immigration influxes. That in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean that the definition of an “American” or “Australian” had to change either, but it’s just that their governments also began to embrace the ideals of hyper-liberalism during the mid-20th century which correspondingly eroded their established national identities after some time.
What’s happening in both societies right now is that they’re undergoing a tumultuous period of multisided civil society conflict between their native-born populations and immigrants on one hand, and Traditional Conservatives and Revolutionary Progressivists. The immigrant component of the first pair can be broadly divided into European/Caucasian (“white”) and non-European/non-Caucasian (“non-white”), with the latter further being differentiated by religion, usually perceived as Christian and non-Christian. As for the Traditional Conservatives, these can be broken down into two groups – cultural and religious – with the latter placing an important emphasis on Christian and non-Christian, and the second thereof being mostly relevant if the individuals are Salafists/”Islamists”. Concerning the Revolutionary Progressivists, they’re oftentimes conflated with “Cultural Marxists”, which is just a more well-known term for the hyper-liberal dismantlement of all traditional aspects of society under the pretense of “advancing equality” in order to build a “utopia”.
Australia, following in the footsteps of the US, has become ultra-diverse throughout its existence, and the many years in which the government failed to assimilate and integrate the millions of new arrivals on its soil meant that the identity polarization and separate sense of civic nationalism (if they even have one) was exacerbated to dangerous proportions, ergo the many culture clashes that are breaking out as a result. Although outsiders might assume the simplistic stereotype of an older Caucasian-descended native-born Australian Christian supporting Traditional Conservatism in the face of a younger non-Caucasian immigrant non-Christian advocating for Revolutionary Progressivism, the reality is that the identity matrix has gotten to the cross-cutting point where a younger Chinese-descended native-born Australian Christian might embrace Traditional Conservatism while an older Caucasian immigrant non-Christian tries to push “Cultural Marxism”. In short, the situation is approaching the point of an Hobbesian clash between a mishmash of identity groups, with the overall impact of even minor disputes being accentuated by Australia’s relatively small population size.
Perth vs. Sydney
No serious tensions exist between the two Australian coasts, but what needs to be emphasized is that they’re moving in opposite geopolitical directions from one another. Perth, the largest city in the Western half of the continent-country, is oriented by virtue of its Indian Ocean location towards India and Africa, making it in a sense a “Little Britain” which could participate in New Delhi and Tokyo’s “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor”, also known as the “Freedom Corridor”. Sydney, the country’s largest city and also the biggest one in the Eastern part of Australia, is situated on the Pacific Coast and is the center of China and the US’ business dealings, thereby making it a crucial node in trans-Pacific connectivity. Neither city is rivaling the other, nor do they ever even have to, because the wisest strategy that Australian decision makers could pursue would be if they chose to take advantage of their country’s unique geopolitical location in serving as an Indo-Pacific balancing force.
Australia would benefit the most if it used its position to equally pursue relations with Africa, India, Indonesia, China, the US, and Latin America, though of course understanding the obvious limitations to this given the continent-country’s small population size and attendant market one too. Also, it’s not exactly as conveniently positioned as the ASEAN states are, meaning that there would need to be incentives for others to want to do business with it, one of which could turn out to be its strong-performing currency’s favorable exchange rate. Another value-added differentiator that Australia could provide to its partners might be skilled labor and technical expertise, especially if it found a way to integrate its citizens into larger transoceanic trading networks (the “Freedom Corridor” and China’s New Silk Roads) as managers or other high-end positions following the stratagem that Singapore is poised to apply. If Australia can successfully find a way to leverage Perth and Sydney’s divergent geopolitical trajectories, then it can achieve a comfortable equilibrium in the New Cold War and find a suitable place in the emerging Multipolar World Order.
“Big Brother” Of The South Pacific
Although the potential theoretically exists for Australia to behave as a responsible multipolar actor in the future, its history is littered with examples of it acting as the vanguard of unipolarity in its region. The greatest example of this has to do with its late 19th-century annexation of Papua and post-World War I occupation of New Guinea, which collectively represented its first major forays in trying to be the “Big Brother” of the South Pacific’s Melanesian region. Later on, and most notably in leading the 2003-2017 “Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands” (RAMSI), Australia was the Western spearhead in “keeping the peace” in its neighborhood, fulfilling the role that all of the US’ other main allies are expected to perform in perpetuating American interests abroad via the “Lead From Behind” stratagem.
Australia, however, isn’t just behaving this way because it’s to the grand strategic interests of its unipolar Great Power patrons, but due to the Neo-Realist self-interested imperatives that are driving it to do so. At the time that it began its annexation of Papua, Australia generally conceived of itself as an “island of civilization surrounded by barbarians”, inferring that it had a “civilizing mission” that it was obligated to pursue. As time went on, however, the continent-country began to conceive of other reasons for why it had to continue being the regional hegemon, with the most popular unstated goal being to protect Australian national security from its behemoth neighbor of Indonesia and “Weapons of Mass Migration”, which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The Indonesian vector will be described in the next section, but the general idea is that Jakarta is a rising Great Power which could pose a “threat” to Australia and therefore must be countered.
About the asymmetrical security risks which could be brought about from unrestricted migration, it’s worthwhile to recall what was written earlier about Australia’s culture clashes to appreciate just how polarizing this topic can be. Moreover, bringing together the Indonesian and “Weapons of Mass Migration” dimensions of Australia’s subjectively defined national security interests, the continent-country believes that it has to prepare itself for the large-scale and uncontrollable influx of refugees/migrants (“boat people”) in the event that its massive northern neighbor and/or any of its smaller Melanesian ones experience prolonged state failure and collapse. To put it simply, Australia’s existing population and market size are much too small to accommodate unrestricted immigration, no matter where it’s from, let alone if they’re fleeing nearby war-torn countries, so this compels Australia to play a “stabilizing” force to prevent that from happening, except, of course, when it comes to the cynical strategy that it might be pursuing against Indonesia at the behest of its Great Power patrons.
Indonesia’s Bad Neighbor
Like it was mentioned at the conclusion of the first part of this series about the geopolitics of Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia, the “zero-sum” mentality of Australia and its unipolar allies makes it so that multipolar-leaning Indonesia is conceived of as a latent threat to the existing Western-led global system, and it’s Canberra’s task to manage Jakarta in the event that it throws its weight behind Beijing in the New Cold War. The only way that this could happen is through Hybrid War, or externally provoked or aggravated identity-centric conflicts such as the ones extensively analyzed by the author in last year’s structural vulnerability study on the ASEAN giant, because tiny Australia is powerless to compete against Indonesia in any other way.
In brief, this could see Canberra and its partners stoking the flames of separatism in West Papua in order to recreate the East Timor scenario, and although both examples carry heavy normative weight in their favor in the court of international public opinion, they nevertheless fulfill the ulterior geopolitical motive of dividing-and-ruling the world’s largest majority-Muslim country at the Indo-Pacific crossroads. Moreover, there’s an inescapable comparison to the “Clash of Civilizations” template for dividing and ruling the Eastern Hemisphere when one considers that East Timor, West Papua, and some other islands in the former Dutch-created “federal province” of “East Indonesia” are Christian, which could easily present modern-day and Mainstream Media-magnified conflict optics that are too tantalizing for foreign powers to resist.
Should Australia embark on a clandestine quest to cause trouble for Indonesia in its Christian-populated areas, whether on of its own prerogative or at the bidding of its unipolar partners, then it would essentially be seeking to practice its own version of “Israel’s” Yinon Plan. To explain, this stratagem states that “Israel” should encourage identity conflict in the neighboring and nearby Arab countries in order to “Balkanize” them into smaller, weaker, and ultimately much more easily “manageable” states that would never again pose a “threat” to Tel Aviv, but the guiding principle of this plan could be applied by any country which wants to create a constellation of crippled states around its periphery.
In Australia’s case, Canberra could conceptualize the Christian-populated areas of Indonesia as being a “civilizational buffer” against majority-Muslim Indonesia, essentially branding this part of the world as another “fault line” in the “Clash of Civilizations” between the “West” and “non-West”. The clear challenge, however, would be in mitigating the extraordinarily high chance of blowback in the form of “Weapons of Mass Migration”, but just like in “Israel’s” case, the Australian Yinon Plan could also incorporate a deadly border policy in shooting to kill any unauthorized individuals who attempt to cross into its borders, made all the easier in this case by the maritime reaches which surround the continent-country and facilitate the detection of any intruders.
The Fourth Wheel
Altogether, when one considers Australia’s role as the “Big Brother” of the South Pacific and the insidious scenarios that it could realistically be planning in order to counter a more pronounced multipolar shift by Indonesia, the continent-country begins to take on the role of the “fourth wheel” in the “China Containment Coalition” (CCC) alongside the US, Japan, and India. The author spoke at length about this incipient geopolitical construction in several articles for the Oriental Review online journal, which includes pieces such as “ASEAN’s Geopolitical Arrangement Vis-à-vis The Chinese Containment Coalition”, “Asian NATO-like project to be stopped”, and the third installment of the ASEAN Hybrid War series, each of which describe Australia as having an overall supplementary position in this quadrilateral partnership, though potentially a leading one when/if it comes to Indonesia.
Australia’s de-facto membership in the CCC is important because it obviously puts it at odds with China, whether directly in terms of its South China Sea political positions and potential naval activity there or indirectly as it relates to destabilizing a possibly Chinese-leaning Indonesia. Canberra is obviously doing this at the behest of its unipolar patrons, since it’s difficult to understand what actual self-interest the much weaker Australian military has in trying to confront China, especially considering the strong economic ties between the two countries. This draws into question the extent to which Australia will involve itself in the CCC’s directly anti-Chinese activities, as it might just be that its participation is limited solely to symbolic statements and benign (albeit offensive) gestures. The key test, then, will be whether it goes forward with the “bad neighbor” scenarios described above in indirectly dealing a heavy proxy blow against Chinese interests in Indonesia sometime in the future.
Balancing With Beijing
Australia has undeniable multipolar potential but, as has been argued above, it’s clearly decided to position itself in the unipolar camp. Its geography is important in the context of the New Cold War, but not indispensable, though the same can’t be said for its natural resources. What’s interesting to pay attention to, then, is that despite Australia and China geopolitically drifting in opposite directions, both sides are establishing a relationship of complex economic interdependency with one another. This will inevitably lead to serious unpredictability in their ties as Australia attempts to balance between its geostrategic loyalty to the unipolar US and its fast-developing trade relations with multipolar China. Australia would benefit the most if it could maintain an equilibrium between the two, though it’ll more likely than not end up having difficulty doing this and will ultimately lean towards the US, if not outright continue acting as its regional “bulldog”.
It’s always challenging to predict what will happen in the future, but forecasting exercises can nevertheless help one to establish an understanding of the full range of scenarios by identifying the best and worst cases that could occur, which then enables observers to pinpoint the most likely “middle ground” possibility between them. With that in mind, here are three possible visions of Australia’s future:
Mini-America (worst-case scenario):
Australia follows America’s lead by incessantly issuing provocative statements about the South China Sea and engaging in dangerous naval patrols very close to, or inside of, China’s claimed territorial waters. Beijing responds by boycotting Australian commodities and therefore dealing heavy hit to the continent-country’s economy and currency. Around the same time as this is happening, Canberra decides to unleash some of the “test subjects” from its ideological laboratory against Indonesia in order to stop its progressive tilt towards China, which marks the beginning of Australia’s South Pacific Yinon Plan in action. This in turn sets off an uncontrollable tidal wave of “Weapons of Mass Migration” that could only be countered with lethal force, though with the consequence of attracting strong international condemnation against Canberra. All of these factors, especially the last one, combine in such a way as to set off a spree of Alt-Left and Wahhabi terrorist attacks which bring Australia’s cultural clashes to a dramatic climax and herald in an indefinite period of prolonged domestic destabilization.
China’s Chum (best-case scenario):
Understanding that the best future that it could provide for its citizens in the 21st century is through full-scale integration with China’s New Silk Road, Australia makes the decision to withdraw from the “China Containment Coalition” and fully reorient its political and economic relations towards the People’s Republic. This bold move also sees Canberra give up on promoting any Hybrid War scenarios against Indonesia, opting to instead seize the momentum from its pro-Chinese pivot to encourage trilateral cooperation with its two newfound Asian allies. Australia isn’t turning its back on its long-standing Western partners, but merely diversifying away from its erstwhile strategic dependency on them in order to become a more sovereign and independent state. Concurrently with this, Australia resolves its cultural clashes through the reinforcement of an inclusive and solid sense of civic nationalism which prioritizes the assimilation and integration of new arrivals, though while also delicately paying respect to some “Revolutionarily Progressive” civil society initiatives through democratic-electoral means.
The Embodiment Of “Chimerica” (middle-ground scenario):
Australia accepts that it must retain as neutral as possible of a middle ground between the US and China, but that it will never ultimately make either of them completely happy. Therefore, while it might issue arrogant statements on the South China Sea from time to time and perhaps even give in to the US’ pressure to have it send a naval patrol there once in a while, it won’t do any more than that, and will also end up irking America by strengthening its commercial ties with China. This, however, won’t be done to the perceived detriment of the unipolar side of the New Cold War, as Australia will balance its participation in the New Silk Road with a forthcoming role in the Indo-Japanese “Freedom Corridor”. Accordingly, while it’ll probably persist in its support for low-scale NGO and infowar provocations against Indonesia and some of its Christian-populated eastern islands, Australia will refrain from any full-scale implantation of its own Yinon Plan for the region. On the home front, the continent-country’s cultural clashes will continue to simmer, but won’t reach US-like levels of violent street confrontations or worse barring any unforeseen events.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.