Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 18:19 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 18:19 | SYDNEY

Australia and the Great White Fleet: Part I


Rory Medcalf


20 August 2008 15:01

Spare a thought for Commander John Banigan, commanding officer of the lone US destroyer paying a visit to Sydney this week, the USS John S McCain. (Incidentally, it is not for me to suggest whether the ship’s name is a political omen.)

A hundred years ago, Commander Banigan’s professional forbears steamed into Sydney Harbour (see picture) with 16 splendid pale battleships and 14,000 crew, to be greeted by rapturous crowds of half a million or more.

After the 1908 spectacle of President Theodore Roosevelt’s world-touring Great White Fleet, any American naval stopover in Sydney is bound to be an anti-climax. The vexing question is whether the contrasts between past and present also extend to the way Australians see the role of their great and powerful friend in the nation’s security.

To 21st century sensibilities, the name Great White Fleet carries an unfortunate connotation: an Anglo-Saxon shield against alien foes. The name came from the colour the hulls were painted — but if this also sent a racial message, then neither Roosevelt nor Prime Minister Deakin would have minded.

Those ships were a symbol and tool of America’s determination to be a Pacific and global force, a signal to rising Japan and domineering Europe. The young Australian Commonwealth was wary of Japan, indeed fearful of Asia, and unconvinced about British protection. So it sought and welcomed the American visit. The birth of the alliance came decades later, but the dynamics were not much different.

Cut to the present. Today’s multi-racial Australia seeks its destiny, wealth and security in Asia. Yet it also sees the United States as the vital stabilising force in this changing region, as well as a critical partner in counter-terrorism, disaster relief, sea-lane patrolling and other missions crucial to an interdependent global order.

Australia wants an Asia in which China’s rise is accommodated but its power not destabilisingly dominant. This means peace and deterrence across the Taiwan Strait, a secure Japan, an India constructively brought into East Asian affairs, a nuclear-free Korean peninsula where change occurs without chaos, and a Southeast Asia that feels safe to turn its rhetoric of co-operation into reality.

These goals are more realistic with a continued US strategic presence and deep diplomatic engagement across the Pacific than without. The prospect of large-scale state aggression against Australia is remote. But whatever Canberra’s claims about combat self-reliance, Australia would need to change its resource-allocation priorities radically were it to have any hope of single-handedly fighting one of Asia’s future giants. The alliance will continue to matter greatly.

And yet …

(to be continued)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user State Records NSW, used under a Creative Commons licence.