Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 07:41 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 07:41 | SYDNEY

How much choice do we really have?


Andrew Carr


19 September 2011 17:14

In his post comparing Australia's dependent relationship with the UK in the 1930s to ANZUS today, Raoul Heinrichs implied that Australia made the wrong choice then, and therefore should make a different choice today. However, I don't think there was much of a choice, then or now.

First, the 1930s. What's overlooked in Raoul's analysis is not that Australia 'chose' to support the British, but that Australians saw themselves as British. There simply wasn't a choice to be made about a strong alliance, given the bonds of identity that were always going to over-rule any other calculations.

Which isn't to say our pre-war leaders couldn't have done much more to prepare Australia for conflict. But there were no other major powers to ally with, and bandwagoning Japan or pinning our hopes on neutrality was simply not viable, for cultural and identity reasons.

Flash forward to today, and I'm likewise sceptical that Australia can realistically choose as widely from the options as Raoul suggests. Should a conflict break out between the US and China, is there any doubt China would view Australia an intimate supporter of US? After sixty years of alliance, strong military connections (including hosting intelligence facilities like Pine Gap) and similar cultures, I'm not sure adopting Raoul's caution about hosting further US bases will have any effect.

Likewise, will the Americans ever accept fighting a war within our wider region while Australia simply watches from nearby? Such a conflict, unless limited in the extreme, will turn into a test for the alliance that, for cultural and identity reasons, we are unlikely to ever fail. 

Australia's path in the 21st century is a reactive one. We can (and should) smooth that over by developing a real middle-power capability, as Hugh White suggests. But most likely, when or if we deploy forces will be up to others.

Photo by Flickr user cafemama.