Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, ranked in the top 10 in gross domestic product per capita. It is one of the most isolated major countries in the world; it occupies an entire united continent, is difficult to invade and rarely is threatened. Normally, we would not expect a relatively well-off and isolated country to have been involved in many wars. This has not been the case for Australia and, more interesting, it has persistently not been the case, even under a variety of governments. Ideology does not explain the phenomenon in this instance.
Since 1900, Australia has engaged in several wars and other military or security interventions (including the Boer War, World War I, World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq) lasting about 40 years total. Put another way, Australia has been at war for more than one-third of the time since the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901. In only one of these wars, World War II, was its national security directly threatened, and even then a great deal of its fighting was done in places such as Greece and North Africa rather than in direct defense of Australia. This leaves us to wonder why a country as wealthy and seemingly secure as Australia would have participated in so many conflicts.
Importance of Sea-Lanes
To understand Australia, we must begin by noting that its isolation does not necessarily make it secure. Exports, particularly of primary commodities, have been essential to Australia. From wool exported to Britain in 1901 to iron ore exported to China today, Australia has had to export commodities to finance the import of industrial products and services in excess of what its population could produce for itself. Without this trade, Australia could not have sustained its economic development and reached the extraordinarily high standard of living that it has.
This leads to Australia's strategic problem. In order to sustain its economy it must trade, and given its location, its trade must go by sea. Australia is not in a position, by itself, to guarantee the security of its sea-lanes, due to its population size and geographic location. Australia therefore encounters two obstacles. First, it must remain competitive in world markets for its exports. Second, it must guarantee that its goods will reach those markets. If its sea-lanes are cut or disrupted, the foundations of Australia's economy are at risk.
Think of Australia as a creature whose primary circulatory system is outside of its body. Such a creature would be extraordinarily vulnerable and would have to develop unique defense mechanisms. This challenge has guided Australian strategy.
First, Australia must be aligned with — or at least not hostile to — the leading global maritime power. In the first part of Australia's history, this was Britain. More recently, it has been the United States. Australia's dependence on maritime trade means that it can never simply oppose countries that control or guarantee the sea-lanes upon which it depends; Australia cannot afford to give the global maritime power any reason to interfere with its access to sea-lanes.
Second, and more difficult, Australia needs to induce the major maritime powers to protect Australia's interests more actively. For example, assume that the particular route Australia depends on to deliver goods to a customer has choke points far outside Australia's ability to influence. Assume further that the major power has no direct interest in that choke point. Australia must be able to convince the major power of the need to keep that route open. Merely having amiable relations will not achieve that.
Australia must make the major power dependent upon it so that Australia has something to offer or withdraw in order to shape the major power's behavior.
Global maritime powers are continually involved in conflict — frequently regional and at times global. Global interests increase the probability of friction, and global power spawns fear. There is always a country somewhere that has an interest in reshaping the regional balance of power, whether to protect itself or to exact concessions from the global power.
Another characteristic of global powers is that they always seek allies. This is partly for political reasons, in order to create frameworks for managing their interests peacefully. This is also for military reasons. Given the propensity for major powers to engage in war, they are always in need of additional forces, bases and resources. A nation that is in a position to contribute to the global power's wars is in a position to secure concessions and guarantees. For a country such as Australia that is dependent on sea-lanes for its survival, the ability to have commitments from a major power to protect its interests is vital.
Deployment in the Boer War was partly based on Australian ideology as a British colony, but in fact Australia had little direct interest in the outcome of the war. It also was based on Australia's recognition that it needed Britain's support as a customer and a guarantor of its security. The same can be said for the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Australia might have had some ideological interest in these wars, but its direct national security was only marginally at stake in them. However, Australian participation in these wars helped to make the United States dependent on Australia to an extent, which in turn induced the United States to guarantee Australian interests.
There were also wars that could have concluded with a transformation of the global system. World War I and World War II were attempts by some powers to overthrow the existing global order and replace it with a different one. Australia emerged from the old political order, and it viewed the prospect of a new order as both unpredictable and potentially dangerous. Australia's participation in those wars was still in part about making other powers dependent upon it, but it also had to do with the preservation of an international system that served Australia. (In World War II there was also an element of self-defense: Australia needed to protect itself from Japan and certainly from a Japanese-controlled Pacific Ocean and potentially the Indian Ocean.)
Australia frequently has been tempted by the idea of drawing away from the global power and moving closer to its customers. This especially has been the case since the United States replaced Britain as the global maritime power. In the post-World War II period, as Asian economic activity increased, Asian demand increased for Australian raw materials, from food to industrial minerals. First Japan and then China became major customers of Australia.
The Australian alternative (aside from isolation, which would be economically unsustainable) was to break or limit its ties to the United States and increasingly base its national security on Japan or, later, on China. The theory was that China, for example, was the rising power and was essential to Australian interests because of its imports, imports that it might secure from other countries. The price of the relationship with the United States — involvement in American conflicts — was high. Therefore, this alternative strategy would have limited Australia's exposure to U.S. demands while cementing its relationship with its primary customer, China.
This strategy makes sense on the surface, but there are two reasons that Australia, though it has toyed with the strategy, has not pursued it.
The first is the example of Japan. Japan appeared to be a permanent, dynamic economic power. But during the 1990s, Japan shifted its behavior, and its appetite for Australian goods stagnated. Economic relationships depend on the ability of the customer to buy, and that depends on the business cycle, political stability and so on. A strategy that would have created a unique relationship between Australia and Japan would have quickly become unsatisfactory. If, as we believe, China is in the midst of an economic slowdown, entering into a strategic relationship with China would also be a mistake, or at the very least, a gamble.
The second reason Australia has not changed its strategy is that, no matter what relationship it has with China or Japan, the sea-lanes are under the control of the United States. In the event of friction with China, the United States, rather than guaranteeing the sea-lanes for Australia, might choose to block them. In the end, Australia can sell to many countries, but it must always use maritime routes. Thus, it has consistently chosen its relationship with Britain or the United States rather than commit to any single customer or region.
Australia is in a high-risk situation, even though superficially it appears secure. Its options are to align with the United States and accept the military burdens that entails, or to commit to Asia in general and China in particular. Until that time when an Asian power can guarantee the sea-lanes against the United States — a time that is far in the future — taking the latter route would involve pyramiding risks. Add to this that the relationship would depend on the uncertain future of Asian economies — and all economic futures are now uncertain — and Australia has chosen a lower-risk approach.
This approach has three components. The first is deepening economic relations with the United States to balance its economic dependencies in Asia. The second is participating in American wars in order to extract guarantees from the United States on sea-lanes. The final component is creating regional forces able to handle events in Australia's near abroad, from the Solomon Islands through the Indonesian archipelago. But even here, Australian forces would depend on U.S. cooperation to manage threats.
The Australian strategy therefore involves alignment with the leading maritime power, first Britain and then the United States, and participation in their wars. We began by asking why a country as wealthy and secure as Australia would be involved in so many wars. The answer is that its wealth is not as secure as it seems.