Australia’s regional interests: strategic or an ancient story

The dramatic events in Padang and Samoa once again highlight our fundamental linkages with neighbours throughout the Asia Pacific region.  We can hardly fail to be touched by the tragedy.  Our responses, as they were with the 2004 tsunami, have been swift.

As Australia slides slowly to the north and into the southern margin of the Ring of Fire the biophysical continuities highlighted by this dramatic history are easy enough to discern. Krakatau’s cataclysmic eruption, in August 1883, was reported throughout the region. The explosions were heard in Saigon and Bangkok, Manila and Perth, and at a lonely cattle station south of Darwin called Daly Waters.[1] In the history of Nusantara, or the Dutch East Indies as it was called at the time this was by no means the biggest eruption. Modest by historic standards it was still massive enough to convince stock men driving cattle across the Hammersley Range that there was artillery fire to the north west.

Although major tectonic events such as these are well documented none can approach the eruption of Mt Toba on the island of Sumatra, some 75,000 years earlier. The event had planetary impacts triggering a volcanic winter at least a decade long, possibly triggering the Pleistocene Ice Age and burying vast tracts of land, and elements of its emerging paleolithic cultures, under hundreds of metres of tephra.  Sea levels were as much as 200 metres lower and island hopping through the archipelagos became a comparatively simple event as new settlers found their way further to the south and the east. In those days it is likely to have been  possibly to walk between the sites of modern day Merauke and Darwin in about three weeks.  The biophysical continuity was most tangible and although there was no direct land bridge to the major islands of Timor or Flores only small ocean journeys were necessary to achieve direct passage.

Despite the emergence of the nation states of Australia and Indonesia in our shared biophysical realm there are no borders, merely an immense porosity.  In a social and cultural sense continuities are more difficult to discern. Many Australians have been reserved about acknowledging those long standing social and cultural connections with our Asia-Pacific region. Sadly some imagine that we inhabit a land whose national borders confer such a manifest degree of separateness that with a judicious border protection policy in force we need make scant adaptation to the social and cultural realities of our regional neighbours, seeing our regional relationships as primarily strategic.

Australia’s former Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, seemed to give credence to the purely strategic view of regional relations when at the Asian Leaders’ Forum in Beijing in 2000. He explained that Australia could not so much view regionalism as cultural but rather practical, not something built on common ties but only mutually agreed goals. What he was thinking about our long history of contact and engagement is hard to say. At the time I wondered whether he was conscious of the impact of such comments might have on Australia’s significant Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Khmer Diasporas. I wondered whether or not he was aware of the large numbers of Melanesians and Polynesians playing such a prominent role in sporting codes like Rugby. Precisely what he meant is hard to say, since even the most casual observation of urban Australia confirmed the ethnic and cultural transformations that has rendered our regional connections far broader than mere strategic interests.

Such outlooks are often grounded in a Eurocentric sense of nationhood and in a tendency to overstate our significance as a global and regional power. In its most extreme form this can become triumphalism and even neo-colonialism.  Although we are the land that’s girt by sea, this set of attitudes is at variance with biophysical and geopolitical realities. The reality of Australian history post 1788, and that of indigenous Australia, is one of a long engagement with our region. Aboriginal nations, and Torres Strait Islanders, had well established trading links in both tangible and intellectual goods before Europeans arrived. Survival of the first settlement, at Sydney Cove, was in a significant measure the result of emergency supplies shipped in from Indonesia on the sailing vessel.

Shortly I’ll post Sid Thompson and D Company . Set in 1914-15 it is the story of the first major Australian military expedition into the region to our north.  This is a little known event, involved the Australian Military and Naval Expeditionary Force (ANMEF). Raised from volunteers in Sydney three days after the outbreak of World War One ANMEF‘s war began well before Gallipoli.  This was a an invasion that met little resistance from the chosen enemy, the German and Tolai colonial forces, yet it revealed features of European Australia’s encounters with the region that still shape Australian thinking.

[1]  Winchester, Simon The Day the World Exploded: Krakatoa.  Penguin. Books. London. 2004. P.264

One thought on “Australia’s regional interests: strategic or an ancient story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s