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Near or far? The choices of a top 20 defence nation

18 Nov 2014
Rod Lyon
AIIA National Conference 2014.
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Continuing the debate ignited by the Australian Institute of International Affairs’ National Conference, Rod Lyon argues that Australia should see itself among the players, not the observers.

I’d like to revisit the topic canvassed by a couple of recent blog posts on what it means for Australia, in defence terms, to be a ‘top 20 nation’. Both Peter Jennings and Andrew Carr have outlined competing visions (here and here) of what it means for Australia to be a top 20 defence player. Both accept our status on the list. But they differ on what that means for our defence and strategic policy. The principal difference between them turns on the extent to which Australia should look out to—and engage with—the wider regional and global strategic environment. Peter’s in favour of doing that; Andrew isn’t. Andrew wants Australia to behave like most other top 20 powers: focusing on its near neighbourhood, and its local, geographic priorities.

Let’s start by clarifying ‘top 20’. Neither Peter nor Andrew define the term, so I’m going to propose two definitions, both of which lead us to a pretty similar group of countries. First, we could simply go with G20 membership. Alternatively, we could go with the top 20 global economies by GDP (as assessed by purchasing power parity). The table below shows the countries in each group in alphabetical order, plus the European Union (EU), which qualifies on both counts. Seventeen countries and the EU are common to both lists; Argentina and South Africa also feature as G20 members; Iran and Spain feature on the economic-size list.

 

Top 20

Whichever list we go with, it’s clear that most of those countries already live in contested strategic environments. Halford Mackinder once said that Eurasia was the World Island, and that whoever ruled the World Island ruled the world. Over half of the 17 countries common to both lists live either on the World Island or on the rimlands around it: those powers don’t need to cast their strategic vision far in order to find their strategic priorities.

Who are the remainder? Well, from the 17, just six more: the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia and Australia. The US and Canada already tie themselves to the strategic balance within Eurasia and along its rimlands. Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia don’t. That leaves Australia. So, are our strategic interests more like those of the majority of top 20 states whose fate is determined by the World Island, or are they more like the strategic interests of Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia? Personally, I think our strategic interests aren’t much like Mexico’s or Brazil’s, though I must admit I’ve never sat down to do a side-by-side comparison. By contrast, we do share an important overlap of strategic interests with Indonesia, because we’re the two biggest players in Southeast Asia. Still, that overlap certainly doesn’t define the totality of our interests.

Andrew argues that our greatest constraint is geography. If that’s true, we don’t need to worry much about whether we’re a top 20 player or not, since our geography doesn’t change in response to that. But, in a strategic sense, our immediate neighbourhood isn’t ‘world shaping’. And, frankly, it never was. That certainly doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant—indeed, Southeast Asia’s becoming more relevant with each passing year. Nor does it mean we shouldn’t be putting more effort into Southeast Asia. But the world—more particularly Eurasia, the World Island—can still go to hell in a hand-basket while we’re building our patterns of strategic cooperation in Southeast Asia. And that’s not something we want to happen. We, like other strategic players don’t want a world where Eurasia falls under the domination of a coercive great power.

In short, we’re globalists because it’s in our strategic interests to be so. Actually, we’d remain globalists even if we weren’t a top 20 nation—even if, say, more developing countries leap ahead of us on the economic-size list. Still, being on the list means we have the resources to be able to make a difference on the global and regional stage. True, by ourselves, we can’t shape the world: we can often make a difference, not the difference. Few countries can, even among the great powers. But we should see ourselves among the players, and not among the observers.

 

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. This piece was originally published by The Strategist. It is republished with permission.