Since European settlement, Australians have faced an existential dilemma. There are not many of us. Much has been given to us. And we occupy an immense continent located far from our historical sources of security and prosperity.
One response to these geopolitical circumstances might have been to isolate ourselves from conflict and strife abroad. Our geography might have suggested such an approach. We are surrounded, after all, by a vast moat formed by the Pacific, Southern and Indian oceans.
Unlike the US, however, Australia has rarely sought to remain aloof from world affairs. It is true that we once restricted non-white immigration and erected high tariff walls to protect our industry from foreign competition. But for the most part Australians have looked outwards, not inwards.
There is an underlying continuity to the way we have perceived our national interests and worked to further them. We have always pursued a three-dimensional foreign policy as a means of keeping Australia prosperous and safe.
The three dimensions of which I speak are height, width and depth. Height refers to our practice of working with like-minded great powers. Width involves participating in the activities of international institutions. Depth means building strong relations with the countries around us, in Asia.
These three dimensions have remained present over the course of Australian history, although the balance between them has varied with different governments and changing circumstances.
This three-dimensional approach is the most distinctive and interesting element of Australian strategy and a key source of strength.
For a long time, the geometry of Australian foreign policy has operated to our advantage. Its tripartite nature increased our points of connection with the world and diversified our risks.
Furthermore, the three dimensions have usually complemented each other.
Being allied to a global superpower such as the US gave us credibility in Asia. Our knowledge of the region helped us in Washington and New York. Our work in the UN and the Group of 20 made us a more useful neighbour and ally.
But it is getting harder to maintain a balance between the three dimensions. In part, this is because the world is becoming more complicated and less forgiving; in part, it is because Asia is becoming so much more important to us.
The rise of Asia is disturbing the equilibrium. For many years, Australians complained about the tyranny of distance. Now this has been replaced by the predicament of proximity.
Our new economic opportunities come with new political risks. We are closer to the world’s booming markets and closer to the world’s developing crises. We are less isolated and less insulated.
Some say the answer to this predicament is to change course and adopt a two-dimensional approach. These voices say that one or the other of the three dimensions should be downplayed; that our China relationship will only ever be mercantile, for instance, or that the UN is hopeless.
There is a particularly prominent view that Australia should abandon height for depth, that we should downgrade the US alliance and upgrade the China relationship instead. This school of thought says we should use our influence and credit in Washington to try to encourage the US to cede the mantle of leadership in Asia and grant China new prerogatives and strategic space.
But why would we seek to hasten the drawing-down of an old ally, especially when it’s the most powerful country in the world, and one with which we share a world view and much else, including an interest in the status quo? Why would we tilt towards a power with an uncertain domestic future and an uneven foreign policy?
Given the doubts about China’s future policies, it would be odd to move pre-emptively towards Beijing. It is surely more sensible to hedge against the risk of future Chinese recklessness by keeping the US deeply engaged in the region.
What exactly is in this plan for us? Unsolicited gifts to rising powers are rarely reciprocated. Usually they are simply pocketed. And I have never heard a Sinologist say the Chinese respect weakness.
A century of Australian diplomatic and military practice says this approach is implausible. Public opinion tells us it is unwanted. The strategic realities of Asia indicate it is ill-advised.
The better course for Australia — actually, the only course — is to avoid two-dimensional answers and maintain our three-dimensional approach to the world. We must take advantage of all three dimensions — height, width and depth — to advance our interests and values. How should Australia approach the predicament of proximity? How can we maximise our opportunities and minimise our risks? The usual answer is that we need to be smarter and shrewder than ever. That’s true. But we also need to be larger.
Edited extract from the second of four lectures in the 2015 ABC Boyer Lectures series, A Larger Australia, presented by Michael Fullilove. The audio and transcript of the full lecture is available on ABC RN from noon today; abc.net.au/rn.