Australia’s earliest economic and strategic relationship with the British Empire established a foundation of dependence that would characterise all of the nation’s future economic, defence and national security relationships, both in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world.
As British power slowly declined following the First World War and the US emerged as the pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power during the Second World War – Australia became dependent on ‘Pax Americana’ or the American Peace.
The end of the Second World War and the creation of the post-war economic and strategic order, including the establishment of the Bretton Woods Conference, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, paved the way towards economic liberalisation and laid the foundation for the late 20th and early 21st-century phenomenon of globalisation.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War cemented America’s position as the pre-eminent world power – this period was relatively short-lived as costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, peacekeeping interventions in southern Europe and enduring global security responsibilities have drained American ‘blood’ and ‘treasure’ – eroding the domestic political, economic and strategic resolve and capacity of the US to unilaterally counter the rise of totalitarian regimes and peer competitors in both China and Russia.
Further challenging the US-led order is the increasing antagonism of rogue state actors like Iran and North Korea and to a lesser yet equally important extent, asymmetric threats, including state and non-state cyber actors, ideologicial extremists and organised criminal organisations, each with a stake in undermining and challenging the established geopolitical order both around the globe and, critically for Australia, in the Indo-Pacific.
This combination of factors has come to characterise the special relationship between the United States and Australia in recent years, with the strategic competition between the US and China playing an increasingly influential role in directing the future relationship between the two nations.
Each of these matters formed critical parts of the conversation between the two leaders, building on the instant rapport following the surprise election victory by Morrison in May this year – with the common values of “promoting peace, liberty and prosperity” serving as a core focus of the state visit.
Building on the success of the past and the ties that bind us
In his address at the state dinner, Prime Minister Scott Morrison focused on the shared history, the shared beliefs and the shared loss during the Second World War that served to shapen the unique and special relationship between the two nations – focusing on the sacrifices made by the US particularly in the South Pacific against Imperial Japan and the longstanding relationship of basing American forces in Australia.
“I’ve noticed tonight the Marines who are on duty tonight, and I thank you for your service. But not just to the United States but to our alliance as well. In 1943, the US Marine 1st Division was engaged in the first-ever large-scale US offensive against the Japanese at Guadalcanal. At the same time, Australian forces were in New Guinea also locked in the fiercest of some battles against the Japanese.
“We both prevailed. Each doing our bit. Each carrying our own weight. When the US Marine 1st Division arrived in Melbourne after six months of heavy fighting, they were welcomed with a rendition of the Australian fake anthem Waltzing Matilda.
“It’s true Mr President, we have been in a lot of battles. But we have also stood together to realise the dividend of peace: prosperity that comes from our embrace of enterprise and free markets and the rule of law; our great immigration societies, education, liberal democracy and a commitment to the fulfilment of human potential,” the Prime Minister declared, focusing on the sources of commonality that defined both nations.
Both Prime Minister Morrison and President Trump have focused on the unifying beliefs and factors that both nations share and the role they have played in shaping the relationship between the two. Both leaders focused on using this foundation to chart a course for the next century of relations between the two nations, which the Prime Minister articulated during the state dinner.
“Our generation and our times call on this great republic and our great Commonwealth to live up to the calling of young free nations to continually point the way to freedom.”
Indo-Pacific Asia’s rise means the ‘tyranny of distance’ has been replaced by a ‘predicament of proximity’. China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and several other regional nations are reshaping the economic and strategic paradigms with an unprecedented period of economic, political and arms build-up, competing interests and rising animosity towards the post-World War II order, of which Australia is a pivotal part.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s ‘great game’.