Chair of the parliamentary joint committee for intelligence and security, and former SAS Captain, Andrew Hastie has once again called for Australia to listen to the lessons of history when navigating the increasingly complex geo-political, economic and strategic competition between the US and China.
The echoes of history continue to resonate today, China's renewed period of assertive territorial ambition and the broader regional geo-strategic competition has its foundations in the earliest days of European occupation in China.
Meanwhile, the enmities between China and its regional neighbours, ranging from Vietnam, Japan and South Korea, have a long-standing history dating back to well before European engagement in the Indo-Pacific – the impact of history is something Andrew Hastie has frequently raised as a much needed focal point for Australia as the nation seeks to navigate the regional great power competition.
As part of this push for broader Australian focus on the maelstrom of geo-political, economic and strategic competition swirling across Australia's immediate neighbours and its subsequent impact on the nation's position within the region, government MP and former SAS officer Andrew Hastie has renewed his push for greater conversation.
A key focus of Hastie's renewed comments is the Peloponnesian War, and the analysis provided by Greek historian Thucydides.
"For if we, as Australians, draw historical parallels with this ancient Greek war, we will find more in common with the people of Melos than with the Spartans or Athenians. Athens crushed Melos mercilessly in 416BC for refusing to side with the Athenian cause," Hastie explained.
"In perhaps the most famous passage in Thucydides’ history, the Melian Dialogue, the commissioners of Melos assert a moral case in their defence against their Athenian invaders. They 'invoke what is fair and right' and declare to the Athenians that they 'trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust'.
"Instead, we witness raw power and cold, naked political realism as they inform the Melians that 'you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must'."
Shifting the conversation to focus directly on Australia and the current predicament it finds itself in, Hastie clearly begins to draw the correlation between Australia and what he believes is its ancient counterpart, Melos:
"Australia, like Melos of the Peloponnesian War, is an island middle power. We jealously guard our sovereignty and our democratic traditions. We value and cherish international institutions and the rules-based global order. We seek engagement, not conflict.
"The US is our closest security ally and investment partner, while China is our largest trading partner. We certainly do not seek war. Indeed, we live with the harsh reminders of war all around us.
"Sixty thousand Australians died in World War I more than a century ago. Memorials dot the Australian continent commemorating the sacrifices of our former generations. We are a peace-loving people. This is why many of us will find [Graham] Allison’s book [Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides' Trap?] confronting. Some may feel a rising sense of apprehension and dread when he writes: 'Based on the current trajectory, war between the United States and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than recognised at the moment'."
Hastie's central thesis inadvertently draws on his experience, highlighting the strategic nature of his thinking in calling for Australia's leaders to correctly identify the nation's need to chart a middle path, navigating the complexities of the nation's strategic relationship with the US and the self-inflicted economic dependence on China.
"Australia must now, somehow, hold on to our sovereignty and prosperity. We must balance security and trade. But most importantly, we must remain true to our democratic convictions while also seeing the world as it is, not as we wish it to be," Hastie has identified in the past.
"This will be immensely difficult. It is impossible to forsake the US, our closest security and investment partner. It is also impossible to disengage from China, our largest trading partner. This is the central point: almost every strategic and economic question facing Australia in the coming decades will be refracted through the geopolitical competition of the US and the PRC."
This conundrum, Hastie posited, requires Australia take a dose of reality medication – requiring the nation to stop, breath, view and assess both the nation's position in the world and the rapidly evolving maelstrom of economic, political and strategic competition, development and sabre rattling, particularly in areas of contention like the South China Sea, parts of central Asia and, more concerningly, Australia's own backyard in the Pacific.
Hastie has long identified the need for Australia to embrace a radically different approach to the way it views not only itself, but also its position within the rapidly evolving regional and global order, lest potential adversaries begin dictating those terms of engagement for us.
"Right now our greatest vulnerability lies not in our infrastructure, but in our thinking. That intellectual failure makes us institutionally weak. If we don’t understand the challenge ahead for our civil society, in our parliaments, in our universities, in our private enterprises, in our charities – our little platoons – then choices will be made for us. Our sovereignty, our freedoms, will be diminished," he said.
Building on this, Hastie drew on the precedent established by history and the West's response to Stalin and the Soviet Union's emergence in the ashes of the Second World War as a basis for shaking off the hubris that has defined Western economic, political, ideological and geo-strategic thinking since the collapse of the USSR and end of the Cold War in 1991.
Hastie's renewed commentary raises critical questions about the future direction of Australia and its positioning within the broader geo-strategic, political and economic order of the Indo-Pacific.
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.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.