Australia's Strategic Identity Post-September 11 in Context: Implications for the War against Terror in Southeast Asia

By Vaughn, Bruce R. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Australia's Strategic Identity Post-September 11 in Context: Implications for the War against Terror in Southeast Asia


Vaughn, Bruce R., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Introduction: Factors that Shape Australia's National Identity and Strategic Posture

The national character and demographic composition of Australia is central to understanding the nation and, by extension, its strategic posture. (1) Australia's demographic makeup today largely stems from its origins as an extension of the British Empire. While most Australians trace their ancestry to Anglo-Celtic or other European backgrounds, there are increasing numbers of Australians of Asian origin who are but the latest overlay on the peopling of Australia that first began with the aboriginal settlement of Australia over 40,000 years ago. In 2001-2002, 17 per cent of Australia's immigrants came from Southeast Asia [particularly Malaysia and Indonesia] with a further third from Northeast Asia and 8 per cent from South Asia. (2) In 2000/01, immigration contributed more to population increase than natural domestic growth did. While post-World War II non-British European immigrants have largely assimilated into the dominant Anglo-Celtic cultural traditions, Aboriginal Australians and more recent Asian immigrants have generally not yet assimilated to the same extent. Australia is still in the process of working to reconcile, amalgamate or subordinate these different traditions and cultures into a single national identity. The appropriation, or adoption, of Aboriginal art into the mainstream of society in Australia marks a degree of acceptance of the Aborigine's place in Australia while confusion over land rights stemming from the doctrine of Terra Nullius does not.

Australia's confusion and a lack of consensus in forging a more independent national identity manifests itself in various ways. Controversies such as whether the government should apologize to Aboriginal Australians for being dispossessed of their land, whether Australia should become a Republic independent of the Queen of England, or the debate over the extent to which Australia should embrace Asia are examples. National unity and purpose will come from either an extension of existing myths to include more recent waves of immigration from Asia, as well as Aboriginal peoples, or from their subordination to the existing traditional national ethos. It should be noted that the White Australia immigration policy wasn't abandoned until 1966-74. (3) Which course will be taken is still a matter of debate.

Australia has a rich military history that attests to its commitment to playing a significant role in supporting its allies and friends, particularly Britain and the United States. We see this in the case of Britain, with Australian contributions to the Maori Wars in New Zealand, the conflict in the Sudan, the Boar War, the Boxer Rebellion, World War I (WWI), World War II (WWII), the conflict in Malaya and Confrontasi in Indonesia. Australia has also served alongside America in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan and most recently in Iraq. Combined Australian-U.S. action in the battles of Hamel, the Coral Sea, Kapyong, Long Tan, Anaconda, and Iraq attest to the brotherhood-in-arms aspect of the relationship. Australia has been a loyal ally, supporting its strategic partners and helping to promote stability in its region and the international order. It is Australia's history and shared values with the British and Americans that have led it to get involved in so many conflicts so far from home. At first, Australia did not draw significant differences between its national interest and that of the British Empire. Australia would support Britain, and Britain would in turn protect Australia. A more independent view of Australia's national interest began to emerge during WWI as a result of Australian sacrifices at Gallipoli and the Western Front. This continued in WWII with the fall of Singapore and British reluctance to release Australian troops fighting in North Africa, and needed allied shipping, to return home to defend Australia from the Japanese. …

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