Broinowski, Alison: Reckless self-endangerment: Clinton Fernandes on Australia as a sub-imperial power

Alison Broinowski*

‘Reckless self-endangerment: Clinton Fernandes on Australia as a subimperial power’, Honest History, 28 December 2022

Alison Broinowski reviews Clinton Fernandes, Subimperial Power: Australia in the International Arena

Australia is supposed to be significant internationally, yet Australians are remarkably insouciant about their country’s interface with the world. Or ignorant, or easily led, or all of these.

Under successive prime ministers, Australia has needlessly fallen out with China, our major trading partner, and we are still paying the price. Successive governments have talked up the need to defend our trade routes with China ‒ against China. Defence ministers want Australia to accumulate hostile weapons at vast expense in readiness for war, obviously against China. Australia would lose such a war.

The absurdity of all this is not lost on Professor Fernandes, a former intelligence officer who teaches International Relations at ADFA. He is well aware that Australia’s sea trade routes are not those of the United States, whose main interest in ‘defending’ them is to draw a noose around China from the Korean peninsula to India. This runs through a region the Americans began calling the ‘Indo-Pacific’, not the ‘Asia-Pacific’, in the mid-2010s. Australia loyally did too, and ADFA and the Lowy Institute published papers about it.

The United States’ desire to support the democracy and independence of Taiwan has more to do with preventing China from resuming its former territory, and thus extending its sea boundaries beyond the East China Sea into the Pacific. Of course, as Fernandes points out, Taiwan’s flourishing semiconductor industry is also part of the picture. What he does not predict is that the Americans will induce Australia and Japan to fight China over Taiwan as US proxies, selling us the weapons to do so, while the US and NATO’s Asian extension sit back and watch, as with Ukraine.

Australia’s subservient deference to the US is Fernandes’ recurring theme in Subimperial Power. Australia in past decades was fascinated with Japan’s economic ‘miracle’, and with newly accessible China, and then enthused about Asia generally, to the point of debating whether Australia was an Asian country. That went into reverse with Pauline Hanson, John Howard, the Asian and global financial crises, and China’s mounting challenge to the US. Yet, even in 2014, when President Xi addressed Parliament and signed a free trade agreement with Australia, China’s rise was seen as peaceful and positive.

What changed, and when? Australia resisted decolonisation in the 1940s, backed away from non-alignment in the 1950s, and at US instigation joined ‘sentinel states’– Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and India ‒ in constructing a chain around China from the 1960s on. Fernandes sees Australia as a perennial supporter of the global North, rich, industrial former imperial states, against the South, anti-colonial developing countries. Those states did not sign up for the ‘war on terror’, but Australia did, taking the side even more explicitly of the West against the Rest. That position has solidified to the point where our bilateral foreign and defence policies are now based not on Australian interests and security, but purely on support of US global primacy.

Why did Australia change? The answer Fernandes proposes is that Australia’s long-standing regard for international law was gradually supplanted by the ‘international rules-based order’, a term coined by Kevin Rudd in 2008 but which took off in the US. The Lowy Institute still runs a ‘rules-based order’ project. This, Fernandes argues, means not just the World Bank and the IMF, but is code for US military and economic dominance over China. Scott Morrison changed gear on the rules – and on China – when Donald Trump did, in 2017-18. Despite China’s reminders that the international law-based order is what all UN member-states have signed up for, the Albanese government’s multiple defence decisions, to be announced in March 2023, are likely to widen the Australia-China gap, leaving little that Penny Wong can do about it.

Fernandes has long considered that, because the US-dominated ‘international rules-based order’ gives priority to the rights of private investors over the sovereignty of most states, ‘First World’ or North entrepreneurs with interests in the ‘Third World’ or South don’t object, preferring to stay on the winning side. As well, much of their trade is conducted in US dollars, and the American-led system favours developed countries that abide by its sanctions – and it can punish those that don’t. What Julian Assange long ago called America’s ‘Empire of Bases’ is for Fernandes an empire of military-backed capitalist investors. The US always denies that it has an empire, despite its armed and covert interventions in non-conforming nations, which China is seeking to bring to an end by attracting these states to its own collaborative programs.

Australia’s unquestioning support of the US alliance began with World War II and progressed through the Cold War and the Whitlam dismissal to the ‘war on terror’. Many Australians accepted that the Australian Defence Force’s efforts in support of US military operations for ‘global security’ were in Australia’s interests. Australian governments knew that the cost of fighting communism in Vietnam would be high, and that fighting terror in Afghanistan and Iraq would increase terrorist attacks on Australians and others. But throughout these wars, Australia’s ‘true strategic intent’, Fernandes says, quoting a disturbing Australian Army study, was to influence opinion in Washington in Australia’s favour. Every other explanation offered, said the Army, was ‘mandatory rhetoric’.

Memento of the visit of the United States Great White Fleet to Sydney 1908 (

President Roosevelt had initiated the deployment of the US Atlantic Fleet to the Pacific – the first such movement of great battleships – to test his Navy’s professionalism, arouse popular interest in and enthusiasm for the navy, and demonstrate that the United States had arrived as a world power. Wanting foreign nations to accept that the fleet should from time to time gather in one ocean just as much as it should in another, Roosevelt claimed publicly that the cruise was not directed against Japanese interests. Nevertheless, for most Australians the visit became an unmistakable expression of Anglo-Saxon solidarity; an “essentially peaceful” mission, but simultaneously “an armed assertion that the White Race will not surrender its supremacy on any of the world’s seas.”[4] Unsurprisingly, the epithet “Great White Fleet” only came into popular usage during the visit to Australia, and referred as much to race as it did to paint schemes. (Naval historian, David Stevens, with quote from local magazine, The Lone Hand, 1 August 1908.)

What are our options? A nation so deeply imbued with the insouciance that comes with sub-imperial status is unlikely suddenly to rise and demand change. The many Australians, like Malcolm Fraser, who saw and still see the US alliance as endangering, not protecting us, seek change before the worst occurs. Fernandes and others recommend neutrality, armed or not.

*Alison Broinowski AM is President of Australians for War Powers Reform, was Vice President of the Honest History coalition, and co-edited and contributed to The Honest History Book. She is a former Australian diplomat, who has written a number of books. For her work published on the Honest History website, use our Search engine.

©Alison Broinowski 2022


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