Island Off the Coast of Asia: A Reflection


I owe a few of the pieces in the last couple of weeks to this brilliant book, but how important it is cannot be overstated. In an almost Chomsky-like way, Clinton Fernandes offers a refreshing (if somewhat surprising and disheartening) look at Australia’s role in the world. Without the filters of government and media spin and omission, it is incredibly insightful.

When it comes to foreign policy and global conflicts, the go-to perpetrator is the US. Australia is often overlooked as a rather subservient co-conspirator, always there but usually as a bolstering force for US interests abroad. While in some cases this most certainly is true, such as our involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, in many others we have out own interests down the imperialist path.

What the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq did do, however, and what our involvement in the Middle East continues to do, is increase the risk of terrorism. We thankfully do not experience terror attacks on a regular basis, but that does not secure us from the risk of one occurring. We are told, usually before or during election cycles, that the threat of terror is always there – and for once the government isn’t lying.

Yes, the threat of terror attacks may be rising – why else would our digital and privacy rights be abused, to spy on citizens? But the damning part is that the conflicts our government is implicating us in are the reason for this rise. The UK was able to prove their terror risk was increased as a result of their involvement in Iraq – Australia hasn’t done a similar report, unless it is confidential, but the conclusion would surely be the same.

Rather than pulling out of the Middle East or, better yet, striving for actual peace in order to dissolve this apparent threat, the government seems intent on partaking in war crimes and eroding the rights of Australians and journalists. Should a terror attack take place within the next few years, it will of course be a tragedy, but a predictable and preventable one. One that our government has no interest in stopping, despite their ‘national security’ rhetoric.

A ‘voice at the table’ in Washington is not worth even a single innocent life lost due to petty global politics.

In other regions, namely Southeast Asia and the Pacific, Australia has been involved for its own purposes. I have written previously about Timor-Leste, so I will not go into any depth here other than to repeat my disgust for our treatment of the Timorese people. If there is one saga that defines our own imperialist tendencies, it is the brutal injustice that we have thrown upon them for decades.

Fernandes describes Australia’s position as one always on the ‘winning side’ of the developing countries vs colonialist countries, i.e. the colonial side. In Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, we played our role in subduing any attempt at self-determination and local manufacturing. Raw goods from developing countries were sold to the US, the UK, or Australia to be manufactured into something, which was then sold back as a finished product to the developing nations.

That, in simplistic terms, is the core of the imperialist projects. The idea of ‘Asian nationalism’ was deemed a threat to the economic interests of the West, just as Arab nationalism was a ‘threat’ in the 50’s and 60’s, leading to conflicts in Iran, Egypt, etc., and recently with the Arab Spring in 2011.

I have always considered Australia to be ‘America 2.0’ in that our slow descent into privatisation and our growing authoritarianism mirrors that of the US, but this book only deepens those concerns. Australia is not exempt from the massive concentration of wealth in a relatively tiny segment of the population, and those people have incredible influence over policy. Similar to the International Monetary Fund, essentially an arm of the US government, we (along with the US and Japan) have significant sway over the Pacific region with the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The political independence (supposedly) of certain Asian countries is maintained, but economically they are beholden to the interests of the Western corporate machine. There is one country that threatens this ‘ideal’ state of affairs – China. In the closing chapter of Island Off the Coast of Asia, Fernandes broaches the question of what Australia would do if the US went to war with China.

While the US is our long time ‘ally’, China is currently our greatest trading partner and is swiftly becoming an influential powerhouse of its own, enough to challenge US hegemony. If a war between China and the US broke out (hypothetically, I think Trump is a little too preoccupied trying to destabilise Venezuela and obliterate Iran first – an invasion, a recent Facebook memory informed me, I predicted back in June of 2017), regardless of which ‘side’ we chose it is predicted we would suffer severely.

It would be better, of course, to avoid war entirely, or if one were to break out, simply stay out of it. The human cost would not be worth either losing diplomatic ties with the US or the economic ties with China. Instead, Australia would be much better off serving as a mediator between the two powers to ensure war is never a possibility. The global reality today is that China is catching up to the same level of economic influence as the US, and Australia can’t afford – in any sense of the word – to be caught in the middle.

In much the same way Australia drifted to the US’ side after WW2 when the British Empire really began to fade into history, the future thus far sees us drifting to China, if somewhat reluctantly. Rather than fight the shift in global power dynamics, Australia needs to assert itself as a middleman and try maintaining diplomacy, even in an increasingly tense world.

With the Coalition in power, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath.


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