Cover of book: Sub-imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena

Clinton Fernandes
Sub-imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena

In early October, Australia’s deputy prime minister and minister for Defence, Richard Marles, was in Hawaii to meet the American and Japanese defence chiefs near Pearl Harbor. “The global, rules-based order is being pressured in a way that we’ve not seen in many, many decades,” Marles said before the talks. The Australian Financial Review reported the context behind the get-together was that “the US is beefing up both its diplomatic and military presence in the Pacific as it seeks to combat an increasingly assertive China”.

While in Hawaii, Marles tweeted a photo of himself standing next to United States Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and countless Australian and American military personnel. He wrote: “Today I also had the privilege of meeting the impressive [Australian] and [American] men and women serving their countries in Hawaii. For 100 years, Australia and the US have worked side-by-side to protect human rights, peace, and prosperity throughout the world #UnbreakableAlliance.”

The visit and the tweet were forgotten almost as soon as they occurred. But nobody in the media questioned Marles’s credibility. The past 50 years alone have seen American-led wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan that caused the deaths of millions of civilians. Crimes against humanity were committed in the name of protecting human rights. Australia was a key partner in all these failed missions and yet we’re supposedly bringing peace and prosperity to the oppressed peoples of the globe. Only a highly propagandised mind could believe this distorted version of reality. The parlous state of debate and policy discussion in Australia around foreign affairs is indirectly highlighted in this important new book by one of Australia’s most astute strategic analysts. Clinton Fernandes is professor of international relations and political studies at UNSW Canberra, part of the Australian Defence Force Academy. He’s also a former Australian military intelligence officer and has spent years fighting in the courts for Australians to have access to declassified documents that detail the true nature of Australia’s involvement in the 1973 overthrow of Chile’s then president, Salvador Allende.

Fernandes’s seminal 2004 book, Reluctant Saviour: Australia, Indonesia and the Independence of East Timor, is a comprehensive study into the machinations of Canberra’s hesitation in assisting East Timor in the late 1990s after decades of backing Jakarta’s brutal occupation. 

Unlike so many of his peers, in his new book Fernandes critically assesses the current state of Australia’s strategic position in the 21st century and finds a distinct lack of clarity about who we’ve always been, who we currently are and who we risk becoming. He blames the bulk of the political and media classes who don’t dare contemplate life outside the warm embrace of the American empire. 

The book takes a sledgehammer to the mainstream consensus. “Australia is a sub-imperial power upholding a US-led imperial order,” he writes. “Being an imperial power means exerting a controlling influence on other countries’ sovereignty. Control can be achieved without conquering colonies or directly ruling foreign lands … Like that other sub-imperial power, Israel, Australia has a capable, technologically advanced military and a number of intelligence agencies that operate in the region and far afield to uphold the US-led order.”

Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong routinely speaks about Australia’s ties with “our Pacific family”, but it’s a meaningless phrase when Canberra has spent decades bullying and bribing most of our neighbours from Papua New Guinea to Nauru. Australia and New Zealand, both part of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing network, spy on countless nations in the South Pacific with an elaborate network of on-the-ground listening stations and satellite surveillance hubs in the service of Washington’s interests, and our own. 

Instead of informing Australians of this truth, a recent Foreign Policy profile of Wong champions her “new mode of vigorous activism” in support of a “rules-based order”. 

More than anything else, Fernandes craves honesty when viewing Australia’s role in the world. He readily acknowledges Beijing’s “authoritarianism” but has little time for those who loudly claim to care about the Chinese people. “The loudest voices in defence of self-determination for Taiwan have little to say about Indonesia’s West Papuan minority or the status of Kashmir, ruled by both Pakistan and India – until, that is, it becomes necessary to weaponise those territories against those countries.” 

In all these nations, Australia backs American policy. But Fernandes isn’t just critical. Since Australia is endowed with huge reserves of valuable minerals that are vital for a high-tech future of low emissions, he proposes establishing “a nationally owned company that exercised ownership and control of strategically important minerals. It would then be in a position to increase domestic innovation and support higher value-added sectors, such as high-technology research and development, advanced manufacturing and energy efficiency”. 

Fernandes doesn’t ignore the environmental cost of the inevitable green transition, the extreme mining and toxic waste caused by rechargeable batteries and worn-out solar panels. He argues that too many in Australia still view us as a giant quarry that should sell commodities to anybody who wants them offshore. 

Australia needs an honest debate about whether it wants to continue to be Washington’s imperial partner in the Asia-Pacific. In a time of escalating tensions over Taiwan, this essential book shows the cost of remaining an unquestioning American ally.

Melbourne University Press, 176pp, $24.99

Antony Loewenstein is the co-founder of Declassified Australia.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Clinton Fernandes, Sub-imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena".

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