With just weeks before the release of the Defence Strategic Review, UNSW Canberra historian Richard Dunley has identified similarities in the geostrategic challenges mentioned in a similar review commissioned in June 1945 — begging the question, can the lessons of the past provide future success?
Australia has had a long, tough relationship with the “tyranny of distance”. On one hand, the nation’s populace has treated it with disdain, hostility, and as an inconvenience, while for Australia’s political and strategic leaders, our geographic isolation has provided a double-edged sword for defence planning — distance from enemies also means distance from allies, dramatically impacting the nation’s long-term national security.
However, the rise of the Indo-Pacific means this “tyranny of distance” has been replaced by a “predicament of proximity” — in particular, the rise of China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, along with several other regional nations, is serving to reshape the economic and strategic paradigms that provided the unprecedented period of economic development, stability, and prosperity since the end of the Second World War.
Today’s geopolitical and strategic predicament is not without its precedent, with the early years of the post-war years proving eerily similar to the challenges that contemporary Australia faces. Learning the lessons following Japan’s blitzkrieg through Southeast Asia, and successful routing of both British and American forces throughout both the region and wider Pacific, served as a confronting wake-up call for Australia.
As Australia’s primary security relationship shifted from the British Empire to the triumphant United States at the end of the war, the growing threat of communism in the region, driven by the successful Chinese revolution in 1949 and the following Korean crisis saw Australian forces drawn into direct conflict with former North Korean and Chinese forces. In response to this perfect storm of external global factors, Australia’s leaders sought to confront potential threats to the nation by engaging them away from continental Australia to avoid any repeat of the Papua New Guinea campaign or any direct attack against Australian cities as had occurred numerous times throughout the Pacific campaign.