National identity and nuclear submarines in Australia

19 September 2021, 1421 EDT

As an Australian, national debates about submarine capacity take me back to my childhood, when we constantly heard news reports about the controversial and expensive Collins-class submarine program. This week, Australia blew off a deal with France for conventional submarines, opting for nuclear submarine technology as part of a new pact with the US and UK. This AUKUS arrangement is designed to balance against China in the Asia-Pacific. 

People may be wondering why submarines are generating so much debate in Australia. It’s not simply because it demonstrates an increasing clumsiness in Australian foreign policy under Scott Morrison’s government. France recalling its ambassador is, frankly, embarrassing. The Australian cultural cringe is still very real. 

It’s also because it touches on a huge source of ambivalence in Australia: our location in Asia. In constructivist terms, we can make sense of these decisions about material capabilities as part of a process of national identity construction in which factors like race shape perceptions of threat. Australia’s national identity has long had two components: an (over-)identification with the colonial center (Britain-slash-whiteness), and its flip-side, a sense of being surrounded by ethnic others who are inherently threatening. These tenets have been challenged but still shape defense and foreign policy in important ways.

An Asian nation? 

Van Jackson wrote this week about how vulgar balancing – in this case, nuclear submarines without a theory of victory – is a bad idea. Australia is particularly ill-equipped to make good strategic decisions in response to a rising China. A base fear of Asia leads to a foreign policy that engages in knee-jerk balancing. Although geographically located in the Asia-Pacific, Australia long emphasized its identity as a white settler nation with strong ties to Britain: a British outpost in Asia, rather than an Asian nation. Throughout the twentieth century, Australian policy makers and the public were preoccupied with fears that Australia would be invaded by Asian countries to the north. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new federal parliament of 1901 was the “White Australia” policy, which used a variety of measures to restrict immigration from non-white populations, particularly from Asia. It lasted until the early 1970s.

One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new federal parliament of 1901 was the “White Australia” policy.

In the 1990s under Paul Keating, Australia began to embrace multiculturalism and stronger engagement with Asia. However, with John Howard’s conservative Prime Ministership, much of this engagement was rolled back. White nationalist political parties like One Nation stoked fears of immigration, particularly from Asian countries. Meanwhile, the Howard government pursued cultural and educational policies that emphasized Australia’s colonial and military history and ties with Britain.

Australia today

Over time, Australia has grown more enmeshed in Asia, particularly through trade and migration. In 2007, Australians elected as Prime Minister Mandarin-speaking Kevin Rudd, who promoted closer ties with China. There is a long history of Chinese settlement from the early colonial period, as well as significant contacts between Makassan traders and Indigenous peoples in the north in the pre-colonial period. Today, Australia relies heavily on China for trade, whether it be for coal, iron ore, or higher education. Without China, Australia’s economy will suffer. Even as Australians’ attitudes toward China have deteriorated, ambivalence remains. In the latest poll by the Lowy Institute, 60% of Australians see China as a security threat. However, most respondents also want Australia to remain neutral in the event of a conflict between the US and China.

Despite the realities of Australia’s position in Asia, Australia still seeks a sense of security through the US and UK, sheltering under their nuclear arsenals in the hope it will deter attack. This is in contrast to our nearest neighbors, Indonesia and New Zealand (another white settler state), which have both long pursued independent foreign policies. Only now is Australia starting to deepen its defense ties with Indonesia to go beyond cooperation on counter-terrorism. Australia still sees what might otherwise be fairly natural allies that also have concerns about China, like Indonesia, as partners of last resort. 

Asian Australians feel this most acutely. Even as they make up at least 12% of the population, they face intense discrimination and racism and are underrepresented in leadership positions. Covid-19 has seen a jump in racist incidents, with 8 in 10 Asian Australians reporting discrimination in 2020. Campaigns around multiculturalism have not unseated the dominance of whiteness in Australia and a sense that Australia is not “at home” in Asia. 

The ambivalence of Australia toward its place in Asia makes it difficult to engage thoughtfully with a rising China. The instinct to side with the US and balance against China can be understood as part of a set of deep-seated anxieties about Australia’s identity that are ill-suited for the realities of Australia today. White Australians have long viewed Asian peoples as a threat and this is one prism through which our defense and foreign policies have to be understood. Vulgar, indeed.