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A new letter from the Director of the Centre for International Security Studies

By Raelene Loong

4 November, 2013

CISS Director James Der Derian reflects on his recent visit to the Naval Sea Power Conference in Sydney, and a talk he presented to the Harvard Club in October

Arriving at the Union Club in Sydney I experienced a Marxist flashback, some Karl but mostly Groucho, who when invited by the Friars Club famously responded that he would not join any club that would have him as a member. The trigger this time was the portrait of the Queen at the top of the stairwell.  An oil of the Royals is easily offset by a chilled pitcher of martinis, but that was not an option. Greeting me at the entry my congenial host Ambassador Richard Broinowski promptly informed me that the monthly gatherings of the Harvard Club of Australia were dry; as did, interestingly, the next three Club members that I met.I settled for a virgin bloody mary - and decided before the first sip to change the topic of my talk.

Months prior I had been persistently if diplomatically prodded to produce a title and abstract for the Ambassador.Newly arrived in Australia and short on credible policy recommendations, I offered a title that came in the guise of a question - ‘What makes us safe?’, or more precisely, ‘What makes ‘us’ safe?'.My abstract was broad enough to disguise a steep learning curve.  Now, facing a long table full of discomfortingly sober Harvard alums, I had second followed by third thoughts prompted by a series of Sydney events that had produced a sea-change in my perspective on Australian security.

This time around it was the centenary of the arrival on October 4, 1913 of the first Australian naval fleet, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, cruisers HMAS Sydney, Melbourne and Encounter, followed by the destroyers HMAS Warrego, Parramatta, and Yarra.To commemorate the anniversary, 37 Australian and international warships steamed into Sydney Harbour, beginning with a Fleet Review and a Royal Salute presided by the Governor-General and His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales at her side. Capped by the most spectacular fireworks since the 2000 Olympics, which we viewed from the terrace of our new favorite restaurant, Catalina (a bald product placement) with two Australian friends, Sheridan and Sandy, we agreed that the Fleet Review rivaled if not surpassed ANZAC day as a spectacle of military grandeur and national pride.

The concurrent event was the Naval Sea Power Conference and Maritime Exhibition, which opened with the Fleet Review and ended with several thousand sailors from the Indo-Pacific and beyond marching down George Street to the Sydney Convention hall, where they were fed, beveraged, and entertained by the Royal Australian Navy rock band playing some credible funky music (white boys indeed – see the slide show below).   Many of the sailors chose to wander through the cavernous Convention hall filled with booth after booth showcasing the wares of the military-industrial-technology complex.  Here I could see the answer to my question on display metaphorically while at the plenary sessions in the Conference Hall I could hear them literally:  ‘What makes us safe?’  Seapower, mate!

Conveyed by the Review, Conference, and Exhibition, the message was unmissable: Australia, the new maritime power. The last Defense White Paper said as much, as did General David Hurley, Chief of the Australian Defense Forces, when he came to speak at the University (see, again, DL #2).Many of the talks, panels, and roundtables were distinguished more by bureaucratic jockeying for increasingly scarcer defense resources than by new strategic thinking.There were some exceptions, like Michael Wesley from the ANU (and CISS adjunct) who zoomed in and out from local, regional and global threats with alacrity and Sarah Percy who offered historical depth and critical thinking on the need for a naval constabulary to meet new challenges of piracy, policing, and refugee flows.

Back at the Union Club, the message was hammered home.As one ascended the staircase to the Library, and before arriving face to face with the Queen, a series of handsome paintings trace the history of Australian and British warships in oil.  But one ship caught my eye: the USS Philadelphia. Roy MacLeod, Harvard Club alum, historian and factotum of the past, told me why the painting enjoyed such a prominent position in the Union Club flotilla of oils: the Philly had been the first vessel to break the 18th century Royal prohibition against foreign ships entering Sydney Harbour. The sacks of wheat it delivered to starving Sydney-siders might well have been the primal potlatch of a long and very special relationship between the US and Australia.

By that point I had clearly decided, damn the virgin bloody maries, full speed ahead.I would change my question to conform to the watery medium of the Harvard Club: Was Australia an Island or a Continent?Or, more specifically, after the multiple references at the Seapower conference to Teddy Roosevelt and the influence of the 1908arrival of the Great White Fleet Sydney, did Australia have a bad case of naval envy? 

As it happens, we ended up having a lively dialogue on continental vs maritime power, geopolitics vs geoeconomics, and the advantages and disadvantages of dry navies and clubs. We could all agree that there many more states than island-states than continents, but could not, given the healthy hybridity of Sydney, agree even on the number of continents.I had learned that there were seven continents, but as we went around the table, some counted Europe and Asia as a single Eurasian continent or North and South America as one American continent, or excluded Antarctica entirely from the Continental Club, as the French, thus reducing the magic number of continents from 7 to 6 to 5.  As it turns out, the definition of a continent is more subjective than suggested by the yellowing maps that once hung over grade school blackboards, which portrayed the continents in primary colors and, if remembered right, Antarctica as an elongated slice of blank whiteness along the bottom edge of the map.

Some clarity was reached once again over rather than surrounded by the Pacific. En route to a conference in Montreal on rising powers I once again seize the free time of a trans-pacific flight to finish my thoughts. The final insight came after first watching (for the second time) ‘World War Z’, where the zomboid threat to humankind originates in China, and then ‘Pacific Rim’, which features the near-destruction of Sydney by a sea-borne alien threat. I’m not sure what character from which film said it, but I woke up from a fitful sleep to these non sequitor lines: ‘We shall witness a double event…Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of god.’ The synchronicity of popular culture and think-thank scenarios inspired a conclusion: Australia is a continent and island, and as such, is cursed and blessed with what Australian historian Geoffrey Blaine famously described as the ‘tyranny of distance’. Now if the Harvard Club would only align with Naval tradition - a tot of rum for every sailor – all would be good at land and sea.

Contact:Raelene Loong
Phone: 61 2 9351 7663 (Mon to Wed)
Email:raelene.loong@sydney.edu.au

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