Inside Story

An intersection society no more?

Australia’s retreat to the Anglosphere has implications beyond defence and trade

Carol Johnson 4 October 2021 850 words

Back in the fold: prime minister Scott Morrison with his British counterpart, Boris Johnson, in Washington on 21 September. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Not so long ago, many Australians hoped that Australia would be an intersection society linking East and West — an East not defined by China and a West not defined by the United States, although Australia hoped to play a role in reducing tensions between the two. We were to be an independent middle power, forging our own way in our region and the world, retaining old friends while strengthening relations with other powers in the region, including France, and with our Southeast Asian neighbours.

It was not to be. The creation of the AUKUS alliance shows we have been lured back into our old Anglosphere fold, prioritising relations with Britain and the United States.

Electoral considerations undoubtedly played a role. Having failed to protect us from Covid-19, Morrison is now banking on pledging to protect us from China. The Coalition has a long tradition of using fear of China to try to wedge Labor. Indeed, the 2019 election campaign showed signs that it was gearing up for an assault on Labor as too soft on China. As a result, the opposition has been treading very carefully in response to AUKUS, acknowledging legitimate fears about China while questioning aspects of the government’s approach.

The military and trade implications of the AUKUS alliance have been widely canvassed. Australians are rightly concerned about an increasingly authoritarian, assertive and aggressive China. But after the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Vietnam decades earlier, many Australians are also cautious about being too closely aligned with American military strategy. Polling suggests that most Australians want our country’s complex relationship with China to be managed carefully.

The trade implications don’t stop with our worsening relationship with China. They also involve France. Under the Turnbull government, France was to be not just a key defence ally but also a key friend in facilitating relations with the European Union now that a post-Brexit Britain could no longer play that role for us.

Nor should we forget the cultural and intellectual implications of this shift. Australia’s projected role as an intersection society involved a different conception of our national identity. The hope was that we could forge a more independent, multicultural and cosmopolitan identity while still valuing our links with Britain and the United States. It was a vision that seemed to be developing an element of bipartisan support, at least during Malcolm Turnbull’s moderate Liberal prime ministership.

But Scott Morrison (ably assisted by Peter Dutton) is increasingly sounding like John Howard–lite when it comes to issues of cultural and national identity. Howard repeatedly emphasised Australia’s Anglo-Celtic identity and its closeness to Britain and the United States, thereby distancing the Coalition from Labor’s more cosmopolitan and multicultural view under Paul Keating.

It’s true that the government’s defence policy has also embraced the Quad of India, Japan, Australia and the United States. But Morrison’s comments regarding India often depict it as an extension of the Anglosphere with common values, including a commitment to democracy and religious freedom. It’s a view that seems particularly inappropriate given prime minister Narendra Modi’s increasingly authoritarian, Hindu-nationalist India, and has echoes of John Howard’s somewhat banal highlighting of the two countries’ shared love of cricket and experience of British influence. Kevin Rudd, by contrast, had a much more nuanced understanding of India’s postcolonial history.

A shift towards the Anglosphere also has implications for our cultural institutions and academia, and not just because of the increasing scrutiny of university research on security grounds. Many academics hoped that Australia could become an intellectual intersection society — that our universities would draw on all that is best of the knowledge produced in European and North American universities and all that is best from the great universities of Asia. We argued that this would position us well in the changing geopolitics of knowledge that characterised the Asian Century and would position us differently from the European and North American universities with which we compete for international students.

Such a vision would have built on and transformed the initiatives of past governments, Labor as well as Coalition. After all, it was a Liberal foreign minister, Julie Bishop, who oversaw the development of the brilliant New Colombo Plan, whereby Australian students would be encouraged to study in Asia. Such intellectual exchanges seem far from the Morrison government’s priorities. Indeed, the Coalition has been accused of carrying out a culture war against universities, starving them of funding at a time when the pandemic’s impact on international student enrolments is wreaking havoc on their budgets.

For all these reasons, AUKUS signals more than a defence decision about submarines and sharing other technology. It also potentially signals a cultural shift that has major implications for Australia and its role in the world. We have to hope that Paul Keating is wrong when he claims that AUKUS marks the moment when “Australia turns its back on the twenty-first century, the century of Asia, for the jaded and faded Anglosphere.” Because that would not be a good move at all. •