Andrew O'Neil is Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University and Director of the Griffith Asia Institute.
Australia is physically far removed from the conflict hot spots in Asia and has not been seriously threatened by any regional power since World War II, when the Japanese launched air attacks on the northern part of the country. Australia has never been invaded or occupied by a foreign power. Australia does not confront any serious threat to its security, nor is any such threat in prospect.
A pretty telling indicator of just how secure Australia remains is the fact that much of the national discourse on security threats is consumed by the question of how best to stop boats containing refugees from landing on Australian shores.
Of course, a savage deterioration in Australia's regional security environment would act as a serious reality check for governments and the general public. But even then, to paraphrase Donald Horne, in strategic terms Australia would remain 'the lucky country'. It is an island continent physically separated from large-scale conventional military threats by vast expanses of ocean and no country, apart perhaps from the US, possesses the massive logistical capability to mount a successful invasion of Australia, much less conquer a territory of 2,988,902 square miles.
As the 2009 Defence White Paper concluded, Australia is 'distant from traditional theatres of conflict between the major powers, and there is an absence of any serious, enduring disputes with our neighbours that could provide a motive for attack'. Unlike US allies in Europe, Japan, and South Korea, geography has dealt Australia an enormous strategic favour.
Yet, a curiously persistent paradox lies at the heart of Australia's national security: few countries worldwide are as objectively secure yet exhibit such patent feelings of vulnerability.
With the exception of the handful of countries that possess long range ballistic missile capabilities, it would be extremely difficult for any state to mount a high level armed attack against Australia. Anything short of a ballistic missile attack against Australian territory would be highly problematic from a practical point of view; the necessary preparations for a conventional assault on Australia would take some time and would be detected well in advance by intelligence assets.
Nevertheless, growing apprehension about China's future role as a great power in Asia are increasingly evident among Australian strategic planners. In unusually frank and forthright terms, the 2009 Defence White Paper raised specific concerns about the speed of China's military acquisition process, particularly in the maritime sphere. But the decision by the Gillard Government in 2012 to cut military spending — against a background of major projected cuts to the American military budget — raises questions about the extent to which Australia sees China as a bona fide threat in the region.
I have written elsewhere about the risks inherent in the alliance dilemma for future Australian governments. Historically, Australia's primary apprehension in its alliance relationship with Washington has been fear of abandonment. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, Australian strategic policy makers could be justified in feeling some apprehension about potential entrapment.
As significant budget cuts to the US military begin to bite in coming years, US administrations will increasingly seek to shift the burden to allies to promote America's strategy of preventing China from emerging as a serious great power challenger.
Australian policy-makers today disavow being part of any neo-containment strategy against China, but how easy will that be if a new Republican administration in 2013 seeks to enlist Australia as part of that strategy? Do we say 'no thanks' to Washington and risk being placed at arm's length as a second tier alliance partner? Alternatively, do we preserve our gold standard status as a loyal ally and sign on, in the full knowledge that we will be muscling up to our most important economic partner?
These are not easy questions to answer, and there is a chance Australian policy-makers may never have to address them. Furthermore, enlistment in a containment strategy would probably never be as crude or explicit as this. Once Australia realises it is part of a US-led strategy to contain China, it may be too late to reassure Beijing otherwise.
In the long run, getting our heads around a plan to deal with boatloads of refugees may look like a piece of cake when compared to dealing with an increasingly demanding ally who has a China policy at odds with Australia's preferences.
Photo by Flickr user dicktay2000.