New book examines Australia’s role in the region

January 7, 2023
Sub imperial power book

Sub-imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena
By Clinton Fernandes
Melbourne University Press, 2022

The Australian government announced in September 2021 that it would cancel a $90 billion program to build French-designed diesel-powered submarines. Instead, it would obtain nuclear-powered submarines to be developed jointly by the United States and Britain, and supplied to Australia under the AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) security agreement.

This decision seemed irrational to many observers. The US/British submarine would take much longer to build, and would cost much more.

According to author Clinton Fernandes, the key reason for the decision was to ensure “interoperability”. The aim is to ensure that the Australian armed forces use the same equipment as the US military. This makes it easier for them to work closely together in any situation, up to and including war.

The assumption is that Australia and the US will always be on the same side in any conflict. In the past, Australia has supported the US in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere.

Today China is the main adversary of the US. The submarines to be bought by Australia are intended to participate in the US campaign against China.

‘Junior partner’

Fernandes says Australia is a “junior partner” of the United States, (p16) playing a “sub-imperial” role: “Today the United States sits at the apex of a hierarchically structured imperial system. Australia is not an exploited neo-colony in the US-led imperial system but a sub-imperial power. As such, it is an active, eager participant in the US-led order.” (p3)

He explains further: “Australia is a sub-imperial power: it is subordinate to the imperial centre, defends the imperial order known as the rules-based international order, and projects considerable power and influence in its own region.” (p21)

The US intervenes militarily around the world: “It is the only country whose military is designed to leave its own hemisphere, cross vast oceans and airspace, and then conduct sustained, large-scale military operations in another hemisphere.” (p13)

The US also has tremendous economic power: “Its power over the dollar-Wall Street-IMF regime allows it to apply unilateral sanctions to weaken countries and lock them out of the dollar-denominated global financial system.” The US can “impose billions of dollars in fines on banks that disobey sanctions, whether legally authorised by the UN Security Council or unilaterally by the United States”. (p14)

The US can control other countries in a variety of ways: “This control is achieved via the instruments of imperial statecraft: the threat or use of military force, coups d’etat, intelligence operations, diplomacy, trade agreements and investment treaties ... A comprehensive study showed that the United States tried to change other nations’ governments seventy-two times during the Cold War, with sixty-six covert operations and six overt ones.” (p14‒15)

Australia has cooperated with the US in such efforts. For example, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) participated in the US campaign to overthrow the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973.

Previously, Australia was part of the British empire. “The Australian colonies prospered under the umbrella of British imperial power. They were the largest recipients of British foreign investment in the economic boom of the 1870s and 1880s. That investment, in turn, came from the drain of wealth from the colonies.” (p33)

Under the protection of Britain, Australian business expanded into the Pacific: “In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu came under Australia’s economic control. The Sydney-based Colonial Sugar Refining Company, for example, benefited from Fiji’s sugar plantations to become the largest public company in Australia. Those plantations were worked by ‘coolie’ labour: illiterate, vulnerable people imported from India on the basis of ‘contracts’ of long-term indenture.” (p34) This system was similar to slavery.

Today Australia hosts a number of US bases on its soil. Pine Gap receives information collected by US satellites, including military and civilian communications. It makes Australia a “co-belligerent” in US wars. (p45) North West Cape sends signals to US submarines, which could include firing instructions.

While waiting for its own nuclear-powered submarines to be delivered, Australia will host US submarines in Western Australia.


The US has an “encirclement strategy” towards China. (p42) Fernandes cites Michael Klare, who says that the US has “a detailed blueprint for surrounding China with a potentially suffocating network of US bases, military forces, and increasingly militarized partner states. The goal is to enable Washington to barricade that country’s military inside its own territory and potentially cripple its economy in any future crisis.” (p43) Australia is part of this chain of US-armed states, along with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and India.

China imports 75% of its oil, mainly from the Middle East via the Indian Ocean, Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. The US and its allies could easily impose a blockade on China’s oil imports, and on its trade in general. 

China’s vulnerability helps explain its desire to control the South China Sea and Taiwan. It wants to control the islands near the Chinese mainland to prevent their use by the US for attacks on China.

While China has a legitimate fear of being blockaded by the US and its allies, this does not mean that all China's actions in response to this threat are justified. China's claim to most of the South China Sea has resulted in conflict with other countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

Fernandes recognises that the Chinese government is authoritarian, “subject[ing] its Uyghur, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and other Muslim minorities in the western provinces to a dense network of surveillance systems, checkpoints, interpersonal monitoring and mass imprisonment.” (p78–79) However, Western expressions of concern are hypocritical: “The loudest voices in defence of self-determination for Taiwan have little to say about Indonesia’s West Papuan minority or the status of Kashmir.” (p47)

Western hypocrisy

Accusations against China for espionage, theft of “intellectual property” and ignoring international law could also be leveled at the US.

Huawei has been banned from participating in Australia's 5G network, because it is said to be a security risk. But the US also uses its telecommunications companies to carry out espionage.

The US textile industry was built in the 18th and 19th centuries using intellectual property stolen from British textile companies. After World War I, the US took over German patents and technology and made them available to the American chemical industry.

When an international tribunal ruled against China in a case brought by the Philippines over China’s seizure of islands in the South China Sea, China ignored the decision. But the US and Australia have also ignored international law when it suited them.

“No other country or bloc has undermined international law, norms or the rules-based order more than the US and the West,” writes Fernandes. (p125)

Similarly, Australia has ignored international law in its dealings with East Timor. Fernandes says that Australia “withdrew from the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea in March 2002, ensuring that Timor-Leste, which would become independent in May 2002, could not exercise its legal rights in these forums. Australia used overt and covert methods to deny Timor-Leste sovereignty over its oil and gas resources. It ordered its spy agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), to conduct an operation against Timor-Leste. Under cover of a foreign aid program, ASIS installed listening devices in Timor-Leste’s government offices to eavesdrop on its internal discussions during oil and gas negotiations with Australia.” (p55)

Fernandes criticises the “bipartisan elite consensus” that shields foreign policy from public scrutiny. (p119) He quotes a former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary, who said: “We cannot allow foreign policy to be made in streets, by the media or by the unions.” (p120)

Fernandes criticises the idea that foreign policy should be left to experts, pointing out that many so-called experts have been taken by surprise by events such as the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan.

What is the alternative to Australia's current policy? Fernandes advocates an independent foreign policy. He speaks of “neutrality” and “non-alignment”. (p125) He says Australia should support a “democratic, equitable international order” that would be “an alternative to an imperial order, whether led by the United States or a China-based alliance system”. (p125‒126)

He says that an independent Australia would need to defend itself, and calls for a policy of “armed independence”, including submarines (conventional, not nuclear-powered).

I have mixed feelings about this proposal. Submarines, like other weapons, could be used for defence, but also for aggression.

If Australia were to break with the US, the latter would react in a hostile manner. This might include military action, perhaps in the form of a naval blockade. Submarines might be useful in deterring this.

But if Australia still had a capitalist government, even one that was relatively independent of the US, it might use its armed forces to attack and intimidate its Pacific neighbours.

Breaking with the US is essential, but so too is opposing the exploitative relations between Australian capitalism and the people of the Pacific.

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