Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Strategic positioning: the location that binds


Australia a quiet all-round achiever


The advantages Australia has in sitting at a unique place of the world are apparent. The former Prime Minister Paul Keating has described this location of Australia as such: “What nation has been given an inheritance like we have? Eighteen million of us (now twenty), a continent of our own, a border with no one, and the chance to actually live in a beautiful country, rather than one simply spoiled by the careless commitment of industrial resources, … and on top of that, living in the fastest growing part of the world”.

This sums up primary reasons for feeling exceptionally good and a strong sense of luckiness from being in the right place. The continent sized land mass is big enough to have inland space and depth, leaving huge potential for endless further exploration in all directions. The combination instantly eliminates drawbacks some countries have in small territory and narrow width, such as Chile. A widely varied diversity in landscape and climate tempts people to search for the mode of life they prefer, sub-tropical, British or European countryside, Miami coastal, metropolitan, or outback. It is a factor of available choices that makes it convenient for people to pick up a property and settle down in a particular area. For years, Australians have migrated from Victoria in the south to sunshine coasts of Queensland, and when swooping up beach front properties in Melbourne spread frantically like prairie fires, some turned the other direction towards inland country and found tranquility there of equal measure. It is assuring and comforting to have these wide varieties and choices within the borders of a single nation.

Australia keeps a far distance from others, separate by seas and oceans, and more importantly from hostile countries; close by neighbours are either extremely friendly or insignificant, dependent. This factor is terribly crucial, since land routes crossing borders destroyed major powerful regimes in past histories, such as what Mongols from steppes impacted on agrarian societies and empires. A 20th century example is Britain’s survival in facing Nazi Germany: it would have all lost the fight miserably against German panzer divisions save for the Channel of Britain. Even with systematic military upgrades, Australia could not effectively defend itself from falling if the continent were connected to other lands. Furthermore, successful amphibious landing campaigns for taking on this vast country are incredibly hard to organise and execute. Traditional maritime powers have been benign to Australia, as most of them are west European or cousins of Australia. The only exception, the Imperial Japan, ran out of steam before it could reach the shores of Australian coastal belt. Potential maritime powers, Russia, China, or India, have so far minded their own strategic or development business and have not had a firm hand on genuine blue ocean battle fleets. Distance and waters kill ambitions.

Australia benefits immensely from its small population, a population dwarfed by many medium sized Chinese provinces, in two fronts: generous and secured sharing of resources for future generations and moderate scales of pollution. The first lies in simple math division, making higher average figures of usable resources available for a smaller population. This guarantees future consumption at acceptable levels for all citizens. The second front of pollution is a tricky one. The economy of Australia relies on consumption, and inconsiderate consumerism does cause unnecessary waste and pollution to the environment of Australia, commonly seen as a fragile one. However, slow expansion of this small population poses an overall minor threat to the environment and gives the land time to recover and re-generate at its own pace. As the majority of population concentrate in major urban centres along the coastal belt, damages can be managed, and minimised, in a controlled spread to spare large chunks of land man-made disturbances. This leave-it-lone approach seems timid, unassertive, and contrary to growth priority of many countries, but will prove invaluable in preserving space for future development.

With a smaller burden to shoulder, the economy can maintain higher inputs in public education and welfare. One argument against this tininess is that the domestic market is always small for consumption, as well as the size of talent pool. Since many developed and wealthy countries are both small and creative, this argument on economics and business grounds appears not quite strong. For one thing, talents can also come from higher standards of living and education.

With these evident advantages in the location and size of this country, a cursory comparison with other countries in similar conditions still makes sense in identifying the real benefits underneath. The island country of New Zealand is also a cousin of Anglo-Saxon powers and surrounded by oceans. New Zealand is nearly identically well managed, green and pleasant, with fertile land, hidden natural reserves, and high living standards, a minor Australia in a sense. It is not a viable choice simply because it is even so much smaller than Australia, two islands rather than a continent. The country is short on mining potential and political clout in the world. Clearly that economy has a dependence on other major markets, including Australia’s. New Zealanders routinely seek job opportunities in the larger market of Australia, reducing unemployment rates back home at low times. A recent tourist boom arises as a result of utilising its unique landscape as perfect settings for Hollywood mystical legend movies. The country’s tiny population and limited island space make it impossible to sustain attacks from outside, and a close alliance with Australia proves imperative, from the very early time of contemplating joining Australia as one offshore state similar to Tasmania.

Japan is another country totally surrounded by seas and gives intruders no land routes for easy advances. This country, however, locates in a precarious corner of the Pacific facing formidable competitors and adversaries. That sense of low security is almost entirely its own making. The hermit country received nothing but benefits and loots from being close to the Eurasian mainland from China, Korea to Russia. Its obsession with survival and uncontrollable urge for external expansion ruined its chance to keep good terms with neighbours even when it did show certain pacifist tendencies after the American occupation forced upon it nominal forms of demilitarisation. With its world leading economic strength and undying military, political ambitions, Japan could head towards triggering a major military confrontation in a feud with close neighbours, mobilising its impressive so-called Self Defence Forces. Although there are no land routes connecting the mainland to Japan for armoured divisions to drive all the way to Tokyo, considerable long-range firepower from those three countries (two Koreas counted as one) could easily strike the Japan proper and cause havocs. Deeply entangled in this love-hate web, historic and contemporary, Japan has enjoyed only limited security on a water-isolated territory. Its vulnerability also shows in narrow, stretched territory and a desperate shortage of homeland resources reserves, minimising potential for sustained defence and counter attacks. Even its frantic strategic effort on stockpiling key materials on its home islands may prove futile. Australia, in contrast, keeps far distance away from boiling regional feuding and rivalries. Water forms a natural defence line and deters attempts of aggression.

Canada is often viewed as a more promising country relative to Australia. It is a Commonwealth country of British legacy of parliamentary democracy, but also a G-8 country, which projects a higher international standing. The country has its hands on huge land mass and waterways, with a population not overly larger than Australia’s. The size of the country ranks the second largest in the world, in the safe hug of two oceans. Only the land of the extreme south near the US is relative temperate and inhabitable, under 60-degree latitude. Most big cities of Canada line up along the border. This has impeded heightened economic activity in other parts of the country away from the line. Australia, of course, has similar empty space of desert and wasteland, hostile to human settlements, but those are probably places of precious resources reserves exceptionally valuable in future. Canada takes a similar position, living off rich natural resources from that land mass, including mining and forestry. There is no question that Canada can count on its yet explored natural resources for sustaining remarkable social welfare and future prosperity.

One of the major problems of Canada is its close proximity to the US, in fact too close for comfort. Trade with the US undoubtedly benefits Canada immensely, with a 500 billion USD annual trade value and bulk export of crude oil and natural gas to the US. Canadian talents find easy excess to the much bigger market of the southern neighbour, among them entertainers and sports stars like Michael J. Fox, Peter Jennings and Steve Nash. For this short distance apart, however, Canada has constantly endured penetrating influence and mounting pressure from the US, in every conceivable way, and ended up making regular commitments to US led overseas expeditions and agendas. Clash and conflict often erupt from this requesting and conceding relations pattern between the two neighbouring Western countries. The world power of the US also imposes its will and styles over the whole of North America, making the independence of Canada a doubtful statement from time to time. Cultural invasion and temptation create for Canadians a lot of stress, as their European traditions and liberal characteristics have undergone steady erosion. It is easy for people of Asian backgrounds to take a Canadian person as an American in first meetings, either in English accent or behaviour details.

Some commentators list relationships between the two countries as admirably exemplar of an ideal non-aggression type, asserting it a perfect model of peaceful coexistence among democracies, in that the US acts honourably and gentlemanlike for not grabbing Canadian territories with its overwhelming military supremacy. In fact, the US does not need to demonstrate aggression to this cooperative northern neighbour; Canada has been doing the US’s bidding as always, disagreeing at times, but not disobeying. Canada is a faithful participant of NATO and has joined the US in numerous military campaigns around the world. The decision not to send troops to Iraq in 2003 is a most recent divergence, since that move echoes domestic public dissent to blatant American unilateralism and was made under a government of centre left Liberal Party. If there were the Conservative Party in office, like the situation in Australia, Canadian troops would have been dispatched to Iraq at the behest of the US. With such a mostly adherent country next door, the US feels no urge to annex it and on the contrary understands the vital significance of leading a larger number of allies in front of world media, and of possibly listing Canada in some “coalition of the willing”.

The other major issue of concern to Canada is the separatist tendency of Qu├ębec region in this Commonwealth country. French influence remains, even after the narrowly defeated independence referendum in 1995. The country adopts both English and French as official languages, prompting the need for a policy of bilingualism to service coexistence and reconciliation. People benefit from mastering an additional language tongue, but there remains a sense of two identities in the country, and clashes are not to be ruled out permanently. With hope, longer time span of multiculturalism and sustained bilingual practice probably could mend the divide in a way of setting up a melting pot.

Australia gains some points in these areas, as its geological location keeps certain distance to the all-powerful US and attached influences. This “forgotten land” in the eyes of Americans could handle cultural interactions more objectively and maintain its ways of life persistently. Americanism has not been overly in fashion; on the contrary it is often disputed publicly. This appears not annoying or displeasing the US due to the factor of distance. Australia acts more like a Commonwealth country than Canada does, because the latter in public perception forms part of the US sphere of influence in North America. The issue of Aborigines poses as a thorn in the country’s conscience and policy, but that non-lethal issue can be handled intelligently and sensibly by the community, and it is far from as destabilising as separatist sentiments within Canada.

South Africa is another regional power with sizable territory and abundant resources reserves, in some mining categories even more promising and productive than Australia. It is however not a separate state from the bulk of the African continent, linked by land with other African countries and facing disruptions from the north. Its white rule was unstable at a glance, a few million of whites among several dozen of million of blacks and so-called coloured locals. After the historical turn of an official abandonment of apartheid, the black majority rules the day and government, making some whites feel unease. It has long been a common scene in Australia that Caucasian South Africans moved to this country and settled down when potential or reality of a black rule back home unnerved them. One of the most prominent tycoon families in Australia, Homes a Court, has a South African origin long way back. Australia shares vital interest with South Africa in mining industries, leading to the formation of the number one mining corporation of the world, BHP Billiton, in 2001. Overall, this African country longs for the kind of security and stability Australia has, due to its location and social composition, and has to work hard to fix the specific problem of substantial poverty among the black population.

Brazil of South America is a leading developing country and a regional power to reckon with. Its potential in future is particularly promising and stirring, as being placed into the coined term “BRIC” by business analysts (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The country is well endowed with vast territory, large population of nearly 200 million handy for providing ample labour force, abundant natural resources, and outstanding economic and industrial strength in relation to other Latin American countries. It in fact projects an image of a mini US in this continent, except for the latter’s world class supremacy. It is also officially a parliamentary democracy, gradually shrugging off domestic threats from the military and vested interest blocs and thus shielding the country from intentional hostility and potential aggressions coming out of ideology-driven US administrations.

Risks hide deep and hamper prospects of development. The entire Latin America is regarded as the backyard of the US, and Brazil is not immune to this overbearing American influence. Financial controls in forms of foreign investment and lending allow the US to play a key part in local economic affairs. Although Brazil shares no land border with the US as Canada does, it feels tremendous pressure and sharp pinch from the north when the economy is facing problems and thus has to heed American demands and concerns. The American will to mould Brazilian economy, including a forceful implementation of the “Washington Consensus”, has clashed with the country’s desire to find its own way and options. In the shadow of an overwhelming American influence and habit of interference in Latin America, Brazil finds it hard to be genuinely leading, despite its considerable size and progress.

Another factor is that diversified approaches taken up in the region forces Brazil to court waves of disputes over its regional leadership. Other countries tend to follow their own instinct and sense, especially on issues concerning American neo-liberalism and intervention. The left-wing Brazilian government is seen less determined to face up the US challenge. That task has fallen on to other smaller and economically less viable, but more resolute, left-wing countries. Venezuela creates an aggressive leader of Hugo Chavez, setting an example of anti-American stance and once foiling an American plan of a continental free trade pact. This stance has gained some currency in the region, where chronic issues of poverty, foreign control and unrealised development potential remain unsolved, even with selective American aids, and people grew impatient. Brazil in this light sits in an ambiguous position whether as a fine example of independence and success or merely another generously aided entity under US guiding. Taking the second position would certainly lose respect and following in other Latin American countries. If Brazil gets bogged down in regional rivalries and contenders of leadership, it is doubly hard for the country to fully explore its potential and play a significant role in the world. On this point, Australia has no regional contenders and has managed to keep a safe distance from troubled relations offshore.

For equally extraordinary social democratic traditions and practice, Sweden and Norway are in the same league as Australia is. On top of egalitarianism and provision of extensive social welfare, they manage to maintain high productivity levels and have their own multinational businesses competing successfully worldwide. Sweden ranks high in competitiveness studies and fares well even in the so-called new economy, leading Internet and telecommunications world trends while maintaining a solid foundation in manufacturing. Swedish built machinery, cars and trucks hold unique reputation of quality and reliability. Norway keeps an equally remarkable record, being selected as the most liveable place of the world on a row and has successfully explored North Sea oil and export to sustain economic growth and social welfare of the country. These two countries are very small in population relative to their territories, so that they can expect continued resources exploration for their future development.

With these outstanding performances, they in effect are more successful in leading the way of social democratic movement and especially in dealing with constant contradictions between productivity and fairness and between GDP growth and welfare. Economic issues trouble many voters in Western European countries who feel uncertain of uncurbed welfare largess and erosion of competitiveness by those centre-left parties in office. These two countries adequately demonstrate to the public their capability of handling the economy and make their model of dealing with contradictions work. So far they have not adhered to the extreme economic rationalism or neo liberalism. The trials there are inspiring and offer an alternative to the overwhelming US doctrines of economic management and blind worshiping of free market. Their mixed economies are even branded “Scandinomics”, an independently developed approach in comparison with mainstream ones.

The problems with these Nordic countries, albeit their splendid track records, are that they are within the European domain, in between traditional rivalries and conflicts, such as that between Russia and Eastern and Western Europe, between Britain and continental countries, or between France and Germany. Sweden joined the EU, while Norway opted out. There are questions of benefits from such an entry and how they avoid being dragged into endless quarrels, assistance to poorer Eastern members, and the ultimate requirement to follow EU rules and politics, leaving them with less chances for self chosen options and alternatives. They inevitably will come under influence from other models in the EU, such as the UK and Eastern European countries which have displayed decidedly willing support for US policies and approaches, and will have to make compromises in the process of coordination. Centralisation of authority in the EU may also prove negative to creativity and flexibility in these two countries of inexhaustible imagination.

A bigger question concerns the EU, a once promising bloc to grow into an equal to the US in many fields. The EU is now a union built on fragments. Troubles come from the fast pace of expansion this union has eagerly undertaken. The union admitted some eastern and Balkan countries to fulfill its ambitions, which are not quite qualified and not at the comparable levels with the core, founding members. In terms of coherence and development levels, the 15 member bloc before rushed expansion was an ideal size, rather than the current 25 member cluster. This super union breeds bureaucracy and inconsistency, making it doubly difficult to coordinate, especially in times of reaching consensus. A larger group tends to create bad group dynamics and make less sensible decisions under group pressure and conflict. Taking on new members enlarges the total size and strength, but the larger the Union grows, the less likely consensus is to be reached and the more limited influence traditional European powers such as France or Germany, two economic powerhouses of Western Europe, have on decision making of the Union. A larger grouping also typically incurs heavier burdens of allocating funds or subsidies for those new and poorer members.

Conflicts already emerged, with divisions at the behest of the US, relentlessly shoring up the so-called new Europe against the old. A line could be drawn to split this cluster of countries roughly into two sub-clubs, separated by economic strength and political power. Both new and old members are not content. They began to argue in the union and make requests for their rights to be presented and agendas implemented. It is getting evidently harder to accommodate and reconcile, and there are more occasions of bureaucratic wrangling on benefit redistribution among members. On top of that, the US as an external stakeholder will fully capitalise on these frictions to encourage certain members in the EU to adopt American lines and act as some kind of Trojan horses. Indications of this intrusion are permissions given to secret prisons on behalf of the US and introduction of missile defence facilities in some eastern European countries. Visible divisions within this colossal union are not likely to be smoothed out any time soon, considering complex histories of Europe and deep-rooted military and ideological feuds in modern times. As Europe gets more fragmented, with new, smaller countries gaining independence status, the divide could drag the EU along, exhausting it with tension and attrition, instead of raising its status in the world as a credible counterpart to the US. Unlike the EU, Australia faces little prospect of disintegration or threats of deep internal disagreements of many kinds.

After this brief, wide-scoped comparison, it is conceivable that the advantages Australia holds are comprehensive and not one dimensional. It is undeniable that numerous countries have specific advantages, at equivalent levels to Australia’s, and are able to achieve remarkable progress and demonstrate leading qualities. However, in combination they do have noticeable shortcomings and troubles. In view of future development, only countries with large territory and abundant resources can survive and become leading powers, Australia among them. This eliminates many candidates and narrows it down to sizable countries, some of them understandably bearing serious, unsolved problems, despite their size advantage. Australia stands high in an overall estimate, benefiting most from its location and size, but also from many identifiable favourable characteristics. This right combination compensates what it seems lacking, such as military might or extremely high levels of productivity or creativity.

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