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The Third Way: Towards an Australian Maritime Strategy for the Twenty-first Century

This paper argues that, despite being the world’s largest island, the greatest paradox of Australia’s existence is that the country lacks a maritime consciousness to guide defence policy. National development has been marked by several historical characteristics which have created an ingrained culture of sea-blindness. These include a long tradition of maritime dependence on great powers; the growth of a martial cult centred on Anzac; a schism between continental and expeditionary approaches in strategic behaviour; and the fact that, until the twentieth century, a lack of direct responsibility for security permitted a continental rather than a maritime ethos to shape the country’s essential cultural traditions.

As Australia emerges as a twenty-first century middle power in a globalised world increasingly dominated by Asian economic power, defence thinking must undergo a philosophical change. In particular, a credible maritime strategy needs to be developed as a ‘third way’ to unify the older continental and expeditionary approaches. Australia must seek strategic maturity based on broad maritime principles. Given contemporary challenges stemming from long-held inland cultural affinities and deep-seated political traditions of alliance dependency and low defence spending, future strategic planning should concentrate on a balanced posture that is sufficient rather than self-reliant.

In the years ahead, it will be imperative for national leaders to develop a vision of Australia’s defence that is aligned to political economy and which integrates an older continental identity with a sophisticated appreciation of the value of maritime strategy.