Good to sea you

I try not to laugh when I hear Aussies complaining about "bloody yanks" and "stupid seppos" like Americans are some kind of annoying cultural fungus instead of one of the pillars supporting our way of life ...

When overly energetic or hairy Australians gather to protest, you'll invariably find a "NO U.S. BASES" placard among the throng, which strikes me as akin to a goldfish chanting "NO WATER".

There are many political, military and philosophical arguments offered by opponents of Australia's deferential relationship with America - most of which resurfaced last month with the visit of US Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta.

These include our country being committed to costly distant wars, the heightened risk of terrorist attack, alienating China and other Asian trading partners as well as being forced to watch Two and a Half Men.

Former prime minister Paul Keating, in criticising our "easy accommodation with United States", recently went so far as to say that "no country is more important to us" than ... Indonesia. But, realistically, that's a conversation that is just beginning and we share with our northern neighbour few of the cultural and historic ties we do with the US.

To my mind, many of the objections to the alliance are countered by one simple reality: geography.

In the 1930s, an American asked a Japanese diplomat what principles Japanese foreign policy was based on.

"Your policy may be based on principles," he replied, "Japan is based on an archipelago."

By which he meant the physical limits of being a nation of almost 7000 islands and having little in the way of natural resources was the biggest determinant of Japan's international outlook.

Space matters in a place like Japan, as it does for entirely different reasons in this country.

Being a vast, resource-rich, island continent that's never been truly invaded (well, not since 1788) and which has no openly hostile neighbours, I think we sometimes forget how fortunate our position is in the world, by virtue of our position on the map.

As we saw recently in Gaza and Israel, when the people next door want to kill you, life gets damn miserable.

We don't have that problem, but when you're as isolated and sparsely-populated as Australia, there are other realities you need to concede and one of them is we export much cool stuff (such as iron ore, coal, gold, wheat and moo moos) and import lotsa crap too.

This includes oil (about half of what we use comes from OS), cars, pharmaceuticals, as well flat screens, sneakers and backpackers.

To that end, the single most important factor for the Australian economy is the "blue highway" and the ease with which international shipping can reach us because 99 per cent of our trade is carried by big boats.

Because of this, our country has been described as "a creature whose arteries and veins are located outside its body", so it kinda sorta makes sense to be friendly with the nation controlling the world's sea lanes, that also possesses a navy larger than the next 10 countries combined.

George Friedman, described as a geopolitical "magic 8-ball" by The New York Times says in his book The Next Decade that "Australia has only two strategic options".

One is to withdraw from the US alliance and hope our interests will be addressed in passing. The other is to embrace our American cousins and have "more formal commitments from the United States".

"The former is cheaper but riskier. The latter is more expensive but reliable," writes Friedman.

Considering our government this year cut defence spending, as a share of GDP, to its smallest level since 1938, I reckon we might be getting a pretty good deal.

Our Chief of Navy, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs said this year that "most seaborne activity is invisible to the average citizen and the relationship between the assured use of the oceans and our national prosperity - indeed our national survival - is not something that penetrates the consciousness of most.

He suggests we run the "supermarket shelves test" to make this point.

"Take everything off the shelf that has in some way been reliant on sea transport and see what is left."

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