Edge of the world – the centre of the world

Australia and New Zeland,by Denis Jans at Unsplash
Australia and New Zeland,by Denis Jans at Unsplash

I have always considered myself a supporter of globalisation, and now it has more good than danger, but I have experienced globalisation for myself in a very interesting way. About two decades ago, when we were not yet in NATO or the EU, and money was called litas, I tried to use a card from one of Lithuania’s banks to pay for my groceries on the opposite side of the globe, in a supermarket in the capital of New Zealand. And what? The machine, without any long deliberation, recognised, calculated, and confirmed. It may be nothing today, but twenty years ago, it sounded to me like a sign that globalisation was working and that the Earth was round. What we think of as the planet’s edge is not the edge at all. And the further we go, the more it is not a fringe because the Pacific is looking less and less like something calm. Less worried about the tourism business and more concerned about the threat of war…

If anyone does not yet know where the Earth’s centre is, look at the world maps printed in China or Australia. On those maps, we are at the edge of the Earth, and the centre is the Pacific as mentioned above Ocean. And whoever owns it can control the whole world. For those more seriously interested in world politics, it is worth reading that map to understand how that part of the world is important to those who live there and us. Globalisation.

The Pacific Ocean covers almost a third of the world’s surface, with many bays and lagoons and thousands of islands. The borders of states here are often just imaginary lines on the surface of the water, where the power of states is not measured in square kilometres of land but in what is known as a power projection. Formally and geographically, everything here was discovered before the First World War; politically, everything is still very much in dispute. As a result, the political present and future of the region are only strokes in an unfinished geopolitical picture.

Political geographers divide the world into three sub-regions – Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia. Micronesia – the western Pacific Ocean north of the equator – is known as an archipelago of small and ecologically fragile islands and is also known as the US nuclear testing ground. Just south of Micronesia, below the equator, is the sub-region of Melanesia, known not only for its many tribes and languages but also for its grim (and sensational) history of ritual cannibalism in funerary practices and warfare. The largest of the three Pacific island sub-regions is Polynesia, from Hawaii to New Zealand, where the diversity of languages, cultures and political traditions is also rich. It is also the site of the French nuclear tests. The French would say it’s a safe place on the edge of the world, but Australians think the French are just… living somewhere themselves and taking their nuclear rubbish almost into the Australians’ backyard.

So, closer to politics. How do the nature of the archipelago’s population, its colonial past, the World Wars and the realities of the present shape the geopolitical picture of the region?

Before the First World War, the Ocean was shared by those who did not bother to ‘discover’ the many small islands. In addition to the traditional discoverers – the British, the French and the Americans – there were also those who today do not appear to be true maritime powers: the Russians and the Germans. The balance of power was upset by the Japanese, who were determined to turn at least a large part of the Ocean into their inland waters. The Second World War was fought here in large part because Japan’s wishes were not destined to come true. The result was the domination of the Americans and the former British possessions, in a word, the West. And there is another country whose importance is often overlooked.

Strange as it may sound, France is also a Pacific country. It is the only European country with territories in the region. In particular, more than half a million French citizens live in French Polynesia and New Caledonia, and the French are also responsible, in a way, for the southern part of the Indian Ocean, so there is a lot of France.

The main problem today is, of course, China. China is ‘attacking’ its neighbours, not only with its economic power but also with military threats, and China is seeking to be the most important and more important than others. It is curious that the region itself, from Australia to California, has until recently welcomed China’s ‘arrival’ in a peaceful global world, but now it is apparent that it is not coming with good intentions; it is coming, and it does not know how to make it leave. Only the US, perhaps, can force it. That is, of course, if it wants to and is determined to turn its wishes into reality. That requires real allies.

When we think of them, Australia probably comes first. It may seem like a safe, isolated territory whose best strategy would be… neutrality. But since 1900, Australia has been formally involved in wars and other military operations (including the world wars, Korea, Vietnam, etc.), which have lasted about 40 years in total. In other words, Australia has been at war for more than a third of the time since the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Only one of these wars, World War II, was a direct threat to its national security, and even then, much of the fighting was in places such as Greece and North Africa rather than in direct defence of Australia.

To understand this country’s strategy, it must be borne in mind that it cannot be isolated economically; without trade, it would be a poor province indeed. Secure trade – secure sea lanes – is, therefore, the primary strategic objective. Important. And, of course, who the trading partners are. Herein lies one of Australia’s dilemmas: its biggest trading partner is China, a country that is neither ideologically close nor politically sympathetic. Australia has become a typical victim of the idea of the ‘end of history’. Believing that money does not smell (at least politically) believing that China too will become a friendly market economy and democracy, China has been allowed to be too autocratic, not only in Australia’s own affairs but in the affairs of the region. Australia has to choose between trade figures and formal security alliances or real defence.

At the end of 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States initiated the trilateral security pact AUKUS. Which is more important in this region (and in the future, globally) than any NATO. The good news here is that everyone understands why such a pact is needed. The bad news is that France is not in it. Not just politically. The new pact included a nuclear-powered submarine deal between Canberra and Washington, which is why Australia cancelled the Scorpene diesel-electric submarine contract with France. Technically, this is quite justified – diesel ships are graceful and very suitable for sailing off Australia’s coast, suitable for deterrence, but far less suitable for real war. For the French, this is not the first lesson that, in the 21st century, the war industry is not a business venture that delivers something impressive but not necessarily practical. Politically… the French need to be in the region; AUKUS also understands that the French are needed here. Hence, ways will be found to reconcile and work together. China is, after all, too big a problem for one country, no matter how big it is.

Because there is certainly something to do, and it is becoming clearer every day where the edge of the world is and where the centre is. The Pacific region has a very dull political future ahead of it.

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