All unquiet on the Western Front
1 June 2010
It was a fine Saturday afternoon when Joaja and I rolled out of Central station on the Indian-Pacific, bound for Perth. Almost with a sense of relief, I folded myself into the womb-like embrace of the Red Kangaroo sleeper cabin. The tiny compartments are like a monk’s cell on wheels. In fact the whole setup has a monastic feel to it, the narrow curving corridor, the dining car shared with the poor novices from the day-night seats.
It’s a bit like the medieval class system. Somewhere further down the train, in a place forbidden to us, the nobility were living it up in Gold Class with en-suites, chefs, real cutlery and china and a lounge car.
But snug in our tiny cell, with endless vistas of arid Australia stretching to the horizon, hour after hour, I felt I was on a retreat from a wicked world.
When the train stopped for a few hours in Kalgoorlie, we walked into town. We were hanging out in an all-night joint at the top end of Hannan Street when a bloke I’d seen alight from Gold class wandered in. He seemed vaguely familiar and suddenly I remembered him as somebody from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, (otherwise known as ASPI) the Canberra-based government-funded think tank where I’d done a job about internal fraud a while ago.
“Well, if it isn’t Nick Possum! The things you see when you’re not carrying your gun!” he exclaimed. He fetched an expensive glass of cheap red from the bar and joined us.
“What brings you to the West”, I asked.
He raised his eyebrows and glanced conspiratorially left and right, in a satirical sort of way. “I’m giving a presentation in Perth on our latest study, Our Western Front: Australia and the Indian Ocean. All very hush-hush, you understand, old man.”
“Western Front? That sounds ominous. What’s it all about” I asked.
“After all the gibber about this being ‘The Pacific Century’, it seems that it might be the Indian Ocean Century after all. We want Rudd to strengthen Australia’s military and strategic presence in the Indian Ocean region. I mean, it’s bleedin’ obvious: our gas fields are in the Indian Ocean and they’re set to be prime resources in the energy-starved world of the future.
“Take the Gorgon gas project. They reckon it holds the equivalent of 8 percent of the world’s current liquefied natural gas capacity. It might be worth $200 billion. And that’s just one of them. By 2020 we might be the world’s leading LNG exporter.”
He pulled a fat A4 document with many tabs from his daypack and flipped through it.
“Here, this is what we say: ‘The greatest challenges to the protection of our offshore sovereignty and sovereign rights lie in the Indian Ocean. About one-third of our exports emanate from Western Australia, and major offshore developments under way off the west and northwest of the continent will be a key to our future prosperity. We need to work harder to plan for critical infrastructure protection, and the Australian Defence Force should increase its presence in this area.’
“And it’s not just our resources, the fact is, three critical shipping choke-points for the oil and gas trade are round the Indian Ocean. There’s the Babe el Mandeb Strait between Djibouti and Yemen, leading to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal; the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman leading to the Persian Gulf; and the Malacca strait between Indonesia and Malaysia, leading through the Singapore Strait into the South China Sea. As oil and gas get scarcer, that’s where the trouble’s going to be.
“Anyway, the important thing is the strategic implications”. He flipped through the report and read out some more. ‘The politics of oil and energy are likely to have a powerful impact on the strategic dynamics of the Indian Ocean, and won’t necessarily be conducive to cooperation. Growing military capabilities across the region may also inhibit cooperation by reinforcing perceptions of long-standing military threats and creating a security dilemma for regional countries’.”
“And what might that dilemma be?” I asked, sensing where all this was drifting.
“Well, we’re much more reliant on our trade with China than we are on our trade with India, and India and China are shaping up against each other with the Yanks tending to side with India. And of course the Yanks are hostile to any challenge by the Chinese to their naval dominance in both the Indian and Pacific Oceans and their strategy of controlling those key naval choke points. That’s challenging for us, because since our nasty little scare in World War Two we’ve toed the American line pretty obsequiously. But if we keep lining up with the US and India against the Chinese, we’ll stuff our critical trade alliance.”
“Which implies that we’ll have to take a more independent stance, foreign-policy wise”, Joadja said. “I mean, wouldn’t you say that the Americans invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and threatening Iran is really ramping up the risk of a full-on regional war?”
“Hmm. Well, um … it wouldn’t be politic for us to suggest as much, perhaps … openly, ha, ha. But I must get back to the train”, he muttered. The conversation had raced too far ahead of the polite evasions of the ‘security community’.
We didn’t stay much longer ourselves and I was glad to get back to our monk’s cell. When we woke the next morning, the beautiful Avon Valley, shrouded in morning mist, was sliding past the window and Perth was only a couple of hours away.