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Australia as a Southern Hemisphere ‘Soft Power’

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In Brief

Kevin Rudd’s travel schedule since resuming office as Australia's prime minister— with trips to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea — confirms a largely unnoticed shift in Australia’s international profile.

As well as being a global middle power, and a serious player in the Indo-Pacific, Australia is increasingly also a Southern Hemisphere power — an idea which was once fundamental to Australia’s view of itself but has since been largely forgotten.


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Nineteenth-century conceptions of Australia as ‘mistress of the Southern Seas’ (Henry Parkes), or the ‘great princess in the south’ (Charles Darwin), fell out of favour as economic and security challenges pushed Australia’s focus north, to Asia and North America.

While engagement with East Asia and the United States remains the main game, Australian ‘soft power’ is increasing across the globe’s southern segment in a range of areas, from aid and trade to scientific research to peacekeeping.

Comprising the continents of Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Antarctica, the Southern Hemisphere contains a quarter of the global population and includes two of the world’s emerging powerhouses, Brazil and Indonesia, and middle powers such as Argentina and South Africa — all, like Australia, G20 members.

Australia’s role in the region is pivotal, if under-appreciated. Most of our development aid goes to the Southern Hemisphere, as does much of our scientific research.

Trade groupings which Australia has led or played a key role in, such as the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries, are Southern-Hemisphere focused, as are most of our current free trade deals.

Africa and Latin America are increasingly on Australia’s radar screen.

Sub-Saharan Africa receives some AUD$50 billion in current and prospective Australian investment, concentrated on mining projects.

Australia’s resource industry is also making big investments in Latin America, which is also one of the fastest-growing sources of foreign students here. Brazil is now second only to China as a market for intensive-English courses in Australia.

Australian soft power can also be seen in the complex peacekeeping operations that have occurred in its own neighbourhood: East Timor, Bougainville and the Solomon Islands.

Unlike Australia’s coalition role in ‘hot’ military campaigns in Asia and the Middle East, these Australian-led ‘cooperative interventions’ have been distinguished by a velvet-glove approach to intervention and state building.

Australia’s soft power extends to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. While it claims some 42 per cent of Antarctica, Australia’s activities there are focused exclusively on scientific research.

In astrophysics too, Australia’s Southern Hemisphere location makes it crucial to global space science, going back to the moon landings and forward to its shared stewardship with South Africa of the world’s largest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array.

All of the continents of the southern hemisphere support similar temperate environments, and their climate systems are linked through large-scale oceanic and atmospheric processes. Australia’s southern hemisphere location gives it a crucial global role in research on climate change, ocean health and food security, amongst others.

The 2014 G20 meeting in Brisbane — the first time that leaders of all the major Southern Hemisphere countries are present in Australia — presents an excellent opportunity to push these issues up the global agenda and promote a Southern Hemisphere community to address trans-hemispheric scientific issues.

Sport provides one model: the new Rugby Championship, started last year, brings together the key southern hemisphere countries of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia with Argentina.

As the world’s most far-flung professional sports competition, it relies upon the existence of reliable flight and telecommunications connections between each region, something missing only a decade ago.

Geography isn’t fate. But Australia’s location gives Australians a unique stake in big global challenges and a potential leadership role in areas ranging from climatology to geophysics.

Next year’s G20 gathering provides the perfect opportunity to leverage this science-focussed global role and embrace the vision of Australia’s 19th century forebears, who saw Australia as the America-to-be of the southern hemisphere.

Benjamin Reilly is Dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs at Murdoch University. His paper ‘Australia as a Southern Hemisphere Power’ is published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

This article was first published in The West Australian.

One response to “Australia as a Southern Hemisphere ‘Soft Power’”

  1. No mention of the 21 island states and territories in the Pacific? The 14 independent island states of the Pacific Islands Forum? A common oversight. To say ‘most of our aid goes to the southern hemisphere’ without specifying the vast bulk goes to Indonesia, PNG and the Pacific island states may be a little misleading. And surely Australia’s role as a ‘soft power’ in the Pacific is important to this analysis?

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