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Dangerous proximity

Dangerous proximity

The collapse of Australia’s defences in a contested Asia


Modern Australia is the product of the first truly global conflict. The Seven Years’ War, fought between a British-Prussian-led coalition and a French-Austrian-Spanish-led coalition, raged across Europe and North and South America, and in Asia and Africa, between 1756 and 1763. When hostilities ended, Europe’s balance of power had been transformed and a new system of imperialism had risen. Empire was no longer about trade; it was about territory. Colonies would be garrisoned, and taxed heavily to pay for the privilege. During the war, Britain had seized some of France’s and Spain’s colonies in North America and Asia, its success demonstrating how potentially vulnerable its own overseas possessions were. Only a dominant Royal Navy could knit the far-flung Empire together, and to be dominant it needed a global string of bases. Australia, at the hinge of the Indian and Pacific oceans, was chosen as such a base.

Before the British, no empire had shown the slightest interest in invading the great southern land. Not Java’s Majapahit kingdom (1293–1500s), nor China’s maritime-minded Yuan (1279–1368) or Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, nor the Spanish or the Dutch adventurers who found its coasts long before James Cook. The strategic value of Australia only became apparent with the complete transformation of power politics wrought by the Seven Years’ War. Before the advent of the British Admiralty’s truly global planning, Australia’s indigenous inhabitants had benefited from a unique geopolitical trifecta. The coasts of their continent closest to the rest of the world looked barren and unremittingly hostile to potential settlers, traders and invaders. Their continent was so big that to find the lush, inviting south-eastern coastlines would require prodigious sailing skills and determination. And compared to Australia’s northern and western coasts, the islands of South-East Asia were much more enticing: they were laden with spices and precious metals, and were home to the world’s most enterprising maritime traders.

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