Let’s be honest: Australians have never had much time for our South Pacific neighbours. The island nations that lie to our north and northeast, stretching from Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands to Vanuatu, Fiji and beyond, may be close to us geographically, but we have not found them especially interesting, important or profitable. With a few honourable exceptions, and tourism aside, Australians have been indifferent to our nearest neighbours’ dramatic landscapes, their rich and diverse cultures, and their general welfare, and we have seen relatively few opportunities for trade. Only their strategic significance has attracted us: the islands scattered widely across the north of our continent are critical to our protection from armed attack.
Our closest neighbours are crucial to the defence of our continent simply because of their proximity. Military operations are governed by distance, as distance defines what is operationally possible and what is affordable. Whether you can sink a ship, bomb an airfield or seize a town – and, critically, how much it will cost – depends on how far your forces must operate from their bases, and how far the enemy must operate from theirs. This has been true for as long as wars have been fought, and it remains true today. Cost and difficulty rise swiftly as the range at which forces must operate increases, because it means, for example, that aircraft must be refuelled mid-flight, or ships must operate beyond the range of land-based air cover, or larger and larger missiles must be fired at an exponentially increasing cost. Only cyberattacks seem capable of breaking the nexus between geography and conflict, but it remains unclear whether they can match the strategic effect of actual violence. War remains a very physical business.