Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena, Clinton Fernandes

Book Review by Sam King
Sub-Imperial Power: Australia in the International Arena
Clinton Fernandes, Melbourne University Press (2022)

Fernandes’ short and readable book is useful to anyone concerned with the imperialism of Australia and the other rich countries against the rest of the world – the Global South.

It addresses the AUKUS military alliance with its nuclear submarine deal, the so-called “rules based international order”, free trade agreements and more.

Fernandes basic argument is a convincing one. According to him, Australia is a “subimperial power” which operates as one node within the US-led system of imperialism that collectively benefits all of the rich countries against the Global South countries – which are exploited under this system.

“Sub-Imperialism” in Fernandes work has the meaning of a country that is a junior partner in the imperial enterprise – benefiting together with its more powerful partners even while contributing less and having less overall power due to smaller size.

Use of the term ‘Sub-Imperialism’ here is distinct from another recently popular term used to suggest that the position of large, relatively developed Global South countries such as Brazil, Russia and China is becoming increasingly comparable to that of core imperialist states. The book is not about that.

One gets the sense the term is favoured more because Australia is an imperialist power that is now seeking to acquire nuclear powered subs – something that Fernandes, a military and intelligence expert, knows something about.

A Club of Rich Imperialist Powers

Fernandes asks the most pertinent questions of Australian foreign policy from the point of view of Australia’s ruling class. Looking at Australia’s very aggressive military and diplomatic posture towards China that has angered Beijing, he asks, “isn’t the economic relationship China too important to jeopardise? Why aren’t Australia’s mining and energy billionaires up in arms?” Indeed. Few analysts can answer this, or even ask it.

“The answer is that they take seriously the government’s insistence that its highest priority is to uphold the rules-based international order – and they know that that order is the US-led imperial system, whose preservation offers greater long-term benefits to them. They know it prioritises the rights of private investors over the sovereignty of most states. They know the US-led imperial system serves as a bulwark against efforts in the developing countries to control the pace, depth, and terms of their integration into the international economic system dominated largely by Western investors. Otherwise they might use their resources for their own social and economic development…” (p45)

The conceptual framework– that a club of imperialist states that collectively work to maintain a global system to their exclusive benefit – can explain many Australian foreign policies that do not have an obvious connection to Australia’s immediate, individual national interest. This is especially true of Australian participation in the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.

It might also help understand the current paradox of why European imperialist states – so far at least – are going along with extreme US aggression against Russia. In Germany’s case, this support seems unwavering despite Germany losing a huge part of its energy supplies as a result of the Ukraine war – something that is already leading to some discontent inside EU countries.

A “Rules based international order”

Fernandes advances his critique of imperialist exploitation of the Global South through a critique of the so called “rules-based international order”. He shows that term is developed and used specifically to avoid the issue of international law – which is more clearly defined.

“At a high-level summit between the United States and China in March 2021, the US Secretary of State said he was ‘committed to leading with diplomacy to advance the interests of the United States to strengthen the rules-based international order’. The director of China’s Foreign Affairs Commission countered by saying that China and the international community upheld ‘the United Nations centred international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order’.” (p32)

Addressing why many Global South countries are reluctant to the do the West’s bidding in the Ukraine war, Fernandes Quotes Iranian-American relations expert T. Parsi, “[N]o other country or bloc has undermined international law, norms or the rules-based order more than the US and the West”

Fernandes argues that “invasions, war crimes, coups [and] sanctions” are mostly directed against the Global South. To demand huge sacrifices for “an order in which the US can continue to act outside international law” is asking them to sacrifice for the sake of the imperialists.

Also interesting is Fernandes’ comment, “the concept of a Democratic, Equitable International Order has been discussed at the United Nations every year since 2011 but has never been discussed or reported seriously in the Australian media.” (p125). How significant this is, or to what extent any dynamic reminiscent of the non-aligned movement is returning to the US is worthy of further investigation.

Is China threatening the Imperialist Club?

Fernandes argues this is not the case. Imperialist policy towards China is not aimed at stopping China from becoming a peer competitor, but rather preventing China from limiting the degree of imperialist exploitation and control. He addresses this firstly from a historical perspective,

“The United States recognised that ‘the outcome of the competition between Communist China and India as to which can best satisfy the aspirations of peoples for economic improvement, will have profound effect throughout Asia and Africa’.” (p113)

And then geo-strategically saying, “… power is relative, and relative to China it is objectively true that the United States is not as powerful as it once was.” (p114)

But Fernandes is far more cautious even in this assessment – which is common, “China might also develop sufficient military power to retaliate credibly against intimidation” (p114) – emphasis added.

Might develop in the future a credible defence – of its own territory. National sovereignty – heaven forbid! Sovereign defence is only seen as a threat in the imperial eye where,

“… lurking in the background is the knowledge that developing countries might [attempt to – SK] emulate the way China controlled [to a degree – SK] the pace, depth and terms of its integration into the international economic system…” (p114).

Not only this. A less downtrodden China (or Russia) is fearsome for another reason: “neutrality”, “Once known as non-alignment” is becoming a serious option (p125) for other Global South countries – especially to the extent Russia and China are sovereign. Strengthening of non-alignment also tends to strengthen the forces favouring international law as opposed to imperialist “rules-based” violations of international law (p114).

In this reader’s view, Fernandes work does not outline a full critique of the imperialist attacks on China because of the limits in its economic analysis. Citing research of “economic complexity” and the fact Australia’s largest exports are raw materials, Fernandes, at times, falsely portrays the Australian economy as broadly similar to developing countries economically (p22).

In fact, Australia has a comparable role in the global division of labour to all the other rich countries – specialisation in high technology labour and production processes. That is the reason Australia, and all the other imperialist states remain rich. It is just as true for exports of iron ore or beef as cars or tractors – all of which are now produced via a globalised division of labour dominated by the rich, imperialist states. An economic analysis along those lines better supports Fernandes core “sub-imperial power” thesis than his own.

AUKUS and the Nuclear Submarines

Given Fernandes’ background, many readers will be interested to hear his analysis of the nuclear submarine deal that he estimates will end up costing Australia something in the order of AUD$171 billion. The book is worthwhile for that reason alone. His explanation is consistent with his “subimperialism” framework,

“Interoperability – with the United States military more than Britain – remains a core feature of Australia’s military procurement, taking precedence over other goals such as defence self-reliance and cost.” (p9)

This is not a loss of sovereignty for Australia, Fernandes argues, so much as the sovereign decision of a rational subimperial state with an interest in the global system of exploitation. That system can only survive under the leadership of a violent and rogue US imperialism and with the backing of the various other violent and rogue beneficiaries – Australia being chief among them.

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