Issue 5 - Proximity and Distance: Tyranny and Opportunity

Issue 5 - Proximity and Distance: Tyranny and Opportunity

Issue 5 - Proximity and Distance: Tyranny and Opportunity

By Gordon Flake from Perth USAsia Centre | 29 May 2017

Issue 5 - Proximity and Distance: Tyranny and Opportunity teaser

Recently I have had ample opportunity to ponder differing perspectives on proximity and distance. One of the Perth USAsia Centre’s institutional mandates is to convince West Australians, our East Coast compatriots, and countries in the Indo-Pacific that Perth is not isolated, but rather integrated into and integral to the region. The positioning of Perth is key to The University of Western Australia’s annual “In The Zone” Conference which since 2009 has focussed on the opportunities incumbent in a time zone shared with Singapore, Hong Kong, Manila, and Beijing. Add a few hours each direction and you have a dynamic “zone” encompassing much of the world’s population and most of its economic opportunity. This year’s “In The Zone” conference will be held in Perth on 2 October and will focus on “The Blue Zone: Resources, Environment and Security in the Indo-Pacific Maritime Realm.” In the lead up to that event, last week we launched this year’s theme appropriately in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city and a major port.

For much of history, oceans represented dangers to be overcome and obstacles to be crossed giving rise to the concept of a “tyranny of distance.”  However, we in Perth increasingly see ourselves as Australia’s Indian Ocean capital and we find shared purpose with our nearest northern neighbour as both Australia and Indonesia occupy the fulcrum point of the Indo-Pacific….a region bound together by maritime connections. Partnering with UWA’s world-class Oceans Institute we aim to explore the myriad ways in which the Oceans act as ties that bind this region together. Fisheries, resources, trade routes, piracy, climate change and many other maritime issues all require regional responses and will be at the centre of our deliberations.

In sharp contrast to these discussions, however, the recent missile tests by North Korea have prompted me to think of distance as a shield and isolation as a virtue as Perth sits safely beyond the range of even the most capable of missiles tested to date. That is not the case for many. Seoul has long suffered from the “tyranny of proximity” and with the right trajectory the two missiles successfully tested by North Korea over the last few weekends have the range to reach Tokyo and US bases in Guam. An earlier spate of missile tests this year led to a breathless front-page story in the Australian declaring “Mad North Koreans can Destroy Australia”. Whether such missiles have the range to reach Australia or not, however, misses the broader point of economic integration that underlies the emergence of the Indo-Pacific. Australia’s economy, like most in the Indo-Pacific, is deeply integrated into the region. With apologies to our friends in the Northern Territory, a North Korean strike on Tokyo or a major conflict involving Seoul could have a far greater impact on Australia’s economy and strategic position than would an unlikely strike on Darwin. Japan is Australia’s third largest trade partner and second largest export market. South Korea is in turn Australia’ fourth largest trade partner and third largest destination for exports and both are leading investors in Australia. This is not to downplay the risks posed by North Korea, only to place them in a context that extends beyond national borders.  Australia has thousands of citizens living in Asia within range of North Korean missiles and as a leading advocate for arms control has deep strategic interests in countering both North Korea’s missile program and its nuclear program.  

The growing challenges posed by North Korea’s accelerating programs are no longer an issue just for the Korean peninsula or even Northeast Asia, but are global in scope. Both in risk and opportunity, the world is smaller than ever before.  These are the challenges and the potential of living “In The Zone.”


Gordon Flake is the CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr.

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