Living here on the east coast of Australia it’s easy to retain a sense that in the land that’s girt by sea, our borders are quite finite. After all we’re a modern nation state with very clear rules about borders and exclusive economic zones. We’re a signatory to various international conventions and treaties that regulate the way we as a nation state relate to the world at large. While the implications of such arangements must sometimes be tested, by and large we enjoy a formal and concrete sense of what is ours, where it is and how this fits in to the rest of the world. If only it was all so simple. It certainly seems to be this simple from the vantage point of our island continent’s eastern coastal margins. Some 80% of Australians live within 50 kilometers of the continent’s eastern and south weastern coastline.
Although it’s undeniable that ‘our home is girt by sea’, our home is an island only in the basic and static sense. In reality, both biophysically and socio-culturally there is constant interaction between this Australia and what surrounds us. Tropical cyclones sweep in from the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea. Ocean currents, part of a vast global circulations influence our weather and climate. Traditional fishers from the Indonesian archipelago continue to visit Australian waters while our border with New Guinea is a culturally arbitrary one.
Russell goes on to cite the example of the Torres Strait Islands on the northeastern frontier of Australia, culturally New Guinean but politically part of the Australian state of Queensland, and the Arafura and Timor Seas on the northwest, with their long histories of contact, trade, even migration with what is now Indonesia. Australians doesn't get this porosity, he says, much to the detriment of Australian interests. Why?
Australians are overwhelmingly concentrated on the southeast coast of their island-continent, living in dense conurbations in an ecologically unusual part of their continent (wet with fertile soil, say) located in the quadrant of Australia located furthest away from Indonesia and the rest of Asia. If they don't have any experience of the northwestern quadrant of Australia, and in truth little reason to go there apart from tourism or maybe seasonal migration to the mines and whatnot, how do you get a sense of this porosity?
Canada's issues are different. Almost 90% of the Canadian population, it's said, lives close to the border with the United States, concentrated in the thin strips of habitable territory in the south of Canada that form the Canadian ecumene. To the north of the ecumene is territory that, although certainly Canadian, is climatically quite hostile, very different from the temperate climes Canadians are used to, and the prominent home of many of Canada's largest First Nations with their own divergent interests. Canada's frontier with Greenland isn't discussed, notwithstanding Inuit cultural commonalities on both sides of the Baffin Strait; I suspect that Melanesian cultural affinities do as much, or at little, to make Australians think about New Guinea. As for the frontier with Alaska, well, only 34 thousand people live in the entire territory of Yukon. For Canadians, the American frontier--the border with the lower 48--is the prominent one. I suspect it's cultural commonalities between Canada and the United States, as contrasts to the extreme separation characterizing the Australian-Indonesian relationship, that helps keep Canadians from thinking of Americans as a serious threat--we just know them too well.