This article retraces the role of sub-imperialism in the formation of the Australian state as a subject of international law. The discourse of sub-imperialism developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a means of characterising the British self-governing Dominions’ uncertain status in the international order, and drew explicitly on the United States Monroe Doctrine. The article revisits the significance of sub-imperialist posturing at two critical junctures in the historical formation of the Commonwealth of Australia. The first is the formalisation in the early 1880s of the movement toward federation of the Australasian colonies as a response to perceived British acquiescence to German imperialism in the Western Pacific. The second is the Commonwealth government’s attempt during the Versailles negotiations of 1919 to annex to its territory the occupied German Pacific territories of New Guinea and Nauru. The principal argument made in this article is that attempts to establish an Australian sub-empire in the Western Pacific were fundamental both to the federation movement and the recognition of Australian sovereignty in international law. The article concludes that Australian sub-imperialism warrants greater attention both in accounts of the history of Australia’s transition from self-governing Dominion to sovereign status in international law, and in accounts of contemporary Australian foreign policy in the Pacific region.
Melbourne Journal of International Law / Volume 19 / Issue 1 / pp. 335-368