(Image: Mitchell Squire/ Private Media)

In his address to the National Press Club on Friday, Defence Minister Peter Dutton warned that China sees Australia as a “tributary state”. It doesn’t wish to occupy us, he said, but rather wanted us to “refrain from making sovereign decisions and acting in [our] self-interest”. 

His\\Dutton’s point is an important one: today’s imperialism doesn’t involve direct occupation but rather “a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of others”.

A tributary state subordinates its sovereignty to an imperial state. It makes its resources available to the imperial power in the manner desired by that power’s dominant corporations. The distinction is captured in modern economics by the concept of economic complexity. Complexity increases with a country’s level of diversification (the number of products it exports), and decreases with ubiquity (the number of countries exporting the same product). A country’s level of economic development is associated with the complexity of its economy.