Australia and the US-China syndrome ……..

'Large nations do what they wish, while small nations accept what they must.'   Thucydides.

 The article that follows was written in April 2012 and is republished in a shorter form because it's such an important subject for this country to get right.  My arguments for greater independence from the United States have been supported recently by ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in his new book 'Dangerous Allies'.

Fraser goes as far as suggesting that Australia should shut down the Pine Gap facility, cut all military ties with the US and become the Swizterland of the South Pacific.  He thinks that 'US exception-alism' is going to drag us into future conflicts and that we should therefore distance ourselves, and the latest flare up in Iraq and the speed with which our Prime Minister was willing to involve without any debate us is further warning that our relations with the US have to be clarified

This is a national debate we need to have before we cut welfare and commit ourselves to spending billions on US jet fighters of doubtful value.  The thumbs up photograph of Tony Abbott sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet has ominous parallels with George Bush and his 'Mission Accomplished' pose in pilot's gear at what he naively saw as the end of the Iraq War; if only it had been!  And Tony Abbott's statement about the more recent dispute between China and Japan over some disputed rocky islands echoes earlier comments about Vietnam.  Saying that Japan was our best friend in Asia was simply inept; our politicians must learn when to shut up!

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I was in the United States in November 2011 when President Obama visited Canberra and it was a useful corrective to be reminded how others view us.  In this case, in the US of A, it was hardly at all.  The only mention of Obama's visit in theNew York Timeswere a dozen lines stating that the US would be establishing a base for marines in the Northern Territory and I don't think theLos Angeles Timesmentioned the visit at all!  Perhaps having marines stationed near Darwin was the only really substantive thing to come out of the visit, and itispretty important (more of that later), but the NY Times is a venerable paper of record, even a bit stuffy looking after theAge, and it is usually has more to say rather than less, but there wasn't a word except the paragraph about 500 marines going to Darwin. 

Then on the plane back from LA I saw the enthusiastic Oz news clips; standing ovation in the parliament, air kissing with Julia etc but with hardly a word about what had been agreed; no reason not to celebrate this ceremonial meeting between our two great nations of course, but it put in context that sense many Australians have of how important we are.  The fact is, most of the time the rest of the world is hardly aware of our existence.  Whenever I go to Europe or the US there is never any mention of Australia in their newspapers, unless it's something like the massacre at Port Arthur when it got three lines.  Ah well, we don't have much to say about them either!

I don't regret this situation at all. We should enjoy our prosperity, work hard and keep our heads down and avoid attracting attention.  What is it in our psyche that our Prime Ministers all want to shine on the international stage?  Our Minister for Foreign Affairs make pronouncements all the time about events in distant places like Syria and Libya, warning or advising them what they should or shouldn't do, always echoing the US position of course, when we have absolutely no real power at all in these situations and I'm sure Mr Assad loses no sleep over our protestations! 

You don't hear the Prime Minister of Sweden for example, a country with about the same population as ours, thinking they are important enough to thrust themselves forward like this.  We should accept that we're a large country with a small population that has a healthy economy because we have a land full of minerals the world wants to buy, a lucky country but one that has little power to affect world events.

So far we've also been lucky in our relations with our neighbors, and should just keep our heads down and concentrate on solving our own problems!  Keating had the right idea about making friends with our Asian neighbors and getting involved in their economies, but that good start has largely been dissipated by George W Bush's view that we were a reliable junior Sheriff for US interests in the South Pacific and John Howard's willing acceptance of this view on our behalf. 

It is often quoted that countries don't have permanent friends only permanent interests. Yet our government has led us into two dubious wars recently in support of the United States with very little public debate over the wisdom of these moves. In my opinion, not only was our involvement not in our long-term interest, but the 'permanent' primacy of our relationship with the US also has to be questioned.  If we ever have a serious conflict with neighbouring Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, one wonders how firm an over-stretched US might be in supporting us with more than words despite 500 marines based in Darwin. 

The ostensible (and unquestioned) reason for our involve-ment in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the relationship embodied in the ANZUS Treaty, with its implied under-standing (and it is only implied) that the US would come to our aid if we were ever attacked.  But quite apart from the precise wording, it's over fifty years since this treaty was signed in the aftermath of World War 2 and realpolitik should force us to rethink the effectiveness of ANZUS, our relationships with our near neighbours and our place of the region. We should remember that wise Buddhist saying that 'everything changes, nothing remains the same!

It's a truism that we live in a world that's changing rapidly.  Quite apart from the effects of growth and global warming, we have to face the fact that China, India, and Indonesia, are going to become economic giants and we will have to learn to be quick on our feet in order to maintain our interests and independence. 

Chinese growth will make it the world's largest economy any year soon. But it's an impressive story that conceals very real problems.  The number of Chinese over 6o is estimated to increase from the current 178 million to double that by 2030, and in the next decade the work force aged between 20 and 24 is estimated to drop by 50%.  It's easier to grasp percentages as the numbers are so staggering with an official population of 1.34 billion in 2011.  Till now the Chinese government has concentrated on building a modern infrastructure for the country but still has to raise the average standard of living.  For example, the GDP per person of $5,00o is only half that of Brazil and a quarter of the GDP per person in South Korea. 

There appear to be two competing ideologies in China and theEconomistmagazine has dubbed them, 'the Universalists who believe that China must eventually converge on democratic norms, and the Exceptionalists who believe China must preserve and perfect its traditional authoritarianism.'

The second group appear to have the upper hand at the moment, but one official recently compared China with one of the country's most famous sporting heroes who, at the age of fifteen was taller than everyone else, but he was still only fifteen, implying that China is still maturing as a power and learning to cope with the world's expectations.  Many writers worry about how the confluence of nationalism, rapidly growing military capability and deeply held feelings of victimhood by China will develop over time.

This melange surfaced recently with a maritime dispute between China and Vietnam with the US behaving like a schoolmaster and warning China not to take military action.  The Australian Foreign Minister was rash enough to support the US publicly and had his head bitten off by the Chinese who weren't very subtle in linking continuing trade to issues like this.  Australia still hasn't learnt not to rush in and automatically support the USA.  Why did we feel the need to tell the Chinese what to do, why didn't we simply keep quiet?  

Despite their internal issues, China's rise in power and influence in our region, and indeed the whole world, is clear for all to see.  China has become our major trading partner, mainly in coal and minerals, and the enormous boom in mining that has resulted has largely underpinned our current prosperity.  The US has strong relationships with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all of them close neighbors of China, and is pledged to help them in the event of any conflict. It is hard to believe that situations will not arise eventually where the US and China become at loggerheads.  When such an event inevitably happens, where would Australia stand?  It's not an either-or situation, and ANU academic Hugh White put it well when he stated:

'that to assume the only alternative to unconditional support for American primacy is craven acceptance of Chinese hegemony is dangerously wrong.'

We have to learn to balance our relationships with both the US and China carefully.   We must become independent of both of them and be prepared to stand up to both of them.  It won't be easy, the Chinese have shown they are bullies, look at the way they made such a fuss about something as inconsequential as our Prime Minister simply meeting with the Dalai Lama!  There have already been other Chinese warnings and this sort of thing will get worse. There could be serious commercial consequences unless we learn how to stand up for ourselves.  Our trade with China will inevitably become one of the bargaining counters; despite our mining riches, there are other places where the Chinese can buy coal and minerals; our trade with China is not automatically assured forever. 

The same goes for the US.  Apart from following them into war without much questioning, why didn't we protest when David Hicks wasn't ever brought to trial?  His guilt or otherwise should have been established by the rule of law; that's one of the key principles of our democracy!  Why have we silently gone along with the torture and rendition the US has been practicing in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere?  We have to learn to stand up to the US too; only a completely tough, independent stance towards both of these great powers will gain us grudging respect. 

Nothing has changed since Donald Horne articulated this view almost fifty years ago. Those big mining companies in Western Australia who are no doubt good at managing commercial risk, should be having discussions with the government about managing the long term political and commercial risks that flow from our uncritical support for the US.  Our government must be more serious about managing the geopolitical risks in Asia and doing what it can to reduce the developing strategic rivalry between the US and China.  If the politicians won't listen, both the electorate and our mining oligarchs have a clear vested interest in pushing them to take a more independent stance.

Stationing US marines near Darwin sends completely the wrong message to both China and Indonesia.  We have to learn that we can remain public supporters of the US alliance in general, and at the same time, and without disrupting the relationship, not always agree with them on everything; it's the way good friends behave!  There are a lot of bad US policies that we should be critical of, and it would be wise to be cautious of over reliance on US protection when US relations with regional giants like Indonesia are also involved.

What happens if there is a confrontation between China and one of her neighbors, Taiwan, Korea, Japan or Vietnam over disputed territories?  You're kidding yourself if you think that unequivocally supporting the US wouldn't lead to economic repercussions in mining and other fields.   Maintaining good relationships with both the US and China at the same time without bending on our own interests with either of them will be difficult and hard; we can't rely on the influence of those funny shirt associations like ASEAN any more. 

The US behaves as it does simply because it can, so we have to learn to behave in a way that doesn't force us to 'accept what we must' if it's not in our interests to do so.  Wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan weren't in either our long term or our short-term interests and were entered into without any real debate. In the lead up to Iraq Howard repeatedly stated that no commitment had yet been made about out ultimate involvement, then overnight we became part of the 'coalition of the willing' without any real national discussion.  Canada, closest ally of the US in every way, didn't have any hesitation in refusing to join the Coalition.

Because John was asked by George is not a good enough way of determining whether it's in our national interest to go to war!  All the Asian countries are different and have to be dealt with individually with tact and real understanding, not the slight condescension that we so often betray.  Is it because we have higher standards of living, or is it a dying reverberation of the old White Australia Policy that often leads us to unconscious assumed superiority?  

There is absolutely no doubt that the US is our most important ally, ideologically as well as militarily, and we should of course continue to nurture the relationship.  They are a robust democracy despite their faults, but we should be much more clear eyed about the ANZUS Treaty.   The US is careful to let us believe that ANZUS means what we think it means, but what it means to them when it comes to a crunch, fifty years later is the question to ask?  We have to become truly independent and learn to stand up to both the US and China, and to deal with our other neighbors fairly on all sorts of issues. 


It was less than two weeks after the above article was first published in April 2012 that China suggested that Australia should reconsider its role in a US military build up.  Then Foreign Minister Carr's Chinese counterpart Song Xioaojun told him that Australia's close military alliance with the US was a throwback to the Cold War.  Australia depended on exporting iron ore to China Mr Song said, but had not done enough to engage with China.  Echoing this article, the Age commented in its editorial,

'Few Australians expect or want this country to repudiate its alliance with the US, which is not only based on strategic necessity as it was understood during the Cold War and earlier, during the war against Japan.  The alliance also reflects deep cultural affinities including, most importantly, shared democratic values. Acknowledging these things to be so, however, is not the same as saying that Australia's national interest lies in closer military integration with the US as it shifts its global projection of power away from the Middle East to an emphasis on the Asia-Pacific.' 

In the context of that shift, the basing of US ground forces in Australia for the first time since World War 2 can only be seen by Beijing as a provocation and that Australia was not acting independently as a middle ranking power in the Asia-Pacific region.  The Age commented that:

'This government like its predecessors of both political persuasions, has preferred Australia's historically comfort-able role of doing the bidding of a powerful protector.' 

Just so, and the sooner we start acting independently before it's too late the better.  In this regard consider Plato's sage observation that 'this and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector.'   Malcolm Fraser's stirring is to be applauded.

Don Gazzard
Mid June 2014