The US-China syndrome……..

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

I was in the United States last November 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 the New York Times were a dozen lines stating that the US would be establishing a base for marines in the Northern Territory and I don't think the Los Angeles Times mentioned the visit at all!  Perhaps marines stationed near Darwin was the only really substantive thing to come out of the visit, and it is pretty important (more of that later), but the NY Times is a venerable paper of record, even a bit stuffy looking after the Age, and it is usually has more to say rather than less, but there wasn't a word except the paragraph about 500 marines based up near Darwin. 

Then on the plane back from LA I saw the enthusiastic Oz newsclips; standing ovation in the parliament, air kissing with Julia etc 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 its place that sense some Australians have of how important we are.  The fact is, most of the time the rest of the world hardly notices 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 about them either!

I don't regret this situation at all, I think we should enjoy our prosperity, keep our heads down and avoid attracting attention.  What is it in our psyche that makes our Prime Ministers all want to shine on the international stage and 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 the situation. 

I'm sure Mr Assad loses no sleep over our protestations, and you don't hear the Prime Minister of Sweden for example, a country with about the same population as us, thinking they are important enough to thrust themselves forward like this.  We should accept that we're a country with a small population which has a healthy economy because we have a land full of minerals that the world wants to buy, a lucky country 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, I can't remember who said it first, 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 our nearest neighbour Indonesia one has to wonder 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 involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the relationship embodied in the ANZUS Treaty, with its implied understanding (and it is only implied) that the US would come to our aid if we were ever attacked.  But 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 ever remains the same!

It's a truism that we live in a world that's changing rapidly.  Quite apart from the effects of global warming, we have to face the fact that China and India, and to a lesser extent 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 continues to make it the world's largest economy any year soon. It's an impressive story that conceals very real problems.  The number of people 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 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 the Economist magazine 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, and many writers worry about the effect of a confluence of nationalism, rapidly growing military capability and deeply held feelings of victimhood on China's behaviour.  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 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 just shut up?  

Despite China's internal issues, their 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  boom in mining that has resulted has largely underpinned our current prosperity.  The US has strong relationships with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, all 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 carefully balance our relationships with both the US and China.   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 straight forward as the Prime Minister simply meeting with the Dalai Lama!  And there have already been other Chinese warnings and this sort of thing will get worse, and 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.  There are other places where the Chinese can buy coal and minerals; our trade with China is simply not 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 was never 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 are practicing in Iraq and Afghanistan?  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. 

Becoming a republic and ending the last remaining remnant of our colonial past is the first step towards forcing us to stand on our own two feet,  and that's a problem. The Queen's visit to Australia in 2011 passed with little fanfare, but the fact that few people dislike the Queen herself doesn't mean that we should ignore her inherited privileges, her arbitrary powers or that an increasing number of Australians, including the oldest Australians, lack any emotional ties at all to the Crown.  This country is so comfortable and prosperous that the need to become more independent is simply not an issue with most Austral-ians. If they ever do think of it, most would say not to worry, now is not the time, wait until the Queen dies, it's not an issue till then.   In that case it's an issue that's not that far off, the Queen is in her mid eighties!  We like to think of ourselves as larrikins challenging the status quo but we are a conformist lot at heart, too lazy in our comfort zone to take real responsibility for our own future. 

Nothing has changed since Donald Horne articulated this view almost fifty years ago. Those big mining companies in Western Australia are no doubt good at managing commercial risk.  If they were smart, they would be having discussions with the government now about managing the long term political and commercial risks, consequent on our uncritical support for the US.  But if the miners and the government aren't listening, then neither are most people. Standing alone and becoming a truly independent republic is going to be hard but it's the first step in handling the big powers!   Our government has to 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 the 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 over disputed territories?  You're kidding yourself if you think that unequivocally supporting the US wouldn't lead to economic repercussions in the mining field and other ways.  Maintaining good relationships with both of them at the same time without bending on our own interests with either of them, will be difficult and hard and we can't rely on those funny shirt regional 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 short-term interests and were entered into without any real debate.   I remember Howard being questioned in the lead up to Iraq, and repeatedly answering that no commitment had yet been made about out ultimate involvement, then overnight we became part of the 'coalition of the willing' without any national discussion.  Because John was asked by George is not a good 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 than them, or is it a dying reverberation of the White Australia Policy that often leads us to an air of unconscious assumed superiority?  

There is absolutely no doubt that the US is our most important ally, ideo-logically as well as militarily, and we should continue to support and 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, is the question to ask?

Not only are we a bit self satisfied and smug about all this, we still can't see that having the Queen of a European country as our Head of State makes us look slightly ridiculous and colonial in the eyes of the rest of the world.
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.   
The first step is to become a republic and start becoming truly independent, but nothing is further from the minds of most Australians.  She'll be right, mate!

 Don Gazzard
April 2012