The dilemmas in Canberra go beyond the respective roles of the American alliance and the China trade. They point to a failure to grasp historical reality and an equal failure to perceive the future.
In a recent article in the influential Australian website Pearls and the Irritations (www.johnmenadue.com 8 January 2019) Richard Broinowski set out several reasons why the Canberra establishment (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ministry of Defence and Prime Minister and Cabinet) in what he described as cognitive dissonance, have adhered to a pro-American set of foreign policies.
This has been the case ever since then Prime Minister John Curtin’s announcement in 1941 that Australia was essentially switching its reliance on the United Kingdom to an equally dependent relationship with the United States.
Mr Broinowski then set out a series of factors why this has been the case at least up until the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, although he now detects some faint glimmerings of a possible policy shift. Such optimism in my view lacks a solid evidential foundation.
Rather than possessing a “clear-eyed vision of China” that Cairin Morris (Australian Outlook 25 November 2018) sees as part of the DFAT culture of antagonism, what is really needed is a clear-eyed analysis of the post-World War II period, of which adherence to the United States world view has been the dominant feature.
The actual benefits that have accrued to Australia from this stance are vanishingly small. It could equally be argued that the detriments outweigh the few benefits there might have been, of which “blowback terrorism” and reputational damage are only two elements.
As has been argued elsewhere, the purported reliance on the ANZUS Treaty by the Canberra political and public service establishment is misplaced. It is also wrong, as Mr Broinowski suggests, that the ANZUS Treaty obliges Australia “to join whatever wars the United States wants to fight.”
The operative clause of the ANZUS Treaty, Article IV, obliges the parties to meet the common danger an attack upon any of the parties would create “in accordance with its constitutional processes.” The location of the precipitating attack is limited to specified objects in the Pacific (emphasis added). It is a commitment only to consult.
What is always overlooked is that Article 1 requires the parties to settle any international dispute “by peaceful means” and in accordance with their obligations under the United Nations Charter.
The post-World War II locations cited by Clinton Fernandes in his book, (Island off the Coast of Asia, 2018) both reviewed by and repeated in Mr Broinowski’s article (Korea, Malaya, Viet Nam and the engineered overthrow of Indonesian President Sukarno) are not Pacific nations. Neither was there any attack upon the territory or assets of the United States, Australia or New Zealand (the latter then being a member of ANZUS).
The New Zealand decision to ban United States ships from its territorial waters by the Lange Labour government led to New Zealand’s departure from the ANZUS alliance, and its downgrading (as expressed on DFAT’s own website) from the status of “ally” to that of “friend.”
The New Zealand Prime Minister of the day, David Lange, had legitimate concerns about the United States response to New Zealand’s decision. He was not thinking that New Zealand would be invaded, subject to a colour revolution, or sanctioned in the manner there has been a standard United States response to any country that did not submit to its wishes.
Rather, he was very mindful of the Australian experience of November 1975 when MI6 and the CIA engineered a constitutional coup against the Whitlam government. That government had committed the cardinal sins (in US eyes) of recognizing the People’s Republic of China, withdrawing Australian troops from Viet Nam, and was on the verge of expelling the United States from the spy centre at Pine Gap. The dismissal occurred the day before Whitlam was to make that announcement in parliament.
New Zealand survived the departure from ANZUS and to this day has pursued a more independent foreign policy then could possibly be attributed to Australia. That includes being the first ‘Western’ country to sign a MOU with China over the Belt and Road Initiative. The failure of Australia to similarly align itself with the opportunities presented by the BRI is something that Ms Morris cites as evidence of Canberra’s hostility to China.
Mr Broinowski, with respect correctly, identifies Russia as the object of similar constant suspicion as to its motives and conduct by the Canberra mandarins. He is too polite. The United States and the United Kingdom have engaged in what American scholar Stephen Cohen (War with Russia? 2018) calls an unprecedented and singularly dangerous campaign of disinformation and vilification against Russia.
In this they are willingly aided and abetted by a supine mainstream media, a criticism applied with equal validity to the Australian media. They have distorted, misrepresented or outright lied about events such as the reabsorption of Crimea into the Russian Federation, the shooting down of MH17, and the alleged poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.
In addition to the foreign misadventures identified by Fernandes, one should add Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. None of these countries are in the Pacific. None of them attacked the United States (and that includes 9/11), and none of them posed the least threat to Australia, directly or indirectly. In each and every case United States and Australian intervention in the affairs of those countries was not only contrary to international law; they made their situation measurably worse.
As a lawyer it is particularly vexing to read and hear the constant reiteration of Australia’s alleged commitment to a “rules based international order”, ‘liberal’ or otherwise (although that distinction lacks any legal meaning.)
There is a body of international law, found for example, in the UN Charter, in treaties, Conventions, and rulings of international tribunals. It may not be perfect, but it is all we have. Adherence to its principles and obligations would be infinitely preferable to the alternative, which is all too frequently the case.
When one looks at the geopolitical and legal history of the past several decades, it is not Russia or China that is the serial violator of international norms of acceptable conduct. One country, the United States, has waged almost continuous wars and is responsible for the violent deaths of tens of millions of people. In this regard the United States is in a class of its own, the only real way it meets its self-description of being the “exceptional nation.”
One of the cornerstones of any legal system, international or otherwise, is that violations of its requirements are punished. Again, not only does the United States lack any meaningful sanctions for its misconduct, it refuses to recognise the jurisdiction of, for example, the International Criminal Court. It threatens violence and sanctions on any individual or country that seeks to bring United States violators of international law to justice.
The final point relates to Mr Broinowski pointing out that Canberra views the growing power of Russia and China as a threat to United States global hegemony. Those mandarins need to read Alexander Lukin’s book: China and Russia: the new rapprochement (2018). Dr Lukin has a sophisticated analysis of the relationship between the two superpowers. He acknowledges that there have been periods of difficulty, but points to a joint declaration signed in Beijing between Yeltsin (a western favourite) and then PRC chairman Yang Shangkun.
That declaration reiterated that the two states would develop relations on the basis, inter alia, “of mutually beneficial cooperation in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, based on the principles of mutual respect and territorial integrity, non-aggression………. peaceful coexistence, and other universally recognised norms of international rights.”
Several subsequent agreements between the two nations have reinforced these points, the importance of which, as Lukin states, cannot be overstated. Not the least of the factors driving those two superpowers to greater collaboration and strategic partnership is the unrelenting hostility of the United States and its allies. Re-reading that declaration more than two decades later, it is not difficult to determine who has respected those principles and who has not.
In the past two decades there have been a number of very important developments in Eurasia, most of which barely rate a mention in the western media in general, and the Australian media in particular. These developments include, but are far from limited to, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, and the Belt and Road Initiative. The latter multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and investment program now extends throughout the Pacific, Africa and Latin America, in addition to its primary focus in Eurasia.
The “global hegemony of the United States” that Mr Broinowski refers to is not threatened. It is passé. Its former military dominance has now been surpassed by the vastly superior Russian and Chinese technology, as Andrei Martyanov details in his recent book (Losing Military Supremacy 2018) and President Putin reinforced in his 1st March 2018 speech to the Russian Parliament.
That superiority has been recognised at the highest levels of the United States, (although not in Australia which continues to buy their inferior military equipment at vast cost). That recognition has not as yet led the Americans to modify their hegemonic conduct in any meaningful way.
The world that Canberra seeks to maintain is an illusion. The choice therefore is whether or not Australia acknowledges the reality of the new multipolar world. The gravitational centre of that world, technologically, militarily, and in terms of setting a new agenda based on mutual respect, nonaggression and peaceful coexistence in accordance with international law is firmly in Eurasia.
Clinging to the coattails of what former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called Australia’s Dangerous Allies (2014) would not only lead Australia to miss the boat on this rapidly changing new world; it is likely on the basis of past misjudgments to lead to US-led military entanglements that will be decidedly to Australia’s detriment.
JAMES O’NEILL is a barrister at law and geopolitical analyst. He may be contacted at [email protected]
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