Australia in Asia


Approaching the ninetieth anniversary of Australia’s most masterly military extrication, John Howard pulled off a political retreat which was, in its way, just as remarkable.

Beginning with an interview on 13 April with SkyNews, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, would have been uncomfortable about apparent differences emerging between China and Australia over East Asian political issues, notably Taiwan and summitry, Howard re-wrote the script for his visit to China and Japan. The agenda in both capitals became bilateral topics, impliedly relating to trade: there were ‘a lot of bilateral fish to fry with both countries’.

Prospective free trade agreements are not, of course, purely economic. If they were, there would be no US-Australian FTA. China has never divorced the economic and the political in its strategic thinking, and will certainly be approaching Australia’s proposed FTA with an eye on political gain. Nevertheless, the precondition for entry into East Asian summitry, signing the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, shows that the government’s preferred approach to regional cooperation, building up the economic sub-structure through bilateral agreements, is nearing the end of its shelf-life.

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

Thanks to Bill Leak from the Australian

The Treaty is of symbolic significance, and seems to have only a few practical implications. The government has made much of its hands being tied as a Treaty signatory in criticising the odious military regime in Burma. However, it lags well behind several ASEAN countries in that regard. It would find itself in acceptable company (though with China on the other side) if it changed policy to apply pressure on Rangoon to release democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has received very lukewarm support from Canberra, and engage in genuine political dialogue. The larger crunch lurks in the aid field. Australia could well find itself isolated (or alone with New Zealand) if it wished to oppose multilateral aid to Burma, and it would be in hot water with the Americans if it did not.

The practical penalties of signing the Treaty lie more in the domestic political arena. It will be a volte-face which will be plain to the public. The air of confidence and the sureness of touch in handling Australia’s regional relationships, which the government has gone all out to project recently, will be vitiated.

Will Asian countries, none of which have been happy about Howard’s insensitiveness about their sovereignty in insisting on the right of pre-emption, let Howard down lightly? There is obvious advantage, as well as some justification, in conducting the dialogue on terms for signing the Treaty with the founding fathers of ASEAN who drafted it. China has signalled that it will go along with that, at least for the time being. However, it too has an interest, which is specific in relation to Australia’s ability to act independently and accept the ‘Asian way’, as well as based on its general right to be consulted on every major regional issue. That ASEAN will have to do.

The Treaty is based on the five principles of peaceful coexistence, which are indelibly associated with the Asian giants of the post-colonial era, Zhou En-lai and Nehru, and the Bandung Conference which enshrined them internationally fifty years ago this month (and where Nehru ostentatiously deferred to Zhou). The Menzies government, apprehensive about how the conference would handle issues of race, colonialism and security pacts (John Foster Dulles, described by one of Australia’s most senior officials as ‘a Bible-bashing bastard’, had condemned neutralism as ‘immoral’), ensured that it did not receive an invitation to attend Bandung. Eerily, the government continues to refer to the unacceptability of non-alignment, long after the end of the Cold War. An observer, diplomat Mick Shann, did attend Bandung. He concluded that his government had been wrong and that it should have sought an invitation and attended.

The Bandung conference heard a wide range of views on the fundamental issues. It refused to be steam-rollered by the big powers and leading figures. The handling of the five principles is instructive, especially today for Australia in conducting discussions on the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.

The five principles were fleshed out in the Bandung communiqué to expressly acknowledge the right to national and collective defence under the UN Charter. Presumably Australia will hope to get off the hook of pre-emption on which it gratuitously impaled itself, through interpreting the strides it has made in collective and bilateral regional defence cooperation and practical assistance against terrorism as now eliminating the need for unilateral pre-emption. It will have to acknowledge the requirement to act in accordance with the UN Charter, something that should be as important to a government, particularly recollecting East Timor, as it clearly is to the Australian people,

Looking forward to the ultimate decision on whether Australia should be admitted to the East Asian summit, the Chinese will be quietly judging Howard’s attitude to Asia and capacity to act independently of the US. As regards Australia’s degree of regional comfort, it was in Beijing just four years ago, on 23 April 2000, that Alexander Downer chose to draw a distinction between practical regionalism, which he endorsed, and cultural regionalism, or ’emotional links’. He rejected the latter, but they lie at the core of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation’s history and content.

In the context of the principle of non-intervention in another country’s internal affairs, China has a particular concern about Australia inserting itself into the crucial issue of Taiwan. Unwisely, Howard himself seemed to be putting Taiwan on his agenda recently in claiming an active honest broker role: ‘we see ourselves as having a role in continually identifying, and advocating to (China and the US), the shared strategic interests these great powers have in regional peace and prosperity’. A Chinese official rejected that bluntly. However, China will want to judge Howard’s thinking on an issue on which there have been conflicting signals in Canberra; Australia’s perceived obligations under the ANZUS Treaty.

Does Howard now accept his Foreign Minister’s statement in Beijing last August (in answer to a question from McDonald) that Australia is not committed to stand with the US militarily in the event of war breaking out over Taiwan? The Chinese would be aware that Downer has a lot of support from ministerial colleagues, and even more from the Australian public. It is a paradox that Australia became unequivocal about accepting an ANZUS commitment in a war over Taiwan only after the end of the Cold War (this seems clear from the writings of Hugh White after he moved from Defence to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute). In the preceding forty years both sides treated it as a grey area, and many Australian statements, public and private, were consistent with the line that this was America’s problem, the residue of its involvement in China’s civil war.

Recently there have been unusual Chinese government signals that the ANZUS alliance should not be injected into what it considers its own ‘internal affair’. These seemed linked with a more important target, Japan’s extension to Taiwan of its shared strategic engagement with the US.

Australian governments of both political persuasions have been second only to the US in urging Japan to play a greater security role and to act confidently as a ‘normal’ nation. Prime Minister Koizumi will want to hear Howard reiterate this sentiment. The Chinese will be scrutinising what he says in Tokyo. They would not be happy to have a pair of Trojan horses inside the new East Asian grouping.

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