Signing on the dotted line


The Howard Government, just like the Bush Administration, has for years been averse to treaties, all but those concerned with trade and security. At the UN, we oppose even some multilateral agreements that Australia helped draft. If the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was being drafted today, Melbourne academic Spencer Zifcak (see link here) speculates, we wouldn’t sign it. So Mr Howard won’t, or wouldn’t until recently, accede to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), saying Australia has ‘moved on from’ that sort of agreement.

It took the Prime Minister of Malaysia to tell him that unless we do, Australia will not be invited to the birth of the new East Asian regional body in Kuala Lumpur in December “ something his officials should surely have known. So while he’s reconsidering the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, and since most Australians have no idea what’s in it, let’s have a look at the TAC and its precursors.

First, there was Bandung

In 1955, delegates from twenty-nine newly independent countries signed the Bandung ‘declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation’ that led to the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Its ten points incorporated the principles of the United Nations Charter (link here) and Nehru’s Pancasila about independence and non-violence. It committed signatories to disarmament and the abolition of nuclear weapons, and asserted fundamental human rights, self-determination, state sovereignty, equality among races and states, and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. It prohibited aggression and the threat and use of force, and called for peaceful resolution of international disputes.

Prime Minister John Howard welcomes Chairman Li Ruihuan. ACFS Photo

Prime Minister John Howard
welcomes Chairman Li Ruihuan. ACFS Photo

Harmless enough stuff, you might think, and quite consistent with the UN Treaties. Some of the countries that signed it and joined the Non-Aligned Movement were not exactly non-aligned. But Australia would not: we had just negotiated ANZUS, and joined SEATO, and Western identity and the US alliance counted for more than regional engagement. Bandung’s fiftieth anniversary has just been celebrated at a summit attended by more than one hundred nations, but not Australia.

Then there was ASEAN

In 1967, the Bangkok declaration, ASEAN’s founding document, restated Bandung’s commitment to stability, non-interference, and opposition to threats or acts of aggression. It asserted the members’ resistance to ‘external interference in any form or manifestation in order to preserve their national identities.’ These words were repeated in 1971 when ASEAN set up the Zone of Peace Freedom and Neutrality, and were taken to mean that foreign military bases should be progressively excluded from the region.

By 1976, the five members were ready to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Their Bali Declaration said the same things, more firmly, about independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference, peaceful dispute settlement, and the renunciation of force; and added provisions for friendly exchange, mutual development, and effective co-operation. Again, harmless language, and none of it inconsistent with the UN Charter. The TAC was opened in 1987 to accession by other states beyond the region. As ASEAN grew to ten members, they made a practice of inviting China, Japan, and South Korea to their ASEAN + 3 Ministerial meetings, and they acceded to the TAC: but not Australia.

Why not Australia?

Calling the TAC ‘outmoded’ was not an auspicious way for Mr Howard to start negotiations. If some of its principles are obnoxious to Australia, the Prime Minister hasn’t told us which they are or why. He has suggested that the TAC might inhibit Australia speaking its mind to Burma about human rights: but ASEAN members can and do. Anyway, Alexander Downer’s dealings with the Rangoon regime have hardly been forceful, while China’s human rights performance seems not to bother him. Mr Howard has said the TAC might prejudice ANZUS: but other US allies don’t think so. So what is the problem?

There are three. First, renunciation of the threat or use of force. If Australia signed the TAC, Mr Howard would have to retract his own doctrines about Australia making pre-emptive strikes against terrorists in neighbouring countries and in his newly-declared 1000 nautical mile ‘Maritime Identification Zone’. Not only are such attacks proscribed by the TAC: they are illegal under the UN Charter. Second, the Protective Security Initiative (PSI). The TAC might limit what Australia can do under this twenty-nation operation, which is aimed at North Korea and, though not explicitly, at China. Third, US bases. This is the most fundamental problem, since the TAC implies exclusion of foreign military bases. But Japan has US bases and is in both PSI and TAC, so if Australia is out of line, it won’t be alone.

Enter China

The rapid rise of China as an economic, military, and political force challenges Japan and puts Australia on the spot. Presidential and prime ministerial visits, Free Trade Agreement, and energy contracts notwithstanding, China isn’t keen to see Australia at the ASEAN summit. China is determined not to have its influence on the UN Security Council undermined by Japan: but Australia supports Japan’s admission. China won’t brook any support of Taiwan: but Australia vacillates over backing the US in a future attack. China was outraged by the defence and foreign ministers of Japan and the US ganging up against it in February: but Australia welcomes their closeness and co-operates with them in the PSI.

China has been urging Australia to decide where its interests lie for some time. A Beijing official in 2000 warned Howard against presuming to be a ‘bridge’ between East and West. ‘Militarily and politically’, he said, ‘Australia follows the United States. Economically, Australia has close ties to Japan and wants to extend its economic influence in Asia. Culturally, Australia wants to keep her links to Europe. Australia has to learn how to balance these three forces’. This year, Australia was curtly told that China needed no intermediary in its dealings with the US.

When the Chinese are irritated with Australia, they ask ‘when are you going to stand up?’ “ meaning become independent of the US. Australia, like a tributary state in the past, is being told to defer to the Chinese on everything that matters to China, particularly on the US alliance. China sounds increasingly like the resurgent Middle Kingdom, as well as like George W. Bush: either you are with us or against us, they both declare. China may well impose conditions on the Free Trade Agreement, or on our support of Japan in the Security Council, and Australia’s negotiating position is weak. So this year China has the opportunity to raise the bar for Australia’s entry to the future East Asian Community, and will enjoy making Mr Howard jump it.

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