Australia’s US alliance is almost an article of faith Down Under. It was, therefore, a bit of a surprise when former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser wrote a book titled Dangerous Allies, a searing critique of its security alliance with the US.
It is even more surprising that Fraser, in his earlier role as Australia’s defence minister, was somewhat of a warhorse supporting the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War. And as prime minister, he was highly critical when the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan, fearing that this might lead to a new world war.
Now he has penned a book that is entirely at odds with his advocacy in office for standing behind the US in the Vietnam War and in almost all situations.
Fraser might have had a conversion on the road to Damascus, as they say, but the country’s establishment across the political spectrum is solidly aligned with the US. If anything, it has been further strengthened with a new army base for the rotating US forces in Darwin, as well as other planned facilities. The vital Pine Gap surveillance base near Alice Springs, Fraser says, is now an integral part of the US “offensive war machine” to target China’s nuclear arsenal in case of war.
At present, as Fraser told an interviewer, it provides information for drone strikes against Islamist militants and unlucky bystanders in the “war on terror,” which he describes in his book “as the weapons of terrorists.”
At 84, Fraser might be a yesterday’s man, but by writing this book he is certainly trying to start a new debate to warn his country against tying itself to the US’ strategic interests to contain China in the Asia-Pacific region.
The context is China’s regional assertiveness for sovereignty over the South China Sea and its islands, as well a group of islands in the East China Sea under Japanese control.
Fraser fears that this regional tug-of-war between China and some of its neighbors and the US, by virtue of its military alliance with the Philippines and Japan, might lead Australia into an unwanted war.
As he puts it, Australia needs “to make sure that America doesn’t have a capacity to force Australia into a war which we should well and truly keep out of.”
To this end, Canberra should start winding down its military alliance with the US.
Fraser might be whistling in the air because Canberra is petrified at the way China is projecting its power in the region, though, on the surface, it welcomes China’s rise.
Canberra is therefore trying a difficult balancing act between its security alliance with the US, principally as a safeguard against a perceived Chinese threat, and its burgeoning and highly lucrative trade relations with China. It even tends to occasionally interpret China favorably to the Americans as its well-wisher.
For instance, during his recent US visit, Prime Minister Tony Abbott had this to say to a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce: “As citizens of a great power, it is understandable that Americans should be wary of potential rivals, [but] for Americans to begrudge what the Chinese haven’t achieved [probably referring to the absence of democracy in that country] more than to admire what they have, is out of character — especially as the movement, in just a generation, of hundreds of millions of Chinese into the middle class is a transformation unparalleled in human history.”
Canberra hopes that such attempts at balancing its relationship between China and the US will somehow mellow China on the question of Australia’s participation in the US security nexus. Beijing regards all such security connections as part of a US-led containment ring around China. Australia certainly feels threatened by China’s power projection in the region, as it is disrupting/threatening US naval supremacy regarded “benign” by Canberra.
However much Canberra might think that it would be able to adroitly play the balancing game, Beijing certainly is not buying it. However, over time, and with expanding economic ties in trade and investment areas, China might be able to have some leverage to influence Australia’s strong security links with the US.
Already, there are some powerful discordant voices cautioning against Australia becoming a pawn in the US-China power game. Fraser is one, as mentioned. Paul Keating, another former prime minister, is another critic.
Australian National University professor Hugh White wants Canberra to play a facilitating role with the US in favor of accommodating China’s strategic interests in the region. However, this is to assume that Canberra has some sort of a say in US foreign and strategic policy. Fraser debunks this idea because, as reported in an interview (paraphrased): The US, in his experience as Australia’s defence minister and later prime minister, has no capacity to listen to other countries because great powers do not reward loyalty. The US will do whatever is in its interests.
However, Canberra continues to live with the illusion that it can influence US policy in the region, but at the same time it lives with the fear that the US might one day decide to withdraw from the region and leave Australia high and dry and to its own devices.
After World War II and at the start of the Cold War, pitting a US-led alliance against the Soviet Union (and with the emergence of communist China and the Vietnam War), Australia was as much in fear of the domino theory of regional Asian countries falling to communism as was then-US president Lyndon Johnson, who formally started war on Hanoi.
Now that communist China is keen to elbow out the US from the region, Australia is working hard to keep it committed. It was in the Australian parliament in 2011 that US President Barack Obama announced the US policy of “pivot” to Asia to increase its naval deployment in the region. And it is against this background that Canberra has agreed to provide more facilities in Australia for the forward basing of US military assets.
However, Australia’s burgeoning economic ties with China, largely in its favor, are creating some unease in the US. An Australian journalist reflects this in a recent interview with former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely Democratic Party presidential contender in 2016.
On the question of Australia’s growing economic dependence on China, Clinton said: “It is a mistake, whether you’re a country or a company or an individual, to put … all your eggs in the one basket … It makes you dependent, to an extent that can undermine your freedom of movement and your sovereignty — economic and political.”
To emphasise her point, she referred to the situation Europe finds itself in for gas supplies from Russia. In other words, while the security nexus between the US and Australia is stronger than ever, the fluidity of economic, political and strategic situations in the region makes for very uncertain and even dangerous times.
Sushil Seth is a commentator in Australia.
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