Australia's Foreign Policy Disaster
Malcolm Fraser is one of the few commentators who can see the foreign policy disaster looming for Australia. We all know Australia is locked into US foreign policy and its military activities. At the same time China, our largest trading partner, wishes to expand its role in the Asia-Pacific region. The US and its supporters in Australia see these moves as Chinese aggression. Few will openly admit, however, that the US policies, which Australia fully supports, are aimed at maintaining the current American supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region. The US does not want to share power with China. Fraser explains the idea of the US sharing power with China like this:
"The problem is that America is not in a mood to move in that direction. Its objective is the maintenance of American supremacy, driven by American exceptionalism and neo-conservative philosophy. Sharing power with China is not in Washington's strategic thinking."(2)
The reality is that the US considers China's desire to expand its sphere of influence in the region as a threat to its 70 years of supremacy in the region, and Australia acts as though we agree with this assessment of the situation.
Does China Pose A Military Threat To The Asia-Pacific Region?
The US has between 700 and 800 military bases around the world. The armed forces of the United States can be found in more than 150 countries. There are 156,000 of its personnel serving outside the United States and many thousands more in various contingency operations in foreign countries. The US has approximately 80,000 troops in East Asia, Australia and the Pacific region.(3) How many military facilities does China have in other countries? In the Wikipedia site "List of countries with overseas military bases" there is no entry for China. However there are reports of three Chinese naval bases: one in the seaport of Gwadar Pakistan, one on the Indian Ocean island of Seychelles, and one off the coast of Djibouti, a small African country located on the strategically important Horn of Africa.(4)
You can count the Chinese bases on the fingers of one hand. When you consider how important shipping is for a major exporter/importer like China, this is not unusual. For example, Japan is listed as having only one overseas naval base and it too is in Djibouti to combat piracy.
Who Is Aggressive In The Asia-Pacific Region?
The whole idea of "Chinese aggression" is just US spin, repeated by our government and media. A sober assessment of the US military activity in the Asia-Pacific would show that if China were to engage in the kind of military exercises off the US coast that the US does around China, the US would see it as a provocation aimed at starting a war. What would the US think if China decided to rotate 3000 troops through Cuba? We would never hear the end of it! However, when the US decides to rotate 3000 US marines through Darwin, we expect the Chinese should not be concerned.
If Ecuador were to host a Chinese satellite ground station like Pine Gap, the US would probably invade the country to get rid of it. But if Australia hosts Pine Gap, which is an integral part of their offensive strategic capabilities, we suppose this should be of no concern to China. The one-eyed US perspective from our media and our government is that the US and the US alone has the right to engage in military manoeuvres and station troops anywhere in the world. They assume that US superiority in the region is normal. However, is it reasonable to expect that China will accept this is as normal for the next 100 years?
Is Russia Aggressive In Europe?
Our Prime Minister also has joined the US in their hostility to Russia. However in reality Russia is no more a threat to Europe than it is to Australia. As the Saker has pointed out:
"The EU and US politicians will try to terrify the Europeans with images of Russian hordes invading the Baltics, Poland or even Germany, but they all know that this is utter nonsense. For one thing, the (conventional forces of the) Russian military are simply not configured to execute such a mission as they do not have the required power projection capability. (...) They were designed to be purely defensive and they have no capability to threaten anybody in Europe, much less so the United States."(5)
The US has provoked military confrontation with Russia in Europe by its activities in the Ukraine, and supports several South East Asian countries like Japan and the Philippines in their hostility to China. At the same time Russia and China are growing closer together politically, militarily and economically. For example, China has supported Russia in Syria and the Ukraine, and the two countries are holding more and more joint military exercises and sharing military technology. In effect, the US approach to these two countries has pushed them closer together. Can one really suppose that if the US began any kind of military action against China that Russia would not be involved? If so, what would happen to Australia?
Are We On The Winning Side?
Once we realize that any upcoming war between the US and either China or Russia means that both of these countries will be involved, we need to ask what would happen to Australia if such a war broke out. Questions about Chinese or Russian intentions are academic if such a war were to start. If push comes to shove, would we be on the winning side? Is this not a reasonable question to ask? Consider this assessment by Hugh White, Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University. He was a senior adviser to Defence Minister Kim Beazley and Prime Minister Bob Hawke and a senior official in the Department of Defence, so he cannot be simply dismissed as a left-wing peacenik.
"America would not lose a war with China in the East China Sea, but America has no clear way of winning it and no sure way to control it and limit the risk of escalation. Without a clear win for one side or the other at the conventional level, the outcome of such a conflict would most likely depend on which side could better convince the other that it would be willing to use nuclear forces rather back down.
"And no prudent policymaker can be very sure that it would be America. Ultimately, the danger is that China is as serious about changing the status quo in Asia as America is about preserving it."(6)
While Hugh White looks at a China/US military confrontation, the Saker explains the basic truth known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) in relation to any nuclear exchange between Russia and the US.
“Under any conceivable scenario Russia does have the means to basically completely destroy the USA as a country in about 30min. The USA, of course, can do the same to Russia. Any US war planner would have to consider the escalatory potential of any military action against Russia.”(7)
So, if US military action against China would almost certainly involved Russia, and an all out nuclear exchange between Russia and the US would mean the complete destruction of the USA as a functioning political and military entity, what would Australia do in a world without Big Brother USA?
Australia As A Defeated Ally Of A Defeated Superpower?
This assessment of the Australia's precarious position is also held by Malcolm Fraser. Fraser's analysis is that Australia is putting complete faith in the US, just as Australia put complete faith in the British Empire before WW II. And what happened in 1940? The British Empire was overwhelmed militarily by Germany in the West and Japan in the Asia-Pacific. Suddenly Australia was left isolated on the other side of the world. But this time there will be no other superpower around to ask for help.
In his book, Dangerous Allies, Fraser insists that if there ever was a war between the US and China, not only would Australia be involved, without being asked, but that the US would probably lose such a war.(8) In that case, Australia would be a defeated ally of a defeated superpower. Would Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard like to be the Prime Minister of Australia then? Fraser explains:
"If America were to lose a war with China, in military terms at least, America could withdraw to the western hemisphere. Australia cannot withdraw anywhere. We would remain here, geographically part of the Asia-Pacific, but also a defeated ally of a defeated superpower. (...) It is not a position any Australian government would want to be in."(9)
This is the disaster looming in Australia's future. Like the Titanic heading for the iceberg, the US ally is considered "unsinkable". With what we assume to be superior weapons and technology, Australia has nothing to worry about. Our leaders all insist that it should be full steam ahead on our present course. Is that really wise?
How Did Australia Get Into This Position?
Fraser's book is an attempt to understand how Australia came to be so closely tied to the US. He starts by looking at the history of the separate colonies and the Federation. He points out that the creation of Australia as a Federation of several otherwise separate British colonies should not be confused with "independence" from the British Empire. Virtually all the leaders of the separate colonies and all supporters of the move for Federation assumed the colonies were creating a system of self-government within the British Empire. In the beginning the Federation had no provision for a defence force or any separate voice on the foreign policy of the Empire. For example, until WW II Australia had no way to officially communicate with other states except through the British Foreign Office.
When the Australian Prime Minister Deakin asked the US to send its Great White Fleet to Australia as it steamed around the world in 1908, he was rapped over the knuckles by the Foreign Office for meddling in Empire business.(10) At the time the strategy of the Empire was to share the Pacific with Japan, and keep the US out. By contrast, Australians, in the grip of the White Australia policy, were more afraid of the Japanese than the US.
In some respects the social policies of the new Federation were more progressive and egalitarian than in the UK itself. Still, this egalitarian spirit did not extend to Aborigines, Islanders, Japanese or Chinese. Most of Australia's citizens considered themselves to be proud citizens of the British Empire. The invasion of the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli was decided on and completely planned by the British army. Australia supplied some of the troops, as did New Zealand, Britain itself and the French Oriental Expeditionary Corps.(11) For the leaders of the British Empire, the Australian soldiers were just one group among many thrown into battle to save the Empire.
It was no more of a uniquely Australian effort than any of the other battles on the Western Front. Those Australians who fought and died at Gallipoli fought and died as subjects of the British Empire. Only in recent times has it come to be seen as an "Australian" military achievement. This is why Prime Minister Keating tried to draw attention to the battles for the Kokoda trail in New Guinea, since they were fought by Australian soldiers as Australians defending the approaches to Australia.
The Policy Of Strategic Dependence
Fraser describes the Australian foreign and defence policy since Federation as strategic dependence. This policy clearly was the best protection for the new Federation. The goal of the policy was to support the British Empire of which Australia was a part. Malcolm Fraser explains:
"This was not done reluctantly but with enthusiasm and belief in Empire coupled with a naive faith in the wisdom and righteousness of the United Kingdom. (..) Australia felt no real sense of urgency to craft an independent defence and foreign policy position."(12)
Does this sound familiar? The sentence could well be rewritten as follows and rings just as true today as it did in 1915, one hundred years ago: Australia does not follow US foreign policy "reluctantly but with enthusiasm and belief in the West coupled with a naive faith in the wisdom and righteousness of the United States. (..) Australia feels no real sense of urgency to craft an independent defence and foreign policy position."
Fraser points out that when the Federation was created, Australia had little choice but adopt the policy of strategic dependence. However it clearly proved foolish in 1939. Policy makers in Australia (and England) were blinded to the real weakness of the Empire at that time. When Australia turned to the US at the beginning of WW II, this was also a reasonable response to protect Australia's vital interests. Some might disagree with Fraser that following the US into the Cold War was also in Australia's interests, but many would accept his view that with the end of the Sino/Soviet cooperation, the Cold War, and the breakup of the Soviet Union itself, there was absolutely no need to follow the US into one disaster after another in the Middle East. These conflicts have been of no direct or immediate relevance to our part of the world, the Asia-Pacific region.
How Can Australia Get Out Of Its Strategic Dependence On The US?
In theory, Australia could extricate itself from the web of US military and foreign policy, but it would not be easy, even if there was any political will to move in this direction. Consider two of many important points. The US base at Pine Gap would not be easy for the US to replace even it wanted to. It is hard to imagine they would give it up with out some kind of military action. Then think of the close connection between the Australian Air Force and Navy and their US counterparts. Can they even operate for more than a few days without the cooperation of the US?
For better or worse, it seems that the only way that Australia's strategic dependence on the US will end is when the power of the US in this region also ends. This may take place slowly over a long period of time, or it might happen quite suddenly as a limited conventional conflict with Russia or China turns into a nuclear showdown. It could also happen if the US decided to launch an unannounced first strike at either or both Russia and China in the hope that they will not be able to retaliate effectively. According to the Saker, and other military experts, the US does not now have the ability to protect itself adequately from all Russian and Chinese missiles.
"It is theoretically possible that in the future the USA might have a means to protect itself from such a retaliatory attack by using a combination of its future Prompt Global Strike system, the forward deployed Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defence system and the US National Missile Defense programs. Personally, I don’t believe that such a system would ever protect anybody against a Russian counter-attack, but even if it does, this will be far away in the future. Currently these systems are not operational and will not be so for the foreseeable future."(13)
As a result, such a sneak attack will not go as the US would hope and would almost certainly lead to the MAD outcome explained above.
While there is little or no chance to change Australian foreign policy until this happens, hopefully when it does occur the Australian people will come to realize that their intellectual and political elites have never been able to overcome their colonial mentality. The total destruction of the US power in the Asia-Pacific is probably the only event that can ever force the Australian elite to consider abandoning their dependence on the US. Perhaps then people will start to think about Australia as a truly independent country which makes its political and military decisions on the basis of what is needed by the people of Australia.
Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire?
Unfortunately the idea that Australia could shed its colonial mentality and the policy of strategic dependence is not the only possible outcome for Australia when the US can no longer control the Asia-Pacific region. If we look at the approach of the LNP to China, there could be more to this than meets the eye. Australia is clearly trying to bend over backwards to encourage Chinese economic activity in Australia. In this apparently unseemly rush to be friends with China, they have signed so-called "free trade" agreements and made other decisions which involve serious challenges to both farmers and workers.
One clear issue is the giant Chinese Shenhua coal mine in New South Wales in the heart of some of the world’s most productive farm land. The mine will produce coal for about 30 years, but the agricultural use of the land could go on for hundreds of years. Further, under the "free trade" agreement China can bring in Chinese workers to work in the mine, transport the coal to ports in Chinese trucks, and ship the coal in Chinese ships. In the past such foreign investment has at least provided some economic benefits for Australia and Australians, but under this system the results for us are even worse. The same could happen in the dairy and cattle industry, which could be carried out on Australian soil with no benefit to Australia at all.
If The Government’s Priority Is Foreign Investment…
The problem is that these plans are just the sort of thing that come from the traditional Australian policy of giving the highest priority to foreign investment rather than the needs of Australians. If you think about the interests of the people of Australia, this is a complete disaster, particularly in times of high unemployment and low economic activity. However, if you think that "encouraging" foreign investment should be the top priority for the Australian government, these plans are wonderful for the Chinese foreign investors.
Perhaps Tony Abbott is not the village idiot people take him to be. Could it be that these policies with respect to China are seen in Canberra as a win-win for Australia? While the US is dominant in the region, Australia can still encourage and "benefit from" Chinese investment. After the US departs from the region, whether peacefully or not, Australia can still "win" by continuing to form a dependency on our new Big Brother, China. If the leaders of Australia follow the traditional policy of strategic dependence, they will seek to shift their allegiance from the USA to China, just as they shifted from the British Empire to the USA.
Remember that the US and the British were rivals in the Pacific until the Japanese attacked their former allies, the British Empire. To shift allegiance from the US to China would be the "natural" thing to do for the Australian political elite and their dependant colonial mentality.
Seen in this light, Australia’s otherwise strange policy of being good friends with the two mortal enemies, the US and China, is simply the natural working out of the policy of strategic dependence. If there is a war between the two of them, Australia will take some "collateral damage" with strikes on Pine Gap and other strategic locations. But after the war is over, we will just dust ourselves off and get back to the business of pandering to the needs of the new Big Brother, China. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
1. Hugh White, "Power Shift"; https://www.quarterlyessay.com/essay/2010/08/power-shift.
2. Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies, Melbourne University Press, 2014, p. 266-7.
4. From several sources: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/MJ26Df03.html;
8. Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies, p. 268.
9. Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies, p. 267-8.
10. Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies, p. 34-5.
11. The French Oriental Expeditionary Corps was made up of French settlers from Algeria and Tunisia, the 175th regiment of French infantry, one battalion of the Foreign Legion and colonial troops which consisted of battalions of both West African Tirailleurs Senegalais and white regulars of colonial infantry.
12. Malcolm Fraser, Dangerous Allies, p. 29.