We have said No to the Americans: Robert Menzies
Saying No to America was not an upfront characteristic of Menzies’ foreign policy, based as it was on supporting and attracting the support of ‘great and powerful friends’. Supplementing that was his politically profitable propaganda about threats from Asia.
It might therefore come as a surprise to learn that a gossamer thread which ran through Menzies’ foreign policy, subscribed to by his foreign ministers from December 1949 – April 1964, Spender, Casey and Barwick, was the pursuit of a distinctively Australian policy on Taiwan (Formosa), which was a core element in international policies towards China.
Australia, unlike the US, did not get engaged in China’s civil war in the 1940s. It was never comfortable with the convenient fiction that Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Kuominting (KMT) regime was the true government of China after it fled to Formosa, it did not open a diplomatic or consular mission there (unlike the US and the UK). Menzies slapped down members of his party who echoed the American China Lobby’s rhetoric supporting the military return of the KMT to the mainland.
From early 1950 Menzies and Spender discussed dissociating Australia from the KMT, as a first step towards moving to recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing, but domestic circumstances, like failure of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill and international events like China’s intervention in the Korean War intruded. They scheduled Cabinet discussion of taking action four days after the conclusion of the ANZUS treaty negotiations in 1951 but again domestic considerations put the matter off.
During the Treaty negotiations the American negotiator, later Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles had spoken of the island chain but he had lost his proposal to include Japan the Philippines and Indonesia in the treaty, and Australia did not regard Formosa as falling within the treaty area.
Tacit agreement to disagree was arguably Australia’s finest foreign policy success. Menzies and his foreign ministers parried American requests inside and outside ANZUS Council meetings to open a diplomatic mission in Taipei. They refused to join in a China Warning Statement (similar to the one the US had forced on the 16 countries with troops in Korea) at the end of the first Indochina War, during which Australia had refused to provide a warship or support US policy at the time of the Dien Bien Phu crisis.
At the beginning of 1955 Menzies went to Washington to advocate, unsuccessfully, that the US should persuade the KMT to give up the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu.
After the Bandung conference of non-aligned countries, where Australia had an observer, it advocated testing China’s good faith by inviting it to a Four Power Summit. American ambassador Amos Peaslee rushed in to tell Menzies it was the worst mistake he had ever made. Soon after Cabinet rejected Casey’s submission to move towards recognition of China, which had been in gestation for months and surfaced just as there was a crucial change in Australian politics. The formation of the Democratic Labour Party (Anti-Communist) opened up the prospect that Menzies coalition government could never be defeated.
Menzies had to put recognition of the PRC on the backburner to exploit this windfall and to avoid a clash with the US, which kept up continuing public and private pressures on him not to recognise the PRC.
Kennedy proposed to Menzies at first meeting (and thereafter) that Australia should form a New Pacific Community, including Taiwan, which would propagate and support American policies in the region. Menzies saw the Taiwan trap and commented that non-recognition of the PRC could not be sustained through the decade. The US documents show that Kennedy and his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, were ‘shocked’ by Menzies negative response, which seemed at odds with Australia’s anxiety to deepen the alliance, including by hosting bases. (Menzies had instructed in 1956 that they should be called depots, but the opportunity to wedge the Labour Party when the first, the North-west Cape communications station, opened proved irresistible).
When Australia entered the Vietnam war, to the detriment of its standing in Asia, America’s only active ally was Taiwan, which interested Treasurer Harold Holt. When he succeeded Menzies, he reversed policy and opened an Embassy in Taipei. However, the slippage from Menzies’ policy never went as far as accepting that Australia had a treaty or other obligation to join in the defence of Taiwan.
It was therefore possible for Zhou Enlai to tell Gough Whitlam that China accepted the ANZUS treaty.
Australia’s policy of strategic ambiguity about Taiwan continued and Foreign Minister Downer said in Beijing in 2004 that Australia had no treaty obligation in respect of Taiwan.
The policy was thrown into unnecessary jeopardy in 2006 when opposition leader Beazley disavowed Downer’s statement to the American ambassador, and said the treaty covered Taiwan, thus radically changing its ambit and introducing automaticity. His focus was on the treaty, not on the wishes of a newly democratic Taiwan.
Malcolm Turnbull’s major foreign policy challenge perhaps is to return to Australia’s pre–Labor policy of strategic ambiguity.
Garry Woodard is a Fellow of the University of Melbourne, Former diplomat and National President of the Australian Institute for International Affairs.