In early July 1971, as opposition leader in a conservative communist-fearing country, Gough Whitlam took the courageous step of visiting red China, a country then seen by many Australians as an invasion threat.
On his return the Sydney Morning Herald first editorialised on Whitlam’s rational tone of argument but a few days later turned on him and thundered against his servile behaviour to the Chinese and his wholesale willingness to sell-out Australia’s friends.
The pile-on followed. Prime Minister Billy McMahon told a cheering audience of 400 that he found it incredible that “at a time when Australian soldiers are still engaged in Vietnam, the Leader of the Labor Party is becoming a spokesman for those against whom we are fighting…. By accepting Peking as the sole capital of China, he is abandoning Taiwan.”
Three days later, US President Richard Nixon announced that he had accepted an invitation to visit China. “I have taken this action because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tension and better relations between the United States and the Peoples Republic of China,” he said.
It’s a pity that today we do not have a US president who sees the gains from a reduction in tensions between nations.
And it’s a pity that our newly elected Labor government shows no signs of having the Whitlamesque courage to set a new, independent foreign policy, one that is distinctly different to the Abbott/Morrison policy.
The foreign policy positions outlined by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese are no different from those of the ousted Coalition government.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Before the election Albanese told the Lowy Institute, “Under my leadership, Labor offered bipartisan support for the [Coalition’s] Defence Strategic Update 2020, and for AUKUS and the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.”
But for those who voted for a change of government there was still hope that there might be some small shift in emphasis, some move away from Australia’s position as a vasal state of the United States, some move to temper the war-mongering rhetoric and perhaps provide an informed voice of reason in international discussions.
So far that hasn’t happened. It seems Labor is all aboard AUKUS (the Australia, US, UK security pact), QUAD (the partnership with the US, India, Japan and Australia) and even keen to strengthen its links with NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.)
After attending the NATO public forum in Madrid, Albanese told a press conference that the war in Ukraine was “a struggle that must be won because it’s not just about Ukraine and Russia. It is also about whether the rules-based international order will continue to apply.”
Rules based order? This is the same NATO that without UN Security Council approval waged an illegal war on Afghanistan; the same NATO that bombed Libya; and the same NATO that has the US and the UK as its leading members, the very countries that mounted the illegal war on Iraq that cost a documented 185,000–208,000 civilian deaths and destabilised the whole of the Middle East.
Such “rules-based” precedents set the scene for the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Albanese told a Madrid press conference on June 29 that Australia would be supporting Ukraine for the long haul. “We’ve already been [Ukraine’s] largest non-NATO contributor with $285 million dollars of military assistance, but also $65 million dollars of humanitarian assistance. This is a struggle that must be won because it’s not just about Ukraine and Russia,” he said.
If the view prevails that this war must be supported until Ukraine “wins” then prepare for the really, really long haul – twenty years in Afghanistan will be nothing by way of comparison.
The Americans will be happy to fight till the last drop of Ukrainian blood. There are no US soldiers coming home in body bags to turn the US electorate against this war. And already the US media is tiring of the conflict, shifting reports further back in the bulletin or down the page, whether it is because the Russians are winning in the East of Ukraine, or because it’s yesterday’s news.
On the other side, the Russians will not readily give up the territory they have taken in Eastern Ukraine.
The only resolution will come, not from the provision of Bushmaster armoured vehicles or advanced US weapons, but from negotiations that involve land for peace.
Rather than join the populist chorus calling for an endless war, Albanese should consider quietly supporting French President Macron, who visited both Moscow and Kiev earlier this year and has had the courage to suggest that Ukraine give up some of its land to reach a peace settlement with Russia.
Or he might support NATO member Turkey’s efforts to enable Ukrainian and Russian grain exports. Turkey offered to clear sea lanes of Ukrainian mines and to police the ships carrying grain from the port of Odessa, which is still under Ukrainian control.
Russia agreed to the deal but Ukraine opposed the removal of its mines because they aim to prevent a Russian amphibious attack on Odessa.
Instead of such mediating action Albanese has adopted the Morrison/Dutton line suggesting some sort of parallel between what is happening in Ukraine and developments in our region.
“Australia understands very much that what is playing out there has consequences in our own region,” he told the second day of the NATO Public Forum in Madrid on Wednesday. (29 June)
Such comments fog the faint signs that the election of Labor might see an improvement in relations with China.
Albanese had welcomed the re-opening of a ministerial dialogue. But he also told the ABC 7.30 report, “It will be a problematic relationship. I said that before the election, regardless of the outcome. China has sanctions against Australia that should be removed, they’re damaging the Australian economy and jobs, but they’re also causing damage to the Chinese economy”.
Albanese maintains the Coalition line that in recent years China has changed, and by implication, Australia has not.
A reminder here. Back in June 2020 ASIO raided the homes of Chinese journalists living in Australia. This was before Australian journalists in Beijing got wind that they might be targeted by Chinese authorities. As a result, Chinese journalists and noted Chinese academics were expelled from Australia.
Australia banned Huawei.
China was and is targeted through Foreign Interference laws.
Australian MPs supported dissidents making calls for Hong Kong independence.
And of course Australia has taken a host of anti-dumping actions against China.
Finally there is Australia’s decision to buy nuclear powered submarines, a decision that the world views as Australia deciding that China is an enemy to be confronted.
The Whitlam Government’s December 1972 Joint Communiqué with the Peoples Republic of China recognised the PRC Government as China’s sole legal government and acknowledged the PRC’s position that Taiwan was a province of the PRC.
In the following years that position was maintained by Coalition and Labor governments alike, until recent years when anti-China propaganda was taken up by the Australian government and media, seeking to create the impression that Taiwan is a separate country.
As part of this anti-China action, Australia has joined provocative US warships’ freedom of navigation exercises off China. The exercises have nothing to do with freedom to transit the region. They are part of a US exercise, seeking to maintain its military dominance of the region, and a refusal to recognise that China’s role in the world has changed.
The new Labor government could have taken the courageous decision to dump the nuclear submarine deal. Such a decision could have been justified on budgetary grounds or on the reasonable likelihood that by the time they are built, they will be obsolete and easily detected by the technology developed by then.
If the deal goes ahead, the submarines will continue to confirm to the Chinese that Australia is not an independent country but merely a US outpost. The presence of US troops actively and permanently engaged in exercises on our land and US spy bases in Australia support such a conclusion.
But it’s not only China that might take a dim view of the submarines. Indonesia, our nearest large neighbour, may not feel comfortable with Australia possessing submarines that are capable of launching cruise missiles at them.
Indonesia, like many developing countries around the world has taken a much more neutral position on the conflict in Ukraine. Indonesia is, for example, maintaining its invitation to Russian President Putin to attend the G20 summit in November.
India, one of our QUAD partners is happily buying discounted Russian oil, helping Russia not only maintain oil revenue but actually increase it and contributing to a rise in the value of the rouble. So much for sanctions bringing Russia to its knees.
It is Western Europe that is hurting from rising fuel prices. And its not just consumers who are being hurt. According to the Wall Street Journal one of the world’s largest chemicals companies, BASF, faces the threat of closure of some of its 200 manufacturing plants due to dwindling Russian gas supplies.
There are other odd aspects of Albanese’s foreign policy. He appears to have happily accepted France’s colonial claims in the Pacific. “Well, France of course plays a very important role in the Pacific and in the region,” he told the ABC 7.30 report.
Yes. A very important role. From 1966 to 1974, France conducted 41 atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in French Polynesia, the collection of 118 islands and atolls that France claims. The tests exposed 90 per cent of the 125,000 people living in French Polynesia to radioactive fallout. And then there was the French intelligence service bombing of the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand.
There was a time when Labor was opposed to colonialism, but sadly not any more, that is unless it can be construed as Chinese colonialism. If the Chinese help build a port, a bridge, a hospital or a road for a Pacific-island country, its actions must be condemned.
But imagine for a moment the impact on the Pacific and the region if Australia announced that it was abandoning the nuclear submarines purchase. Instead it would allocate even half the billions of submarine dollars to aid for the region, development of Pacific islands, food for Sri Lanka?
When Labor was elected realists did not expect an end to rising prices, a reversal of the fall in real wages, an end to the energy crisis, resolution of the climate change challenge or a host of new aged and health care workers.
What we could hope for is some slight, but perceptible change in direction from that adopted by the Morrison government. Sadly there’s little sign of that in foreign policy.