Recent comments by former Prime Minister John Howard is indicative of just how easily conflict situations can engage quickly and end badly in the hands of a ‘strong’ Prime Minister who takes the Howard view that the Executive alone has an unchecked power to commit to war. As Howard’s view on the ‘war powers’ is strongly held by the Turnbull Government his thinking on current conflict situations remains significant.
As reported in The Australian (18 Aug), Howard is predicting that Australia would eventually join US-led freedom-of-navigation exercises “to hold the ring” against Chinese maritime expansion. China, he said, had “violated the international rules-based order and Australia should be willing to be part of any pushback”.
This would be to give effect to the Hague (Arbitral) Court ruling against those Chinese claims. It should be noted that the US has conducted exercises within a 12 mile distance from Chinese man-made artificial islands which contrary to China’s assertions do not generate territorial waters and hence remain international in character.
Howard acknowledged that it would not be in anyone’s interest to bring on a major confrontation in the South China Sea but stated, as reported, that China would not give up an inch of the territory (land and sea) it had gained. Yet he left open what defence of ‘freedom of navigation’ entails which, one would think, would be the touchstone for any decision to ‘pushback’, especially considering that China would not be giving up an inch of any claimed territory.
As far as we know, no merchant or good-faith (innocent) vessel has been obstructed or interfered with in Chinese or adjoining international waters – which makes this largely a non-issue. The US itself has rules and procedures for vessels entering waters where it has military-type or operational installations, particularly those near or about its coastal regions.
Given the Chinese position it is hard to see how a US-Australian naval challenge in these waters, without broad regional support, would not be considered provocative by the Chinese and possibly invite an armed response.
The issue remains active in Coalition circles. How far might the government go in taking the Howard view that ‘pushback’ is inevitable? Many, including Howard, have been critical of former US President Obama for having allowed opponents to cross red lines without intervening, as with Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Yet what backing would Obama have got in taking on Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran? What level of support would Australia have given or been able to give, if that had led to conflict which like Iraq got out of hand?
These conflicts do not proceed from a standing start. They are already well underway by the time they get serious and by that time the participants involved are faced with additional and increasing calls on their resources, capital and human. And that initial involvement would not have been preceded by earlier ground work at home by way of openness and debate in Parliament and in the public arena. As of now, without openness, Australian forces are routinely embedded with or assigned to US military forces in a number of situations, including the north-west Pacific, and in the event of conflict and its inevitable escalation there might be no turning back.
Whether it be pushing back on Chinese maritime claims or responding to North Korean bellicosity, where critical decisions and actions would be initiated and decided by the US in the US’s national interest, we could be inextricably committed regardless of national interest considerations. With North Korea, a missile exchange (nuclear or otherwise) would, regardless of its origins, clearly implicate Australia because of Pine Gap (in for a penny, in for a pound!).
In the case of Iraq in 2003 Mr Howard may have felt confident about the nature of the US government he was then dealing with and gave the relationship a fair measure of (in retrospect too much) slack. That was a different time and far from what we are faced with today in the case of the Trump Presidency which lacks policy consistency or adherence to basic diplomatic conventions – or care for UN Charter principles.
Until now we have gone along with the US in situations which didn’t meet usual self-defence criteria, but with mission creep those campaigns have over-reached, complicated broader diplomatic relations, and compromised our status as a good international citizen.
To all appearances we have allowed and are still allowing too much trust in the US because of previous perceptions about the Australian-US relationship and our respective roles. But if those circumstances have changed pretty much fundamentally, we need to be more circumspect about sliding incrementally into situations and finding once in that it is already too late. That surely can’t be in the national interest.
Andrew Farran is a former diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law.