Australia must not join the US in goading China to warFeb 2, 2024
There is clear evidence that US efforts to build a coalition of allies in our region is directed at containing Chinese power and developing the capability to eventually confront the Chinese military. That scenario is a nightmare for Australia. We now find certain elements of a Labor government flirting with containment and confrontation with China – instead of openly seeking to secure peace and prosperity through dialogue and diplomacy. It would be a major mistake for Labor to join the Coalition in goading and provoking our greatest trading partner and the primary source of our prosperity. That is why we have joined with former Labor Foreign Ministers Bob Carr and Gareth Evans in drafting the Détente Statement.
As young people we grew up in different cities; Adrian in Melbourne and Kym in Adelaide. It was the Whitlam era when Australia was beginning to find its way as a nation with our own foreign policy voice. We were impressed by the new Australian government’s identification of our place in the Asia-Pacific region. Whitlam’s 1971 trip to Beijing to meet with Chairman Mao set the tone for a vital relationship now 53 years advanced.
We remember Australian domestic politics dominated by the war in Vietnam. It also saw the beginning of a new era in international relations. In America, the Republican administration of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger belatedly saw an opportunity to extricate the US from the mire of Vietnam and relieve the pressures of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Nixon followed Whitlam’s lead and travelled to China to meet Chairman Mao. Near the end of the trip, the two governments issued the Shanghai Communiqué, in which each articulated its position on a crucial obstacle to normalisation of diplomatic ties – the Taiwan issue. That diplomacy has stood the test of time.
In May 1972, June 1973, and June/July 1974 Nixon and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev met in a series of three summits to tackle the hard issues of the superpower Cold War. It was the birth of the policy of Détente. Nixon noted in his Memoirs:
“I felt that the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union would probably be the single most important factor in determining whether the world would live at peace during and after my administration … I felt that we had allowed ourselves to get in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis the Soviets.”
The summits resulted in the signing of both the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty [ABMT] and the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement [SALT]. Those hard won agreements did not end needless wars or the erosion of human rights in many parts of the world. A clear example was the Yom Kippur crisis of October 1973 pitting superpower against superpower, testing the resolve of détente. When Syria and Egypt jointly attacked Israel the Americans backed Israel; the Soviets backed Syria and Egypt. Through it all détente endured and the world has avoided major power conflict since. In the 1980s the unlikely engagement between US President Ronald Reagan and the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reinvigorated the strategic cooperation between the superpowers.
In our 2020s world China has demanded its place in the geopolitical sun. It has already secured this in world trade forums and in the build-up of its military and strategic power in the Asia-Pacific. Some of Beijing’s recent behaviour using air and naval forces to intimidate neighbours and particularly, Taiwan, is to be deplored. As is the wolf-warrior ‘diplomacy’ that held Australia in contempt and threatened to disrupt the ties hard won and enjoyed by both sides since the Whitlam era.
However, despite the bellicose talk and minor military skirmishes it is clear Xi Jinping and the Chinese regime he dominates are looking to redefine their relationship with the United States. As is the case with Australia, where the diplomatic deep freeze has been replaced with an easing of trade sanctions and evidence of reinvigorated diplomatic ties.
We believe the preconditions for a lasting balance of power agreement, a new détente, between the US and China are emerging now. The main obstacle, at least from a western point of view, is the insistence by the US that it must maintain its military preeminence as the Indo-Pacific power. Clearly, as time passes and Chinese military power grows, the US will find it increasingly difficult to sustain that position without serious diplomatic, economic and military cost to its own role on the world stage.
There is clear evidence that current US efforts to build a coalition of allies in our region is directed at containing Chinese power. It is more than a mere containment policy. Access to new military bases in the Phillipines, new trilateral intelligence sharing and security agreements with South Korea and Japan, the QUAD arrangements and the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom are all examples of the US developing the capability to eventually confront the Chinese military.
That scenario is a nightmare for Australia. From a country seeking to shake off our colonial history and forging a new identity at home and in our region, we now find certain elements of a Labor government flirting with containment and confrontation with China – instead of openly seeking to secure peace and prosperity through dialogue and diplomacy. It would be a major mistake for Labor to join the Coalition in goading and provoking our greatest trading partner and the primary source of our prosperity.
That is why we have joined with former Labor Foreign Ministers Bob Carr and Gareth Evans in drafting the Détente Statement. The Statement has been endorsed by 50 well-known Australians – all who share our vision of a balance of power between the US and China. We think Australia can help broker a new détente in a common sense approach to partnership with our ASEAN neighbours. It could be our contribution, as a middle power, to finding lasting peace in an era of uncertainty and danger.
For more on this topic, P&I recommends:
Listen to the ABC RN radio interviews regarding the Détente Statement.