Détente: Towards a balance of power between the USA and China

Jan 31, 2024
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Former Foreign Ministers Bob Carr and Gareth Evans, other former Cabinet Ministers, former State Premiers, a Nobel Laureate, diplomats, writers, academics and human rights advocates are among 50 Australians supporting an appeal to establish détente between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China.

‘Détente’ – meaning an easing of hostility or strained relations — was the policy struck between the USA and the Soviet Union in the 1970s that led to arms control agreements and political understandings between the superpowers. It was critical to averting the escalating danger of nuclear war at that time.

The Hon Bob Carr, Australia’s Foreign Minister 2012-13 and longest-serving NSW Premier, said:

“For too long Australia has avoided taking a practical policy position on the relationship between the USA – our most important strategic ally – and China, our most important trading partner and the rising power in our region. It’s not possible to continue to play war games with the Americans and trade games with China and hope to live on in blissful prosperity.

“As things stand now, the US and China are heading for confrontation. We think such a conflict – which could easily escalate into war – should be avoided at all costs. The sensible course is for Australia to actively support a peace and security accord between the superpowers in our region.”

Professor the Hon Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister 1988-96, and subsequently President of the International Crisis Group and Australian National University Chancellor, said:

“Lasting peace is always best achieved with others, not against them. Of course we have to prepare for worst-case scenarios, but it is in Australia’s interests to bring diplomacy back to centre stage, resist policies of containment and confrontation of China, and promote a political accord between the United States and China that could help ease tensions in the South China Sea and over Taiwan and the Korean peninsula.

“We should strive to create an environment in which the two superpowers can cooperate on regional and global geo-political problems such as climate change, the war in Ukraine, conflict in the Middle East, nuclear arms control, counter-terrorism, and cyber regulation.

“Australia must above all remain clear-eyed and insistent about maintaining our sovereign independence. If the price of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines from the United States under AUKUS is the loss of that agency it is not a price we should pay.”

All 50 signatories to the attached Détente Statement agree that Australia should maintain a strong defence policy, involving the prudent acquisition of military assets and effective cooperative regional and global partnerships . Détente is not about pacifism or appeasement. It’s about a sensible effort to ensure peace and prosperity in our region in cooperation with our ASEAN and other Asian and Pacific partners and our friends around the world.

The Détente Statement follows:

Towards a balance of power between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China

As Australians we value our country’s respected role in international relations. We aspire to be a strong advocate for peace and stability.

We are concerned at the continuing tensions between our closest ally, the United States of America, and our most important trading partner, the People’s Republic of China. We are apprehensive these tensions may lead to direct military conflict, which would risk dragging Australia into war.

We support a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region in which the United States and China respect and recognise each other as equals. A commitment from both sides to cooperative security, in which neither side demands absolute primacy – a new détente – is the key to reducing threats to both regional and global peace and prosperity.

Such a détente would be comparable to the accommodation negotiated in the 1970s between the United States and the USSR by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, and consistent with the approach proposed by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger on a recent visit to China.

Détente will not be easily or immediately achievable in the current climate. Australia can contribute to changing that environment by renewing our commitment to an activist middle power diplomacy, conducted in close consultation with our key Indo-Pacific neighbours, which advocates respect for international law and universal human rights, focuses on risk reduction, and strongly discourages the use of force in resolving territorial and other international disputes.

The Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, established by the Australian Government in 1995, and the Australia-Japan initiated International Commission on Nuclear Non- Proliferation and Disarmament of 2009, are models of such creative middle power diplomacy.

Nuclear risk reduction is a critical issue for both regional and global security, and one that urgently demands serious new government commitment.

Potential benefits of US – China détente include:

  • Relaxation of general political and military tensions with the opportunity to sharply reduce military spending through arms control agreements – and to enable a return to mutually beneficial free and open trade.
  • An easing of tensions on the Korean peninsula with the ultimate goal of a peace treaty between North and South Korea.
  • De-escalation of tensions over Taiwan with acceptance by both sides of the need for open- ended commitment to the cross-strait status quo.
  • Creating a climate in which the United States and China can cooperate on regional and global geo-political problems such as climate change, the war in Ukraine, counter-terrorism, and cyber regulation.

We endorse the appeal made by our Foreign Minister, Penny Wong in Singapore [6/7/2022], for “Australia to seek an order framed by strategic equilibrium…finding security in Asia, not from Asia”.

We, the undersigned, call for Australia to support the goal of détente – a genuine balance of power between the United States and China, designed to avert the horror of great power conflict and secure a lasting peace for our people, our region, and the world.

Détente Statement Signatories:

  1. Hon. Bob Carr
  2. Professor the Hon. Gareth Evans AC
  3. Louise Adler AM
  4. Greg Barns SC
  5. Distinguished Professor Larissa Behrendt AO
  6. Hon. Dr. Neal Blewett AC
  7. Dr Alison Broinowski AM
  8. Richard Broinowski AO
  9. Bob Brown
  10. Professor Brian Burdekin AO
  11. Sharan Burrow AC
  12. Hon. Doug Cameron
  13. Hon. Fred Chaney AO
  14. Emeritus Professor Lesley Chenoweth AO
  15. Marie Coleman AO PSM
  16. Bernard Collaery
  17. Dr. Paul Collins
  18. Rev. Tim Costello AO
  19. Laureate Professor Peter Doherty AC
  20. Saul Eslake
  21. Hon. Laurie Ferguson OAM
  22. Craig Foster AM
  23. Hon. Peter Garrett AM
  24. Hon. Ian Gilfillan
  25. Dr. Kirsty Sword Gusmão AO
  26. Dr. Ken Henry AC
  27. Professor John Hewson AM
  28. Paul Heywood-Smith KC
  29. Hon. Rob Hulls AM
  30. Hon. Stephanie Key
  31. Geoff Kitney
  32. Hon. Dr. Carmen Lawrence AO
  33. Hon. Anne Levy AO
  34. Libby Lloyd AM
  35. Miriam Margolyes OBE
  36. Hon. Ian Macphee AO
  37. Wendy McCarthy AO
  38. Maxine McKew AM
  39. John Menadue AO
  40. Mark Parnell
  41. Rex Patrick
  42. Hon. Mike Rann AC
  43. Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM
  44. Professor Henry Reynolds
  45. Hon. Margaret Reynolds AC
  46. Emeritus Professor Rick Sarre
  47. Hon. Chris Schacht
  48. Hon. Robert Tickner AO
  49. Brian Toohey
  50. Tony Windsor AM

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