BRIAN TOOHEY. New Series. We can say ‘no’ to the Americans.

Dec 14, 2016

There is nothing wrong with pursuing Australia’s commercial interests and avoiding pointless military gestures demanded by the US. 

James Curran’s book, Fighting with America, has a reassuring message for those worried by what Donald Trump’s presidency might mean for the ANZUS alliance. Curran, a Sydney university history professor, is not a Trump fan. But his book, just published by Penguin in association with the Lowy Institute, gives numerous examples of how he Hawke government disagreed with the Reagan administration in the 1980s without rupturing the alliance.

That government strongly criticised Reagan’s rejection of the International Court of Justice’s finding against US mining of Nicaraguan harbours. Despite Reagan’s opposition,   it supported a South Pacific nuclear free zone and backed sanctions on South Africa over apartheid. It objected to new US missiles and proposed “Star Wars” weapons as destabilising the nuclear balance with the Soviets. The Foreign Minister Bill Hayden attacked those who dismissed criticism of ANZUS as “sacrilege”, describing them as “craven and servile”.

Curran says, “It is hard to imagine a foreign minister of either political persuasion uttering these kinds of remarks today”. But he notes senior US officials agreed to have their photographs taken with Hawke and Hayden during an Australian election campaign.

Curran says, “For all the soothing American words about the importance of the alliance over the past 65 years, the US, consistent with the behaviour of any great power in history, has been decidedly unsentimental when it comes to protecting its own national interests”. He says Australian governments and commentators should transcend dated stereotypes such as ANZUS as “a kind of insurance policy”, but doesn’t spell out specific policy changes.

A good start would be to reject US policies that harm Australia’s crucial economic relationship with China, other than in the most extreme circumstances. In particular, it should not commit in advance to provide military support for American war fighting plans to impose a trade embargo on China in undefined contingencies.

A large scale Chinese invasion of another country, although extremely unlikely, could justify Australian military intervention, but not a skirmish over a couple of uninhabited rocks. It’s worth remembering the Menzies government told the US in the 1950s it wouldn’t go to war over China’s shelling Quemoy and Matsu — islands alongside the mainland, but still claimed by Chaing Kai-shek’s government after it fled to Taiwan. Australia has since formally recognised China’s sovereignty over Taiwan.


Australia’s clear interest in a strong US economy suggests it shouldn’t back measures that further blow out America’s budget deficit, such as a massive increase in military spending that already dwarfs any other country’s. China is not a huge threat. It’s strategically weak — 80 per cent of its oil imports go via the Malacca Straits’ choke point. Although invading and occupying China would be a nightmare, its military power further offshore is clearly inferior to the combined strength of its potential adversaries such as Japan, India, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and the US.

But this does not stop some journalists fanning exaggerated fears. The ABC’s 730 program last Wednesday gave an example of what it called China’s “quest for global dominance”— a donation of $10,000 to Launceston’s Scotch Oakburn College to teach Chinese culture. The principal said this gave China no influence over what’s taught. Nevertheless the $10,000 may be part of China’s attempt to exercise “soft power” – something many countries do. But the 7.30 didn’t support its assertion — repeated by its host Leigh Sales — that China seeks “global dominance”. Obviously, China will gain more influence in a multi-polar world as it becomes richer, but this is a long way from being able to dominate North America, Europe and the entire globe.

More prosaically, the Turnbull government should forget about nagging Trump to implement the Trans Pacific Partnership that has no net gains for Australia. Apart from bilateral agreements with most TTP countries, Australia is a member of China’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. But it should pull out if China insists on an “investor-state disputes settlement” procedure. Like the TPP’s version, this one would unduly undermine Australian sovereignty.

Australia should criticise other unacceptable Chinese behaviour, without engaging in gunboat diplomacy that could hurt Australian exports. There is nothing wrong with pursuing Australia’s commercial interests and avoiding pointless military gestures demanded by the US.

Brian Toohey is a columnist.  This article was first published in the Australian Financial Review on 30 November 2016. 

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