According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the US Studies Centre at Sydney University has produced a study which showed that 8 out of 10 Australians were only mildly concerned about the fact that, as they saw it, China already dominated Asia and they did not think China would go to war with the USA. They thought that the USA had peaked and was on the way out. This situation did not greatly concern them and their attitude was described as neutral. James Brown of the Centre described these attitudes as naive and said that Australians did not understand the importance of the American presence in the region. The head of the Centre, Professor Jackman, said he was going to get on a plane and go to Washington to tell them to ramp up their soft diplomacy because China was doing it better.
Who is being naive? We should not have illusions about China but nor should we have illusions about the USA. China’s aggressive attitudes have been confined to areas close to its borders, albeit areas also claimed by others. The US has intervened militarily in areas far from its borders in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. It has done so to protect American strategic and commercial interests. Australians need to understand that American actions in the region will be directed solely towards the promotion of perceived US interests and will take no account of Australian interests; Australia will be expected to tag along. This is not a criticism of the US but simply a suggestion that Australia should do the same: pursue Australian interests whether or not that suits the US or China or anyone else.
So far the Alliance has got us into wars we should have stayed out of but not protected us against anyone or anything. The Labor Party has confirmed its strong support for the Alliance but said that it will not follow the Americans blindly into things that do not promote Australian interests. Tanya Plibersek specifically criticised the Iraq war which she said was a mistake; we should have tried to talk the Americans out of it instead of following them and the other lemmings into a monumental disaster. Mr Turnbull has criticised the ALP policy because it might upset Americans and threaten the Alliance. He seems to be following in the footsteps of Harold Holt who went all the way with LBJ into Vietnam.
Our armed forces are now so integrated with the US that it will be very hard for us not to get involved in American wars without abandoning the Alliance altogether. US facilities in Australia make us a target for anyone who wants to attack the US and our involvement in the Middle East quagmire makes us a target for terrorists. A more independent approach would enable us to pick and chose what we get involved in and lessen the odds on others attacking us.
There is no advantage in being anti-American but nor is it in our interests to take the view that we must not upset the Americans by putting our interests before theirs. We can be friends without supporting the desire of conservative forces in the USA who believe in America’s Manifest Destiny to have its way in the world. The problem with promoting the loyal little ally image is that we are then expected to tow the line and cop criticism if we don’t.
Cavan Hogue was formerly Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia, and Ambassador to Thailand and Mexico, and High Commissioner to Malaysia.