CAVAN HOGUE. The White Paper – a curate’s egg?

Nov 28, 2017

There is much to be commended in the Government’s White Paper but there are some assumptions which need to be questioned. The focus on Asia is welcome and most of the analysis of our changing world is good, in particular the recognition that the balance between China and the USA has been changing.  The Prime Minister’s claim that we will be guided by Australian interests is on the surface timely but is open to interpretation. The major weakness in the paper is the way it clings to the US as the unshakeable bedrock of our security while at the same tine arguing that the balance of power between China and the US will continue to move in favour of China.. In other words we will back the loser.. It also takes a naive view of American international behaviour and ignores its claim to ‘exceptionalism’. The paper regards America as a force for stability in our region without showing how American policies have and will be a force for stability.

The Paper takes a somewhat missionary attitude to the spread of democracy and states that Australia must work closely with other democracies internationally, which clearly suggests that democracies are somehow more likely to protect our interests. There is no evidence to show that democracies behave better internationally than dictatorships. Britain and France were democracies when they subjugated vast numbers of people to create their empires and even Winston Churchill fought against giving democracy to India. The United States has a long history of overthrowing or subverting Latin American democracies which didn’t suit its commercial or strategic interests – not to mention Iraq and Iran.

It talks of universal values but many countries see these as European values which are not shared by everyone. Preident Xi Jin Ping has made it very clear that he doesn’t share them and that China sees them as designed to promote Western political interests. Many religious people don’t share them and for the three Middle Eastern monotheisms at least, where these values clash with God’s will, God must prevail. We have every right to protect our values but we  cannot assume that anyone who disagrees is wrong..

The Paper rightly points to the change in the relative position of China and the USA but suggests that the US is a force for stability in Asia and implies that China is not. However, it could be argued that China wants a stable region just as much as the US and doesn’t see the US bases surrounding China as a force for stability. Certainly many countries in the region want the US to be a counterbalance to China but most don’t want to take sides and perhaps see China as a counterbalance to the US? American involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan and the Middle East is not seen by many as favourable to stability. We may prefer the American domestic model to the Chinese but do they really behave differently internationally?

The Paper correctly stresses the importance of getting close to China and working more closely with our neighbours. This is highly desirable but is being such a loyal ally of one country the way to help bring them together?  Is having the USA as the bedrock of our security consistent with our claim that none of the alliances we have are designed to contain China? Many in the USA would see containing China as exactly what the US wants to do.  Both countries want to be the supreme global economic and military power and will inevitably clash. The paper’s hope that Australia can help them reach a workable compromise is good but perhaps unrealistic when the pressure from our bedrock ally will be on us to support it.

As always, much of the rhetoric is good but will the government match its actions  to its words? In the past we have interpreted being an independent ally of the USA as having to follow them loyally into one disaster after the other because of the US will defend us,come what may! Do the fine words mean that we would try to talk the US out of adventures like the illegal invasion of Iraq or follow as we have in the past?

Finally, what is meant by a rules based international order? On the trade side it seems clear enough and I have no quarrel with that. We want free trade and rules to encourage open markets.  It means China will be our commercial ally and the US will be on the other side. However, what does it mean on the strategic side? We indicate that China in the South China Sea is breaking the rules which may well be the case but it is hardly the only country to flout international rules. In its rise to world dominance the US has a long history of not abiding by the ‘rules’ Will we criticise our bedrock ally equally the next time it breaks the rules? Nuclear disarmament is one case that springs to mind.

 Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat. He was head of the Asia Division of DFAT,Ambassador to USSR and Russia.,Thailand and Mexico and High Conmmissioner to Malaysia.



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