Coalition toes party line between US and China (SMH, 3 August 2020)

Aug 5, 2020

“Don’t sell your soul for a pile of soybeans,” warned US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a year ago, when Australian foreign affairs and defence ministers met their United States counterparts.

This Kansas front porch advice deserved to be imbibed with caution. Within five months, the US was pumping six times more soybeans into the Chinese market than in the same period last year.

The US has opened fire against China with sanctions and technology bans. But President Donald Trump and his cabinet treat as inviolable their phase one trade deal with China, signed in January. China is reported to have approved 40 US and Brazilian meat processors to send beef to Chinese markets − even as four Australian abattoirs get locked out.

That the US might get Australia all hot and bothered about China and then slip into our markets may be one factor in Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds drawing a line or two in our vassalage.

No, we would not use Pompeo’s language implying an open-ended crusade against the Chinese Communist Party. And no, we would not become the only US ally to run patrols within the 12-nautical mile radius of Chinese structures in the South China Sea, even though we reject the claims.


Payne and Reynolds, in declining Washington blandishments on China, are uncannily in line with the behaviour of their party’s founder, Robert Menzies, during his second prime ministership from 1949 to 1966.

The Menzies diplomacy was disinterred from Canberra vaults by former Australian diplomat and scholar Garry Woodard and published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs in 2018. This article described a deliberate policy of “strategic ambiguity” about how far we would go with the US on China policy, even during the Cold War, even in the wake of the Korean War and during Mao’s totalitarianism.


Through the 1950s, Menzies assiduously kept Australia away from any notion the ANZUS Treaty, ratified in 1952, would oblige us to join a US war with China − in fact, oblige us to do anything other than “consult” Washington if such a conflict occurred.

Writes Woodard: “Australia deliberately kept ambiguous the relationship of Taiwan to ANZUS. It strictly adhered to it for 15 years and did not specifically depart from it over the next 40.”

During a 1955 crisis between China and Taiwan, Menzies went to Washington to try to persuade then president Dwight Eisenhower not to go to war with Beijing over Taiwan’s offshore islands. Menzies boldly proposed China be admitted to the Big Four, which would have given Beijing status comparable with the Soviet Union and a platform for China to advocate reunification.

Like Morrison, Menzies was under pressure from cold warriors in his party room, specifically Wilfred Kent Hughes and W.C. Wentworth, referred to as the “China or Taiwan lobby.” When Kent Hughes in 1955 spoke about “unleashing Chiang Kai-shek” Menzies sent him a letter of rebuke that Menzies said was so tough he- in Kent Hughes’ shoes- would have resigned.

President Kennedy proposed Australia take the initiative to form an anti-communist New Pacific Community including Taiwan. It’s a proposal that would thrill our cold warriors today. Kennedy was shocked when Menzies turned it down.

This pragmatism about China was made explicit under another Coalition government and from a foreign affairs minister whose father had served in Menzies cabinet.

Visiting Beijing in 2004, Alexander Downer was asked by Australian correspondent Hamish McDonald if ANZUS covered Taiwan. The next day McDonald reported that Downer said if China attempted to regain the island by force, Australia would not feel obligated under the ANZUS treaty to help US forces defend Taiwan.

While Downer and Howard, under American pressure, made a partial retreat, nothing they said amounted to an automatic assumption that, in the event of a clash over Taiwan, Australia would be joining the stoush. When I as foreign minister prepared for my first visit to China in 2012, I asked what I might say if asked a similar question to McDonald’s. I received a note with the advice that the question was “hypothetical”. If pushed further, it recommended I say, “the ANZUS treaty is an obligation to consult”.

There it was, strategic ambiguity. Fifty years on, the Menzies caution on us going to war with China, specifically over the Taiwan Strait, was manifest.

Indeed in the first year of the Abbott government it was echoed by defence minister Senator Johnston who, speaking from Tokyo, had to answer the question does the ANZUS treaty oblige us to join a clash between Japan and China in a dispute over the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands. Johnston’s reply was an admirably cool-headed, “I don’t believe it does.” This was in the face of America’s commitment to support Japan. There was no pressure from Prime Minister Abbott to withdraw or clarify.

That might be described as wisdom. And as Menzies’ political offspring, Payne and Reynolds might be picking it up.

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