GARRY WOODARD. New series. We can say ‘no’ to the Americans.

We have said No to the Americans: Robert Menzies

Saying No to America was not an upfront characteristic of Menzies’ foreign policy, based as it was on supporting and attracting the support of ‘great and powerful friends’. Supplementing that was his politically profitable propaganda about threats from Asia.

It might therefore come as a surprise to learn that a gossamer thread which ran through Menzies’ foreign policy, subscribed to by his foreign ministers from December 1949 – April 1964, Spender, Casey and Barwick, was the pursuit of a distinctively Australian policy on Taiwan (Formosa), which was a core element in international policies towards China.

Australia, unlike the US, did not get engaged in China’s civil war in the 1940s. It was never comfortable with the convenient fiction that Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated Kuominting (KMT) regime was the true government of China after it fled to Formosa, it did not open a diplomatic or consular mission there (unlike the US and the UK). Menzies slapped down members of his party who echoed the American China Lobby’s rhetoric supporting the military return of the KMT to the mainland.

From early 1950 Menzies and Spender discussed dissociating Australia from the KMT, as a first step towards moving to recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing, but domestic circumstances, like failure of the Communist Party Dissolution Bill and international events like China’s intervention in the Korean War intruded. They scheduled Cabinet discussion of taking action four days after the conclusion of the ANZUS treaty negotiations in 1951 but again domestic considerations put the matter off.

During the Treaty negotiations the American negotiator, later Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles had spoken of the island chain but he had lost his proposal to include Japan the Philippines and Indonesia in the treaty, and Australia did not regard Formosa as falling within the treaty area.

Tacit agreement to disagree was arguably Australia’s finest foreign policy success. Menzies and his foreign ministers parried American requests inside and outside ANZUS Council meetings to open a diplomatic mission in Taipei. They refused to join in a China Warning Statement (similar to the one the US had forced on the 16 countries with troops in Korea) at the end of the first Indochina War, during which Australia had refused to provide a warship or support US policy at the time of the Dien Bien Phu crisis.

At the beginning of 1955 Menzies went to Washington to advocate, unsuccessfully, that the US should persuade the KMT to give up the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu.

After the Bandung conference of non-aligned countries, where Australia had an observer, it advocated testing China’s good faith by inviting it to a Four Power Summit. American ambassador Amos Peaslee rushed in to tell Menzies it was the worst mistake he had ever made. Soon after Cabinet rejected Casey’s submission to move towards recognition of China, which had been in gestation for months and surfaced just as there was a crucial change in Australian politics. The formation of the Democratic Labour Party (Anti-Communist) opened up the prospect that Menzies coalition government could never be defeated.

Menzies had to put recognition of the PRC on the backburner to exploit this windfall and to avoid a clash with the US, which kept up continuing public and private pressures on him not to recognise the PRC.

Kennedy proposed to Menzies at first meeting (and thereafter) that Australia should form a New Pacific Community, including Taiwan, which would propagate and support American policies in the region. Menzies saw the Taiwan trap and commented that non-recognition of the PRC could not be sustained through the decade. The US documents show that Kennedy and his Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, were ‘shocked’ by Menzies negative response, which seemed at odds with Australia’s anxiety to deepen the alliance, including by hosting bases. (Menzies had instructed in 1956 that they should be called depots, but the opportunity to wedge the Labour Party when the first, the North-west Cape communications station, opened proved irresistible).

When Australia entered the Vietnam war, to the detriment of its standing in Asia, America’s only active ally was Taiwan, which interested Treasurer Harold Holt. When he succeeded Menzies, he reversed policy and opened an Embassy in Taipei. However, the slippage from Menzies’ policy never went as far as accepting that Australia had a treaty or other obligation to join in the defence of Taiwan.

It was therefore possible for Zhou Enlai to tell Gough Whitlam that China accepted the ANZUS treaty.

Australia’s policy of strategic ambiguity about Taiwan continued and Foreign Minister Downer said in Beijing in 2004 that Australia had no treaty obligation in respect of Taiwan.

The policy was thrown into unnecessary jeopardy in 2006 when opposition leader Beazley disavowed Downer’s statement to the American ambassador, and said the treaty covered Taiwan, thus radically changing its ambit and introducing automaticity. His focus was on the treaty, not on the wishes of a newly democratic Taiwan.

Malcolm Turnbull’s major foreign policy challenge perhaps is to return to Australia’s pre–Labor policy of strategic ambiguity.

Garry Woodard is a Fellow of the University of Melbourne, Former diplomat and National President of the Australian Institute for International Affairs.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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1 Response to GARRY WOODARD. New series. We can say ‘no’ to the Americans.

  1. Avatar David Wilkins says:

    Australia should learn to say ‘no’ to the USA whose record in the last half century is unenviable.
    The problem for any American president, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence is that they believe wrongly in their own ability to fight a long protracted war.
    The US certainly has the might and power but it can’t call upon too many military victories in recent generations. One reason is that it underestimates the willpower and tenacity of its enemy to continue fighting forever, viz Ho Chi Minh & General Giap. More recently in Iraq and Afghanistan the enemy was beaten momentarily but like all resilient insurgents rose again after the Allied departure.
    America also has a short memory. It seems to have forgotten that it lost the public relations war in Vietnam and that the American public won’t stomach long protracted wars where ‘their boys’ are increasingly returned home in body bags. The modern age of the wars being beamed into the TV rooms of every household means that public opinion in democratic nations will turn against the hawks after a relatively short period of bloody conflict. Ho Chi Minh & General Giap for example, used public events in the USA such as presidential elections, to embark upon major bloody campaigns like Tet 1968. That eventuated in a Communist military defeat but had the effect of turning the Vietnam War by making the American public sick of fighting, sick of death and wanting peace. It eventually forced the hands of Nixon and Kissinger into their ‘Peace with Honour’ in 1973. The South Vietnamese soon saw there was no honour in that ‘peace’. While America and friends withdrew and the US failed in its support of the South (by Congress not fulfilling Nixon’s promise of weapons & funds) the North was preparing all the time for its final decisive strike two years later.
    It should be noted here that the North Vietnamese Army victory occurred when American and its Allied fighting troops were no longer in Vietnam.
    Conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan continues today well after America had effectively withdrawn. The USA seems to be ignorant of the internal historical ethnical structure of these populations such that it is nigh impossible to impose its own standards and model of democracy upon countries with opposing tribesmen and religious sects (Sunnis vs Shiites etc) that have ingrained memories of internal conflict for hundreds of years.
    When considering the issue of American foreign policy and military strategy, it seems that their military would make very poor chess players. They are usually successful with their aggressive opening play but then fail to think it through to moves 8 and 9 and to the game’s end. Thus with its wars USA particularly fails to think through to action after the war has “ended”. All invasions and wars must be planned through to the end… and beyond. Take the clandestine US intervention in Afghanistan when the poorly armed Mujahidin was struggling against the Russian might. US provided sophisticated weapons and missiles to shoot the Russian choppers from the sky and to cripple their tanks. But after Russia withdrew there was no American follow up to assist the Afghan fighter and general population with education and a transition into a peaceful society. The Mujahidin then morphed into today’s Taliban.
    Finally it is a sad reality that war is inevitable, be it on a small scale or large. But as mentioned above, the strategists need to plan more thoroughly and comprehensively through to beyond the end of the proposed conflict, to the restoration of the peace. A critical analysis of this kind might lead to a different conclusion to invade/fight in the first place.
    So why indeed would Australia slavishly follow an American lead who has such a poor recent historical record in foreign conflicts?

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