Government shock as subordinating foreign and defence policy to US strangely unpopular with voters

Mar 18, 2024
Grinding gears of national flags of the USA and China. Illustration

A recent Essential Poll published in The Guardian proves yet again that silly questions often get silly answers.

One of its question was “Which of the following is closest to your view on what Australia’s role should be in global affairs:

  • Primarily an ally of the US
  • An independent middle power with influence in the Asia-Pacific region
  • Australia is best not to engage in world affairs
  • Unsure”

The prize for the least silly answer might go to the 17% who ticked the “Unsure” box.

The most lacklustre were the 25% of respondents who said Australia is best not to engage in world affairs. No country is an island other than in a geographic sense and Australia, at least as much as any other, is unavoidably caught up in “world affairs” whatever those imprecise words might mean. It’s almost too obvious to say but some would seem to need reminding – Australia is a significant trading nation and eight of its top ten partners are Asian-Pacific countries who account for around 75% if its trade. Those wanting a new car these days need to “engage in world affairs” by importing one.

The 20% going for the first option in the question and the 38% for the second could well have been troubled by the slippery concepts of “primarily” and “independent” with the considerable degrees of meaning they encompass.

Whatever, Australia is a middle power in the Asia-Pacific. It’s GDP is about the same as South Korea’s, slightly bigger than Indonesia’s and roughly equal to the combined GDPs of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. Australia’s military expenditure is two thirds of South Korea’s, almost three times that of Taiwan and about equal to the combined spends of Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and New Zealand.

Australia is, of course, also a strong US ally, a connection it has sought to strengthen by joining our great and powerful friend in invasions of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan with mixed results in terms of our national interests and infinitely more drastic consequences for people in the countries invaded.

The trick in Australian foreign affairs and defence policy is to balance the interests and demands of other nations in ways that best suit ours. That inevitably involves compromises, sacrifice and the acceptance of risk. Such calculations will usually not be helped by dogmatism and misguided notions about hooking up with those we think might share our “values”, an unsteady base often confused by mixed motives and hypocrisy.

If it is to prosper Australia needs to maintain a sound relationship with the United States and other countries in the Asia-Pacific including China. Current US foreign policy is not making that easy. For example, it seems to envisage the prospect of war with China over Taiwan, a conflict the US would be likely to lose and which, if it turned into nuclear one, everyone would lose. The US also seems to want to contain Chinese military influence, including in China’s backyard. In this there is a seeming obliviousness to the awkward fact that almost all great powers in known history expand their spheres of influence and that trying to prevent that happening is rather like turning back the tides.

A US General, Mike Minihin, reckons a war with China by 2025 is on the cards. It’s not clear what estimate he’s made of the consequences of such an adventure. Maybe he’s not bothered himself with such details.

The unavoidable point is that war between China and the US could easily descend into the large-scale use of nuclear weapons that would immiserate the planet. That is to say, any dangers arising from China’s growing economic and military power are not amenable to resolution by military conflict because of intolerable costs. In the meantime, if General Minihin lacks the self-discipline to keep his reckless thoughts to himself, then he should be ordered to do so.

Australia could be a better friend to the US by using whatever influence it can to moderate its inclinations to shoot first and think with regret about the consequences second. Rather than muscling up on China, trying to contain it and risking a war in which all would be grave losers, Australia, with its colleagues in the Asia-Pacific, would do well to ease the US into finding better ways than war of handling the risks associated with China’s inevitable rise.

That doesn’t seem to be the drift in recent years in which through the expansion of US basing in Australia, the nuclear subs and in other ways, the country has more subordinated its foreign and defence policy to that of the United States. It’s to be hoped this hasn’t been done more effectively to guarantee US backing if Australian were to be militarily attacked – if US and Australian interests were to diverge, there should be no self-delusion about what the US would do.

Moreover, the more Australia tucks itself into US foreign and defence policy, the more likely it is that relations with other countries in the Asia-Pacific will become more fraught, a point made clear at the recent meeting of ASEAN leaders in Melbourne.

Australia must be able respectably to walk both sides of the street. It has to keep the US as an ally and be an effective middle power in the Asia-Pacific. The good thing is that if the Essential Poll is anything to go by, this is what the people want so the Government can tag along at little political peril.

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