Last week Pearls and Irritations printed spirited contributions by Hugh White and Cavan Hogue about the future of Anzus and the American Alliance. They were both responding to an earlier paper in The Strategist, the in- house journal of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, by Paul Dibb entitled “ Australia and the Taiwan contingency.” It was encouraging to see that there was significant debate within the defence and foreign policy establishment in Canberra although little of it emerges into the wider public sphere.
Dibb’s article certainly warranted a much larger and more general audience. This was so due both to the author and the content. Dibb is currently the Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU.But for almost 50 years now he has been at the centre of Canberra’s intelligence networks, has worked in and close to government and the defence forces. He is a pivotal figure. So when he speaks it is fair to assume his views represent the broad consensus of strategic thinking across two generations of Canberra’s establishment.
As a result we should be both alarmed and pleased. Alarmed because Dibb writes with admirable clarity about, not just the need, but the necessity of following the Americans into any future conflict with China over the status of Taiwan even if no other American allies follow along the same disastrous path. Is this the common view among key decision makers in Canberra? Is this the advice given to government? Is this what the Americans are told sotto voce in secret briefings? So yes we should be alarmed. We are being propelled towards a potential catastrophe. But pleased? Well yes, because Dibb has cleared away the dense clouds of obfuscation which have always swirled around the subject. This is after all the logical conclusion of the ANZUS Alliance. This was always implicit in the agreement from the very start. This is the intellectual vanishing point where all lines of thought converge. The Alliance has been so sacrosanct that we have given up serious public debate about its costs and benefits .Few politicians have ever called for a strenuous reconsideration or canvassed other possible scenarios. Discussion has become depleted for lack of alternatives. So perhaps Dib is right. There can be no turning back? We no longer have the capacity to execute a u-turn? And it is too late to learn? A future war with China looms above us like a spectre.
Much in our history thrusts us in this direction. We have never escaped from Empire. Since the late C19th Australian leaders had great difficulty in distinguishing between the interests of Empire and those of the nation. We are not all that for removed from the sentiment of Sir John Forrest who declared during the Boer War that it was a case of the Empire right or wrong .During the recently concluded carnival of commemoration for the First World there was little discussion of the terrible price we paid as a direct consequence of the Imperial connection. The loss ,the bloodshed, put such questions out of the reach of disputation. Just think how different the commemoration would have been if the emphasis had been on the terrible burden of Empire.
Having faced the prospect of rapidly declining British power the country entered into the flawed and quite unnecessary Anzus Treaty with the United States and New Zealand in 1951. It had inherent problems. The first was the vast disparity of power between America and the two small British dominions. The relationship could never be between equals rather that between overwhelming patron and anxious supplicants. And because there was no commitment to an automatic defensive response the parties had the right to choose how they would respond. For Australia this has meant an endless pursuit to prove our fidelity and reliability. And more particularly we have wanted to establish that whenever America went to war we would be there even when the conflict was far away and the selected enemies presented no direct threat to Australia itself. We learnt little from the disaster of Vietnam and so here we are today still involved in the Middle East after a generation of conflict with no end in sight. Another and related tactic is to pursue what is known as ineroperability or the harmonization of equipment and methods of our armed forces with those of the United States. The objective is to make it easier to fight together the assumption being that this will make us safer. But in many situations it could well have just the opposite effect .And this brings us to one of the central questions, one that has been debated in Australia since the late C19th. Does being close to a great power make a nation safer or not? Can it indeed become the greatest source of danger?
These questions were vigorously discussed in the Australian colonies after the withdrawal of British troops in 1870. One of the recurring themes among nationalists and republicans was that the Imperial retreat liberated the colonies and allowed them to plan for their own defence. They traded with the world and had no natural enemies and no vulnerable borders. The size of the continent alone would deter any power with hostile intent, the great port cities were easy to defend and citizen forces could prevail against raiding parties. But the real threat came not from foreign powers but from Britain itself. She had global interests and was perpetually at war. And eventually she would become embroiled in a great European conflict and would pull the colonies with her into the maelstrom. As it turned out the war was longer coming than many expected but the tragedy unfolded in exactly the manner in which they had predicted.
Clearly those C19th debates retain their relevance. Since 1951 Australia has not needed America’s defensive shield. Even now there are no obvious enemies apart from those we acquire because we have a formal alliance with the United States. Their enemies become ours as well. We solicit their hostility. Rather than making us safe Anzus endangers us. This is a truth which the paper by Paul Dibb implicitly concedes. Imperial Britain pulled us into the greatest tragedy of the C20th. Imperial America may well do the same in this one.