JOSEPH A. CAMILLERI. Australia’s engagement with Asia and the world has fallen on hard times.

Aug 24, 2017

In the vain hope of minimising the catastrophic consequences of America’s 16-year long military intervention, Donald Trump has just announced yet another surge in its military presence in Afghanistan.  Australia, like other allies, will also be asked to do more, and will almost certainly agree to the request.  This is part of the now familiar pattern that has seen Australia despatch military forces to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.  It is a reminder of the same reflexive mindset that has prompted Malcolm Turnbull’s recent comments linking ANZUS to the Korean crisis.  In this case, the response is so ill-informed as to be comical, and so bereft of common sense as to be tragic.  Australia’s foreign and security policies, it seems, have now descended into pure farce.

The idea that Australia may need to wage war against North Korea because of the dangers posed by its nuclear ambitions would be more persuasive if Australia had supported the international treaty adopted in New York in June, which prohibits the development, testing, possession, use and threatened use of nuclear weapons.  Far from supporting the Treaty, it did all in its power to thwart it.

As for the idea that we may be required to do this because of our connection with ANZUS, it is difficult how anyone familiar with the text of the treaty could reach such a conclusion. There is no legal obligation on Australia to go to war just because the US is at war.  ANZUS simply commits the parties to ‘consult’ should any of them be threatened in some way.  And, even if one of the parties is directly attacked, the other parties are simply required to ‘act to meet the common danger’.  Military action is theoretically an option, but so are other political, economic or diplomatic responses.

Speaking in August 2004 at a time of heightened tension across the Taiwan Strait, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was unambiguous about his reading of Australia’s commitments under ANZUS.  Australia, he explained, would not feel obligated under ANZUS to help US forces defend Taiwan if China tried to regain the island republic by military force.

Downer’s intervention is worth recalling not because it invites support for ANZUS, but because it tells us how far Australian governments have gone down the road of unthinking and ruinous subservience to US priorities and utterances.

In the same speech, Downer went on to warn ‘that any move towards independence by Taiwan would be provocative and would create substantial upheaval in the region’.  He even contemplated ‘a stronger and much fuller relationship’ with China, encompassing ‘many of the challenges of the Asia-Pacific region, of a political and security nature, not just an economic nature’.

Sadly, this is the kind of relationship that has since fallen on hard times.  At the very time we should be consulting closely with China to find a way out of the current impasse in the Korean peninsula, we seem unable to do more than engage in megaphone diplomacy.

We persist with the foolish assumption that military responses will force Pyongyang to end its nuclear program, and diplomatic pressure compel Beijing to abandon its North Korean neighbour.  In the meantime, we remain deaf to China’s pleas for dialogue and its concrete proposal that Washington terminate its joint military exercises with South Korea as well as its plans to establish the THAAD missile defence system, in exchange for Pyongyang agreeing to terminate its intercontinental ballistic system.

There is more, however, to Australia’s predicament than its handling of the Korean crisis. Everywhere we see the same drift towards paralysis of thought and action.  While German Chancellor Angela Merkel affirms that Europe can no longer rely on the United States in the age of Trump, and that Germany and China should work together to help calm the world’s flashpoints, we continue with our subservient alignment with US military actions and nuclear policies.

Australia continues with its interventionist deployments at the side of the United States, primarily in the Muslim world, even though these interventions have proved unwinnable and exacted a tragic cost in both human lives and social, cultural and economic infrastructure.  At the same time, we hypocritically seek the help of our Muslim communities and the Muslim world more widely to stem the tide of Islamist terrorism, even though it is US-led interventionism and the financial backing of Saudi Arabia, America’s privileged ally in the Arab world, which have done much to fuel the terrorist scourge.

In the meantime, we allow the expansion of the secretive Pine Gap military facility, even though we know that the intelligence gathered is used by the United States to locate targets for special forces and drone strikes which have already caused hundreds of civilian deaths across Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia.

How is it that we have been brought to such a pass?  How is it that the government can get away with such dangerous ineptitude?  Here, the recent role of Labor, both in government and opposition, cannot be overstated.  Its virtually complete silence on some of the most pressing issues of our time is shocking to behold.  Its meek acceptance of the government line on the whole gamut of security policies at home and abroad beggars belief.

The major sin is one of omission – a systematic failure to articulate a coherent set of policies on our future relationship with the United States on the one hand and China on the other.  Yet, at no point over the life of ANZUS (some 65 years) has there been a more urgent need to review the military alliance in its entirety, including the hosting of military facilities and personnel on Australian soil, the despatch of Australian military forces in support of US interventions, the intelligence connection, and the demands placed on the structure and capabilities of the Australian defence force, often in the name of interoperability.

Oddly, neither the Leader of the Opposition nor any of the relevant shadow ministers has shown the slightest disposition to articulate peacebuilding, peacemaking, or conflict resolution initiatives as an alternative to government or US policies on conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, or the South China Sea.

Even more striking is Labor’s failure to question the drift of Australia’s handling of the terrorist threat, with its obsessive emphasis on symptoms rather than causes, and on the application of force at home and abroad, regardless of the implications for civil liberties and international humanitarian law.

In the meantime, asylum seeker and refugee policy remains a prime casualty of the politics of expediency.  The ALP seems singularly unwilling or unable to develop a humane and plausible national and multilateral response to the ever growing number of displaced peoples across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  And when it comes to UN reform, nuclear disarmament, human trafficking and other forms of human slavery, a deafening silence, none of which is helped by the fact that on these and other issues large swathes of the trade union movement have gone to sleep.

Though the Greens may have their hearts in the right place, neither the parliamentary leadership nor the party organisation seems at all disposed, intellectually or organisationally, to take the public into its confidence, spell out the major challenges facing Australia, or propose detailed solutions or even specific initiatives.  As for the Senate cross-bench, the less said the better.

All of this is but a reminder that those who seek to engage in an informed, fruitful and sustained conversation about Australia’s future and its place in the world need to look beyond the Parliament and its occupants.  Their priorities lie elsewhere.

In such a climate, it is for the concerned citizenry with access to constructive educational and media sites to develop a narrative that addresses the profound transformation of Australia’s economy, society, culture and environment over the last twenty or more years. Such a narrative needs to give due weight to promising new directions, but also to the costly wrong turns and political sclerosis that currently grips the Australian Parliament and the United Nations.

Joseph A. Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and Executive Director of Alexandria Agenda, a new venture in ethical consulting.

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