KATHRYN KELLY. Armed Neutrality for Australia?

Jul 16, 2018

The talks between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un give some reason for a glimmer of hope for the Korean Peninsula, but given Donald Trump’s predilection for middle of the night tweets, that could come unstuck at any moment.  The international situation continues to be uncertain, with China and the US still facing off over the South China Sea and war in Syria continuing. US power is waning and there is an urgent need for Australia to rethink our security strategy for the future.  I think it’s timely to revisit the concept of armed neutrality.

Australia’s security strategy should have the objective of defence of Australia, whilst also aiming to contribute to peace in the region and globally.  Our dependence on America can no longer guarantee the defence of Australia, nor does it contribute to peace regionally or globally. The opposite is in fact the case – if we have any enemies, they are largely courtesy of our alliance and subservience to the US.  Malcolm Fraser recognised and warned about this in his book ‘Dangerous Allies’ but the current Government and Opposition have not yet recognised it.

Throughout Australia’s history we have placed our trust in having a strong protector – firstly Britain and since the Second World War, the USA.  This strategy has, ever since the post WW2 period, taken us into wars – Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – none of which can be said to have made Australia or the world a safer or more peaceful place.

A strategy of Neutrality may come closest to achieving the defence of Australia as well as contributing to peace regionally and globally.

Neutrality is not a simple concept or practice. It has arisen historically over centuries largely out of the need for maritime nations to protect their shipping and trade when they were not part of a conflict.  Around 18 countries are thought to be neutral today with various forms of neutrality.

Neutrality has a status with the United Nations, originating from the Fifth Hague Peace Conference Convention 1907 and the Thirteenth Convention on the warfare at sea, and amendments under the 1949 Geneva Convention, (David Martin, in Armed Neutrality for Australia, 1984).  For neutrality to be ‘credible’ according to Martin, a country should not conclude treaties which could eventually oblige it to wage war, should not keep inadequate defence forces and have inadequate defence preparations which could directly or indirectly benefit a country contemplating war, nor control media or not allow them to function with reasonable objectivity, so as to benefit a particular belligerent.

Foreign bases would be precluded under neutrality. Various other conditions apply, for example, neutrality does not bind citizens, only the state, but recruitment for a belligerent force cannot take place in a neutral country.

If a neutrality policy were declared to the United Nations, we would need to ensure that our defence forces and purchases were directed at ensuring the defence of Australia. Martin says that Australia is geographically well-placed to be neutral.  We have no land borders and any country seeking to invade Australia would need a vastly greater force and secure channels of supply and we would most likely have warning of an intending invasion. Given that we have no real enemies, as indicated in the 2016 Defence White paper, we could feel secure whilst refocussing our defence strategies and platforms.  We may not need so many submarines and could focus more on air defence and ground forces which could also assist with disaster relief in the region. However, it may not mean that we could spend less on defence.

As a neutral country, we are less likely to draw the ire of countries as we currently do in following the US with its disastrous foreign policies, and our international reputation would undoubtedly be enhanced.  Importantly, we may also have greater diplomatic influence in opposing any expansionist moves by China, if we were not perceived to be doing the US’s bidding.

The Government has recently established a $3.8b loan fund to promote arms exports, perhaps to Saudi Arabia, one of the main sources of terrorist philosophy and actions this century. The arms industry has the reputation of being one of the most corrupt industries globally.

The recent Defence Estimates committee hearings indicated that the public is not privy to the types of military equipment being exported, nor the countries they go to. So our arms exports are essentially secret, and details of what is being supplied to whom are not available to the Australian public. This would not be acceptable under a state of neutrality, nor would supply of military equipment to one side in any conflict, precluding sales to Saudi Arabia, for example.

The conduct of hostilities has changed enormously in recent decades with incidents of terrorism and cyber warfare now common.  Added to these hostile acts, is the threat of nuclear war, either through deliberate acts or by ‘accident,’ and with nuclear weapons now being far more destructive than those used against Japan, a nuclear winter would bring catastrophe to the planet.

Australia, as the host to US communication bases, is a ‘soft’ nuclear target, which could be used to send a message to the US without attacking them directly. Tokyo was not a target in the second world war in the same way that New York or Washington may not be a target of first choice if a belligerent wanted to bring the US to the negotiation table.

A further existential threat is that of climate change which, if its catastrophic impacts are to be mitigated or avoided, requires major resources of the developed countries to be directed to addressing it, not creating more emissions through military activities and the devastation resulting from conflicts.

With these conditions and a US President who cannot be relied on to act with rationality and due consideration to the effects of his/US actions, it is ever more urgent that Australia rethink its defence strategy and how it can best contribute to global peace.

Kathryn Kelly is a former federal public servant, producer and director of the documentary, The Inertia Trap on climate change and the oceans, and a member of national Coordinating Committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.

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