QUENTIN DEMPSTER. With talk of war, what should Australia do?

As the United States Trump administration now confronts North Korea, there is talk of war. Also confronted, but more indirectly, is China itself with President Donald Trump’s declaration that the US would go it alone to disarm North Korea if China and President Xi Jinping did not help in that objective.  

Last Sunday night SBS Australia broadcast journalist John Pilger’s documentary The Coming War On China. For the first time the human rights journalist, concerned about the consequences of any conflict for countless millions of people, seems to have achieved a consensus about Australia’s so far unconditional dependence on the US with former Prime Minister Paul Keating, and former Labor foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Bob Carr.

All these Labor figures, and, significantly, former Liberal prime minister, the late Malcolm Fraser, have been urging Australians to think hard about following the United States without question.

While acknowledging Australia and the US have been bonded allies since the US helped to save Australia from Japanese invasion in the Second World War, they point to the US’s monumental misjudgment in the 2003 invasion of Iraq as at least one of the reasons for Australians to question the geopolitical competence of the Americans.

With North Korea parading its latest silo and submarine launched inter-continental ballistic missiles in Pyongyang, the USS Carl Vinson strike group with nuclear warhead-armed aircraft is on alert. While there is reassuring intelligence that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un so far does not have nuclear warheads for his missiles, nevertheless President Trump has escalated confrontational rhetoric.

Australia will be included with the US’s Operation Talisman Sabre sea lane blockade war game in July with an objective to test China’s alleged threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea where China has been establishing atoll and island naval and air force ‘forward defence’ facilities. This also looks like direct confrontation with China.

Former China ambassador advocates Australian self-reliance

Dr Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China in 1973 after the Mao Tse Tung 1949 communist revolution, has been advocating that Australia must now have the resolve to say no to the US and to China.

In the Gough Whitlam Oration, delivered at the University of Western Sydney last month, Dr FitzGerald urged a ‘drop everything’ urgent effort to build Australian ‘friend at court’ influence in Beijing to help steer us through the Trump era. There should be an Australia-China Commission similar to the Australian-American Fulbright Commission. Australia’s ultimate long term security would come from its strong relationships within Asia. “An elevated relationship with China need not and must not be at the expense of relations with the US. But Trump is a moment of opportunity, to see the fallibility of dependence and adopt once more a foreign policy of independence within that relationship”, Dr FitzGerald said.

Contentiously he advocated Australia’s withdrawal from military engagement in the Middle East and from collaboration in containment of China. “It requires untangling of defence entanglements which have the potential to involve us in a US conflict, including the US marine base in Darwin and the use of Pine Gap for purposes where Australian interests do not align with America’s, or, as one analyst has put it, for operations which are ‘repugnant and strategically dangerous’ – most obviously .. drone assassination targeting and planning for nuclear war operations. This may seem hard, but it’s possible”.

Dr FitzGerald said Australia had to have a demonstrable capacity to say ‘no’ to China’s increasingly influential ‘soft power offensives’. Coming from a non- democratic one party state with enormous trading and manufacturing power, Chinese money now flooding into Australia and other countries was a major concern.

“Amplifying this influence is the inflow of very significant sums of money from the PRC (People’s Republic of China). Last year this included $3.6billion in what are called suspicious financial transactions, or black money, which the Chinese government itself is trying to stop. But clean money or black, this money pit has become a significant factor of influence in various sectors of Australia’s economy and society.

“And for Beijing to suggest Australian citizens of Chinese descent should unite and serve China is a direct challenge to Australian sovereignty. In these ways, it has clearly crossed the line.”

By saying ‘no’ to China and the US, where justified, Australia would be treated with respect.

So far the Turnbull government has rejected advice from all those advocating a re- think of Australia’s relationship with the US and remains all the way with the USA.

But with US and Australian defence forces headed for the South China Sea under the operational direction of commander-in-chief Donald Trump, some very hard thinking now seems wise and urgent.

An edited version of this item was posted on The New Daily website on 19 April 2017. 

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Quentin Dempster, former chairman of the Walkley Foundation, is a contributing editor at The New Daily.

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