RICHARD WOOLCOTT. An Updated Approach to Australia’s Engagement in the Asia and the South West Pacific.

The Australian Government and the Opposition must now base policy on three realities, namely that;

(a)     Trump is essentially a unilateralist, despite the contradictory comments he often makes;
(b)     United States involvement in Asia and the South West Pacific will be less active during Trump’s Presidency; and that
(c)     China’s role in the Asia and the South West Pacific will be much more active in the decades ahead, including its ‘One Belt, One Road’ project.

While some commentators (e.g. Peter Jennings and John Garnaut) will strongly criticise China, we need to acknowledge how Washington would have reacted to Chinese naval ships and aircraft encircling Hawaii or flying over the Florida Keys. Comparable activities were undertaken by the United States when it was the leading global power. Even more recently, a US naval ship cruised inside the 12 Klm limit of an island claimed by both China and Taiwan. Australia was pressed by the US Defence Department to do likewise, but the Turnbull Government soundly decided not to do so.

In January 1942, Prime Minister John Curtin said ‘without any inhibition of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our territorial links and kinship with the United Kingdom.’ Australia also followed Great Britain’s lead until Britain started to reduce its engagement in South East Asia.

Now, in 2018, we have a situation not greatly dissimilar to  January 1942 when Curtin said that despite our traditional links with the United Kingdom, Australia would in future look to America for support if it became necessary.

In the decades ahead, Australian Governments and Oppositions must acknowledge the great changes underway in Asia and the South West Pacific. Australian politicians, and our wider public, need to understand that, despite the great differences between China, which is a one party state managed by the Communist Party,  and Australia, which is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy, Australia itself must, from now on, engage more closely with China.

Moreover,Australian Governments and Oppositions must be ready to acknowledge the evolving emergence of an Asia Pacific community in which China, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and both South and North Korea, and probably some other regional countries may want to contribute to an updated regional order, which will replace the old “rules-based order”, drawn up by the United States after the end of WW2.

Richard Woolcott was formerly Head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and President of the UN Security Council. He was also Australian Ambassador to Indonesia for many years.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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