RICHARD WOOLCOTT. New series. We can say ‘no’ to the Americans.

 The present situation offers the Turnbull Government – or its successor -an opportunity to move beyond policies towards Asia based on fear of China and on compliance with United States wishes. 

I am a Founding Director of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue.  I lived in the United States for six years and I also made a number of visits, including with Coalition and ALP Prime Ministers.

I have always believed that Australian policy must be determined by OUR OWN national interests, in which United States wishes are but one of a number of considerations.

Early in 2005 I wrote an essay for the Australian Journal of International Affairs in which I argued that Australia should work towards a more appropriate balance between its then unquestioning support for the Bush Administration and our interests in other important countries, especially in our own region, such as China and Indonesia.

Our costly involvement in the destructive second invasion of Iraq, so far from our region of immediate interest, has underlined the need for the Government to redefine for the Australian people the strategic principles on which our policies are based and which underpin our Defence budget.

It is a fundamental principle in formulating foreign and security policy that one’s commitments do no exceed one’s capabilities.  It is also a basic principle that Australian forces should not be committed to combat unless it is unavoidable, as it was against Japan in World War II.  These principles have, however, been ignored by our Governments in the original and subsequent Australian military involvements in Iraq.

In the above mentioned essay, written 12 years ago, I argued that it was time to review the 1951 ANZUS Treaty.  ANZUS is not the guarantee many Australians assume it to be. Barely 800 words in length it calls on the three signatories to recognise that an armed attack in the Pacific area on any of them would endanger the security of the other two.  The Treaty commits the partners to consult in order to meet a common danger, in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.

When our forces in Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo – clearly in the Pacific area – were in combat with Indonesian forces in 1964, during Indonesia’s military opposition to the formation of Malaysia, the United States made it clear to the Australian Government that it would not become involved under ANZUS.

Moreover, ANZUS is somewhat outdated now in that the “NZ” element in the acronym became less relevant following New Zealand’s opposition to the visits of nuclear armed or nuclear powered ships.

ANZUS never was a blank cheque.  Nor is it a sacred cow.  An alliance is effective only to the extent that it reflects a common purpose and the coincidence of national interests.  Important as ANZUS has been and is to Australia, our strategic interests would be better served now by a revised and updated security arrangement with the United States, based on today’s geopolitical realities, rather than those which existed more than 50 years ago.

The present situation offers the Turnbull Government – or its successor -an opportunity to move beyond policies towards Asia based on fear of China and on compliance with United States wishes.

We can say ‘no’ to the United States if and when we determine that our interests are different from those of America.  The Gillard, Rudd and Turnbull Governments have all been involved in the highly complex conflicts in the Middle East.

I have no doubt that any proper re-examination would result in the Australian Government deciding that it should withdraw from the conflicts in the Middle East, on which it can make no really meaningful contribution, and focus on the area where our interests are directly involved – South-East Asia, North Asia and the South-West Pacific.

For a hundred years no trading ship moving through the South China Sea has been bothered by China.

As one senior Australian representative said at the Forum “it is China now, not the United States, which is the main regional game changer.

We can indeed say ‘no’ to the United States.

Richard Woolcott, Permanent Representative at the United Nations (1982-1988), Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1988-1992)

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