If Penny Wong becomes foreign minister will she repeat the numerous blunders Australia and the US have made in the Pacific?

May 17, 2022
Penny Wong and Marise Payne - Foreign Minister's Debate, Press Club
Image: AAP /Jane Dempster)

The discussion of foreign policy is one of the low points in the election. It is hard to be otherwise when both major parties are committed to integrating Australia’s military forces with those of the US. This severely curtails the scope for proposing independent policies and raises expectations ensuring the Government and Opposition contribute forces to almost any war America wants it to.

Given these constraints, Labor’s shadow foreign minister Penny Wong grabbed the chance to please the US at the same time as repeatedly accusing the Coalition of making the “worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II”. Wong was referring to the decision of the Solomon Islands sovereign government to sign a minor security agreement with China. As discussed below, Australia has made far worse blunders in the Pacific than this.

The agreement follows violent riots involving looting and burning of local Chinese businesses in the capital Honiara. The leaked text reportedly lets China, if the government agrees, contribute police and military personnel to assist the Solomons in “maintaining social order, protecting people’s lives and property and providing humanitarian assistance”. It also allows Chinese naval ships to replenish if given permission.

According to Solomons Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, the agreement didn’t give China permission to build a military base and permission will not be given. The situation might evolve, but China is unlikely to want to build a large scale military base isolated several thousand kilometres from China and vulnerable to destruction by US and Australian forces.

Although of little significance as things stand, the innocuous agreement caused widespread alarm after the Morrison government, and many in the media, including the ABC, have fostered a reflex fear of China.

The best the coalition’s foreign minister Marise Payne could do in in response to Wong was to call on China and the Solomons to make the text of the agreement fully transparent. However, her government did not release the text of the much more important Anglo-Saxon pact between Australia, the UK and the US called AUKUS to confront China.

The Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews thought she was on a winner by suggesting China had “deliberately timed” its security agreement with the Solomons to coincide with Australia’s election and implied that this amounted to “foreign interference”. She refused to produce any evidence.

Although Wong repeatedly described the Solomons agreement as the “worst blunder in the Pacific since World War 2” she may have intended to refer only to the South Pacific. Even so, the Morrison government’s failure to take serious action on climate change is widely regarded in the South Pacific as the worst Australian blunder in recent years. Earlier, Australian governments blundered by not objecting to French atmospheric nuclear tests in the South Pacific before the Whitlam government’s election in 1972.

If Wong becomes foreign minister, she should heed the lessons of the blunders Australia and the US have made in the Pacific since World War 2.

The historian and former NSW Supreme Court judge Michael Pembroke makes a compelling case in his book Korea that the war there should have over three months after it started in June 1950. That’s when the UN mandate to drive the invading North Korean forces out of South Korea had been achieved. Australia bungled by not withdrawing its forces and pressing the UN for a new vote rejecting the unjustified use of force, as set out in its Charter. Instead, the head-strong leader of the UN forces, the American general, Douglas MacArthur, pushed deep into North Korea to its border with China. Understandably, China feared it would be invaded and ordered its forces into North Korea where they drove MacArthur’s forces back into South Korea.

The US air force general Curtis LeMay then unleashed unrestrained carnage on North Korea from the air. The savagery far surpassed what’s now occurring in Ukraine. Almost every city, town, village plus basic infrastructure, including dykes and dams, were destroyed by conventional bombs and huge quantities of napalm, a chemical weapon comprising phosphorus and a sticky gasoline gel that spreads rapidly after igniting at 1150°C. Australian pilots also dropped this now banned weapon before an armistice was declared in July 1953.

Pembroke says the war cost the lives of 3 million civilians. Many others were left shockingly maimed, disfigured and destitute. Military casualties were 1.9 million including 850,000 deaths.

Another savage war was gathering strength in the Pacific, this time in France’s Indochina colonies – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Menzies government rejected pressure from the US in early 1954 to provide naval support for the French. The foreign affairs minister Percy Spender’s cabinet submission, “Australia’s destiny was not so completely wrapped up in the United States as to support them in an action which Australia regarded as wrong”. Today, it is hard to envisage a future Labor or Coalition government refusing a similar US request.

After the Viet Minh, a group comprising communists and nationalists, won a decisive battle against the colonialists in May 1954, the French withdrew from Indo-China. Later that year an international conference adopted the Geneva Accords which divided Vietnam into north and south, with the crucial condition that an election to unify the country under the winner must be held no later than 1956. President Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that the popular North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh would have won the election.

In an audacious act of foreign interference Eisenhower told his officials to stop the election going ahead. They officials ordered its South Vietnamese puppet, President Ngo Dinh Diem, to refuse to participate in the election and hence the unification of the country.

This intervention was an extraordinary anti-democratic folly that led the US and Australia to lose a protracted war. Australia bungled by not objecting to this disastrous act of foreign interference. Now Australia objects to China engaging in unproven acts of foreign interference that are trivial in comparison. Nor did Australia object to President Kennedy decision to order the 1963 assassination of Diem and brother Dinh Dien Nhu.

After he was robbed of an election victory, Ho Chi Minh stepped up a guerrilla war in the south. The US responded by sending military trainers and special forces to no avail. In March 1965 it dispatched an initial 3,500 combat troops. The following month Menzies announced Australia would send a battalion to Vietnam to help stop the downward thrust of Communist China. The Labor leader Arthur Calwell delivered a parliamentary speech demolishing Menzies rationale that North Vietnam was a Chinese puppet. Written by Graham Freudenberg, the speech explained that Vietnam had a “1000-year history of hostility towards China”. Calwell said Labor opposed a “cruel, costly and interminable ”civil war that would “prolong and deepen the suffering” of the Vietnamese people. In contrast to the current policy of enmeshing with US forces, General John Wilton insisted the Australian army must not be integrated with US forces.

The people of Indochina were no threat to Australia or the US, but the invading forces subjected them to death and disfigurement from carpet bombing, napalm, dioxin, prolonged torture, massacres and assassinations. Without the foreign intervention, there would’ve been none of the horrors of a protracted war, no American war crimes, no spraying of napalm or dioxin – the persistent poison that still condemns anguished mothers to give birth to terribly deformed children whom they spend years nursing.

About 60,000 Australian troops, including 19,000 conscripts, were sent to the war. The last were withdrawn in 1973. A total of 521 died and over 3000 wounded. America suffered a 58,000 unnecessary deaths. Estimates of the number of Vietnamese, him Cambodians and Laotians killed vary from 1.2 million to over 3.8 million.

Participating in those wars was much worse than a bungle. By the standards now rightly being applied to Vladimir Putin, the American and Australian leaders who brought carnage to Indochina were major war criminals. Australian politicians who didn’t intervene to stop an inoffensive treaty being signed in the Solomon Islands didn’t commit even a trivial blunder.

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