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Now or never: Australia must develop its own foreign policy

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

Australia’s historical reluctance to have its own foreign policy is becoming increasingly untenable, writes Dr Alison Broinowski.

AUSTRALIA HAS NEVER had an independent foreign or defence policy. Despite current political talk about the importance of Australian "sovereignty", Australia cannot claim to be a genuinely sovereign, independent or peaceful country at all.

We have military bases on our territory from which we and our American allies interoperably and unaccountably fight foreign wars of their choosing. With the U.S., Australia is currently fighting the longest war in its history in Afghanistan.

Parliamentarians swear to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second’, the unelected Monarch of another country. 

Our national day marks the arrival of British colonists and the national flag is the British blue ensign with stars added. The Australian War Memorial is a showcase for the foreign military-industrial complex which significantly funds it.

All this makes a sovereign, independent, and peaceful Australia, hard to reach. A long sequence of missed opportunities makes it harder.

A history of dependency

Throughout Australia’s history, when we could have behaved as a sovereign, independent and peaceful nation, we repeatedly didn’t.

The first settlers made no treaty with the first nations people whom they displaced by force. In 1901 the colonies agreed to federate, not to become an independent country, on the condition that Asian migration was restricted and Europeans were favoured.

Instead of leaving Europe’s wars behind, as some settlers hoped to do, the Australian colonies sent troops to fight in them, because Britain expected loyalty and because they relied on Britain for defence. When Australia gained its own army and navy, they fought in World War I under British command.

When the UK offered dominions the right to make their own foreign and defence policies in 1931 under the Statute of Westminster, Australia declined, adopting it only in 1941 when the Curtin Government in effect transferred that essential element of sovereign independence to the United States, where it has remained ever since.

Australia had a High Commission in London from 1910, but Britain managed our external affairs and only in 1940 to 1945 were Australian diplomatic missions successively opened in Washington, Tokyo, Ottawa, Nanking, Wellington and Paris, with a fledgeling foreign service in Canberra.

Labor governments were more inclined to support multilateralism than was the conservatives, but neither warmed to the 1948 proposal for Australia and New Zealand to join a Pacific Pact to match NATO, with four Asian members and the US. Instead in 1954, they got SEATO, with only three Asian members, Australia and New Zealand, the US, UK and France.

The intention of both was to contain Communism in Asia and neither lasted.

From 1952, ANZUS was supposed to protect Australia from a re-armed Japan. The Treaty doesn’t apply beyond the "Pacific area", nor oblige its parties to fight in each other’s wars, nor even guarantee that they will defend each other.

Australia voluntarily sent forces to wars on the U.S. side to Korea, Vietnam and Kuwait. John Howard unilaterally invoked the ANZUS Treaty from 2001 as requiring us to commit troops to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, which it does not. Meanwhile, the insurance premium of the U.S. alliance continues to rise.

Australia’s bipartisan foreign policy offers no meaningful way out.

On a few occasions, Australia showed an interest in foreign policy independence. Prime Minister Curtin insisted to Winston Churchill in 1942 that Australian warships should return to defend Australia. As Foreign Minister, HV Evatt was President of the UN General Assembly and was influential in drafting the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948.

In 1955, Prime Minister Robert Menzies dismissed the notion of Australia fighting against the PRC with the U.S. and Taiwan over Quemoy and Matsu, and called for a conference instead. Prime Minister John Gorton began and then Gough Whitlam completed bringing the troops home from Vietnam. Under Whitlam, Australia recognised China, including Taiwan, and dropped SEATO.

ASEAN was formed in 1967 and Australia was an early supporter. But governments missed early opportunities to associate Australia with the Non-Aligned Movement in 1955, the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality in Southeast Asia in 1971, independence for West Papua and East Timor.

Australia performed best when taking initiatives without the U.S. and with the UN, as Labor’s efforts showed in rebuilding relations with Vietnam, establishing a Cambodian electoral process and supporting reconciliation in the Solomon Islands.

In 1989, Bob Hawke helped create APEC (whose 21 members included the U.S., at Japan’s insistence. Malcolm Fraser had backed the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum, and under the Coalition, Australia led the UN intervention in East Timor in 1999.

Australia and the "Asia Century"

Enthusiastic for "Asia-engagement", Australia joined the East Asia Summit (which the U.S. originally did not), the last regional organisation in which Australia could speak without sounding like a dependent American state. That opportunity was lost when Kevin Rudd’s proposal for an Asia Pacific Community, to include the US, resulted in America and Russia joining the East Asia Summit as a compromise.

As trade with China shielded Australia from the Global Financial Crisis and Asians greeted the "Asian Century", Australia belatedly recognised the shift of global weight to the East and a White Paper recommended intensive engagement with Asia to the Gillard Government. It was unfunded and remains unimplemented.

Refugees and asylum seekers arriving by boat and lies about their behaviour (terrorists and "children overboard") once again turned Australians against openness and engagement with the region. Fomented by the foreign influence of the Murdoch media, the illegal "war on terror" from 2001 compounded atavistic fear and mistrust. The proximity of rising economies in Asia became a threat, not an opportunity.

Dependence on distant Anglo-allies intensified, together with the militarisation and securitisation of Australia, and loss of influence in the region and in international organisations.

Where Australia had advocated good international citizenship and helped negotiate arms control treaties, it now broke the rules itself, shrank DFAT’s staff and budget, increased defence spending disproportionately and sought to become one of the world’s ten biggest arms exporters.

Australia turned away from the cause of the Palestinians, refused to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and became a global pariah on climate change, environmental conservation, and human rights.

Instead of seeking to further Australia’s interests alongside a peacefully-risen China, Australian governments unnecessarily confronted Beijing over a range of issues, pre-planned with the U.S. Australian foreign and defence policies in the 21st Century became so indistinguishable from those of America that our views are no longer sought or valued by other countries.

The U.S. is a failing hegemon and an unreliable ally. As Malcolm Fraser wrote in 2014, its military presence endangers rather than protects Australia. We have missed many opportunities in the past, but this time the choice is of existential significance.

If Australia goes along with the U.S. in antagonising China and goes to war, particularly nuclear war, we will gain nothing and could lose everything. The U.S. will not win such a war, with or without Australia, but Australia could become a surrogate target, used by China to warn the U.S. of what it can do.

To avoid this, Australia needs urgently to advise the U.S. that, as in 1955, we will not be involved in a war over Hong Kong, Taiwan or the South China Sea and that we will persuade our neighbours to do the same.

Regional solutions to regional differences will come from diplomacy, not armed force. But for that, Australia must rebuild its reputation and its foreign service. Australia needs independence and sovereignty now more than ever.

Dr Alison Broinowski is a former Australian diplomat, vice-president of Australians for War Powers Reform and vice-president of Honest History.

Dr Broinowski will be taking part in a webinar entitled ‘U.S.-Australian alliance  on defence & foreign policy’ on March 25 2021 at 6 pm AEDT as part of the People’s Inquiry into the costs and consequences of the U.S. alliance.

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