Canberra’s foreign policies are a puzzle. Australia depends on China to take 35 percent of its exports. It may have to depend even more as its manufacturing base implodes — past mistakes mean it is about to lose almost all its car manufacturing industry. Yet Australia’s new conservative government has chosen this moment to tell the world that it wants to cooperate with Japan and the United States in their anti-China policies.
Consistency is not the first word that springs to mind when Canberra’s policies are considered. Australia’s new foreign minister, Julie Bishop, passed through Tokyo recently, praising Japan as Australia’s best friend in Asia and criticizing China’s pressures in the Senkaku Islands dispute. She went out of her way to trace Australia’s allegedly good relations with Japan back to a 1957 commerce agreement.
Her speechwriter even had her noting a 1950 speech by former Prime Minister Robert Menzies as the harbinger of those good relations. But at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty talks with Japan just a year later, a viscerally anti-Japan Australia took the lead in insisting that Japan be punished for its wartime aggression by being stripped of all the territory it had gained through that aggression, including the southern Kuril islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri, which it had gained peacefully.
If the question of the Senkakus had arisen then, Australia would almost certainly have demanded they be given to China. It said, perceptively, that failure to resolve all territory questions could provide the pretext for future Japanese militarism. And to protect itself from that future Japanese militarism it demanded and got its ANZUS treaty with the U.S.
But less than a decade later, China replaced Japan as potential enemy number one. ANZUS shifted from anti-Japan to being an anti-China alliance. The Vietnam War, we were told, was the first stage of China’s southwards expansion “between the Indian and Pacific oceans,” using its “puppets” in Hanoi.
Canberra then went on to try to ban any participation in the 1971 ping-pong diplomacy that China wanted for an opening to the outside world. But when it discovered that the U.S. was negotiating for an opening to Beijing, overnight China became the flavor of the month, complete with panda exchanges and prime ministerial visits. Meanwhile Japan, even though by then it had become the main market for Australian resource exports, began to bear the brunt of Canberra’s prickly resource nationalism. I once sat at a 1975 Canberra conference table where a harmless Japanese request for a treaty of friendship, navigation and commerce was condemned roundly as a sneaky attempt to take over the Australian economy.
Moscow, too, was relegated to potential enemy status. In 1964 I had to sit at a Kremlin conference table while an Australian foreign minister tried to convince the Soviet leaders that China was such a threat to world peace — he even warned about China aggression into Soviet Xinjiang (aka Sinkiang) even though China, not Moscow, owned Xinjiang — that Moscow should join us in resisting China’s aggression in Vietnam. Just 10 years later, an Australian prime minister would travel all the way to Xinjiang to show support for China against Moscow’s allegedly aggressive plans in the area.
But soon it was China’s turn, again, to be the target. Its emergence as a world power and large importer of Australian resources revived the former Yellow Peril fears of the Vietnam War era when maps showing dragons and red arrows pointing directly at Australia were in vogue.
With the U.S. making its “rebalancing” moves in Asia and with active support from a Murdoch press controlling more than half of Australia’s main media, hawkish pundits and academics quickly found anti-China voice. And now they have a government which listens to them.
These moves had started even during the allegedly pro-China Labor party regime of Kevin Rudd (2007-2010). Rudd spoke good Chinese and understood China. But he was also pro-U.S.; his “Asia Pacific Community” concept tried to offer the U.S. a shared presence with China in the area. But Washington was not impressed. Thanks to WikiLeaks we discover that elements of Rudd’s party close to the U.S. Embassy in Canberra were able to use Rudd’s personal unpopularity to have him replaced in 2010 with Julia Guillard as prime minister. Guillard promptly agreed to allow the stationing of a U.S. land-air marine taskforce in northern Australia.
Meanwhile, Canberra’s strongly pro-U.S. diplomatic and defense establishment, excited by U.S. moves to use Japan to boost an aggressive military presence close to Chinese waters, was also moving to get Japan on board. A 2007 Australia-Japan Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation called for regular meetings of foreign and defense ministers. That was followed up by two more agreements claiming that, as allies of the U.S., Australia and Japan had a role to play in the security of their region. And now as APEC — a grouping originally designed by Tokyo and Canberra conservatives back in the ’60s to isolate China — becomes increasingly irrelevant, Australia and the U.S. seek actively to replace it with a Trans-Pacific Partnership economic grouping concept also designed to keep China at bay.
For a while Beijing had seemed fairly indifferent to all this activity; its seems to have hoped its friends in the U.S. and Australia could prevail against the hawks. But when, during the recent APEC talks in Bali Japan, the U.S. and Australia took time off for a Trilateral Strategic Dialogue, its restraint seemed to snap with a sharp warning about the three nations ganging up in an anti-China alliance.
More could follow. Beijing does not hesitate to use the economic card when it thinks it has been provoked. In 1971, in Beijing with the table tennis team I had had to organize to get around Canberra’s ban, we were given Beijing’s threat to cut wheat imports from Australia if Canberra persisted in its anti-China attitudes. Beijing has now placed harsh economic sanctions on the Philippines following a minor military spat in the South China Sea.
Much of the “Gang of Three” strategy seems based on the hope they can tap into Asian anti-China concerns, in the Philippines and Vietnam especially. But that is a slim reed. Originally India was supposed to join the grouping to help encircle Beijing. But following direct Bejing overtures, it has now decided it can handle things by itself.
It is likely other Asians will follow the same route. Meanwhile, Japan has antagonized all five of its immediate neighbors, mainly over territory and its lingering wartime nationalism. Australia could end up as an ally of an isolated Japan.
Back in Australia, new threats to Canberra’s policies have emerged. A former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, has publicly warned that Australia’s military support for a U.S. aggressive presence in the South China sea could invite Chinese military retaliation. And a small but strongly pro-China group, the PUP or Palmer United Party, created by a mining magnate with close China links, now holds the balance of power in Canberra’s Upper House Senate. It has threatened to block any future anti-China legislation.
Finally the Chinese prop to the Australian economy may begin to carry clout.
Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat and a policy coordination consultant to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.