John Hewson
Albanese and the superpowers

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s statement to United States President Joe Biden during his recent visit to Washington, DC, that “Australia has his back” has unfortunate echoes. It is almost 60 years since then prime minister Harold Holt made a similar trip to declare his government’s support for the Vietnam War, assuring president Lyndon B. Johnson that Australia was “all the way with LBJ”.

Both statements were well received by the American audiences at the time, but the danger for Albanese, as was the case with Holt, is that his words will take on more significance as circumstances unfold, especially in an evolving US–Australia relationship, against mounting geopolitical tensions.

Holt’s remark, which he made in a ceremonial address at the White House in 1966, was received less warmly at home. His words were a repeat of Johnson’s 1964 campaign slogan and were seen, particularly by anti-war protesters, as indicative of Australian subservience. Pacifist sentiment was building here and was on prominent display in protests later that year, when Johnson made the first visit to Australia by a sitting US president – though Holt still pulled off a landslide election victory in November.

In defence of his off-the-cuff statement, Holt explained he had intended a “light-hearted gesture of goodwill towards a generous host”. Albanese’s sentiment seems to have been similar – he drew on a reported statement by Biden’s now deceased son, Beau.

The reaction to Albanese’s remarks has been comparatively muted. Understandably, media attention has been consumed this month by the escalating war between Israel and Hamas. But the prime minister’s enthusiastic assurance contrasts with widely expressed unease at home about the potential impact of the AUKUS deal on our national sovereignty and whether the pact means the US military will be calling the shots in our region, which is especially relevant now given growing concern about China’s intentions regarding Taiwan.

Albanese has so far effectively danced around this, resisting suggestions that he is expected to play the role of “go-between” for the US in his almost immediate visit to China. He has presumably learnt from former prime minister Scott Morrison’s unfortunate willingness to push the US line and to do former president Donald Trump’s bidding on the so-called “China threat” by calling for an independent review of the origins of the “WuFlu” and for China to lose its developing country status with the World Trade Organization.

The danger in catering to a US audience in this way is that it may be the first ill-fated step in a prolonged “mission creep”, where the nature of circumstances shifts dramatically from the original intention. A simple statement on an official visit can shape expectations, and be interpreted as a commitment that can have long-lasting consequences. We have seen examples in earlier military commitments in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, where the justification for being there changed significantly as circumstances unfolded. In Iraq, the reasoning shifted from a response to the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington, DC, by Al Qaeda, to a misguided mission to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, to regime change against Saddam Hussein – all of which called for enhanced Australian commitments en route.

Holt’s commitment to the catastrophic war in Vietnam was counterintuitive for a leader who had engaged more deeply than almost any other that preceded him in the politics and economics of South-East Asia – indeed he was among the first of our leaders to describe Australia’s future as entwined with that of its neighbours in the region. But Holt’s desire to prevent the spread of communism drew him close to US policy and he developed a strong personal friendship with Johnson. Holt’s long-established support for our engagement in the Vietnam War saw him strongly back the US bombing of North Vietnam and led to our greatest military build-up in relation to that war. His position was domestically divisive, compounded by the decision to conscript Australians in a lottery system.

A big challenge for Albanese may come if the Israel–Hamas conflict spreads more broadly across the region, for example to draw in Iran, Lebanon or other Arab states. The US has made a substantial naval and army commitment to date and clearly it doesn’t make such a commitment lightly without being prepared to use those resources as circumstances unfold. Albanese may be pressured to do more, having already abstained from the United Nations vote on a ceasefire. Though the resolution was rejected by the US, Australia shared its rationale that Hamas was not cited as the instigator of the violence. We can only hope the Albanese–Biden friendship will not oblige us to take any further steps in committing to any escalation in that region.

Australia has recently made a “precautionary commitment” to the current Middle East situation, pledging a couple of planes and some army support. This is sensible to help secure our assets in the region and to be able to assist and possibly evacuate Australian citizens as and when needed. Given the state of our domestic public debate on the conflict, mission creep should be avoided in this instance at all costs.

More broadly, it is worrying to think the US is now so distracted providing weapons and some naval and other support to the Middle East on top of commitments to Ukraine, all compounded by the congressional difficulties of getting these funded, that Chinese President Xi Jinping may see this as an opportunity to take action on Taiwan. I am concerned that if such a thing were to happen there might be a call from the US for Australia to provide backup. Surely we must not be drawn into a squabble over Taiwan. The possibility of going to war with China, as the likes of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and other warmongers are threatening, should not be on our national radar. But we must not be complacent, given our conspicuous alignment with the US, and the extensive proliferation of US bases in Australia and security, intelligence and space facilities such as Pine Gap and Tidbinbilla.

Australia is in the enviable position of not having to choose between the US and China. We can and should have effective relationships with each, both to our benefit and to the global benefit. The Albanese government has been working assiduously to re-establish an effective engagement with China as our major trading partner. His upcoming trip to Beijing offers a great opportunity to deepen this relationship by developing areas for explicit cooperation such as climate change responses – where we have some very significant advantages in technology and its application – and in essential minerals, as an emerging energy superpower. China also has some relevant technology, and considerable financial capacity, to contribute to a most effective partnership.

Successive Australian governments have made much of our position as an influential middle power with global interests. However, it should not be assumed that we need to involve ourselves in, or take sides in, most conflicts as they arise around the world. The definitive test must remain an assessment of our national interest. It is worth noting that Holt’s justification for engaging in the Vietnam War was our obligations to South Vietnam under the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization and his belief in the domino theory, such that we had to resist “communist subversion and aggression” and defend the right of every people to choose their own social and economic order.

Holt believed that “unless there is security for all small nations, there cannot be security for any small nation”. In so saying, his friendship with LBJ notwithstanding, He was effectively acknowledging the dangers of letting our biggest and most influential partners dictate the terms of our own relationships.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Albanese and the superpowers".

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