Malcolm Fraser's call to step back from US alliance a welcome prompt for rethinking our Pacific engagement By Hamish McDonald.

Getting caught between the global superpowers

Japanese coast guard patrol boats intercept a Chinese fishing vessel, after Hong Kong activists landed on one of the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands.
Credit: AP

Malcolm! What a blessing to have Malcolm Fraser still walking tall in our midst, reminding us that there was once a different kind of conservatism, a Liberal party peopled by the likes of Ian Macphee and Fred Chaney, before the Dries took over.

Fraser was a much-hated figure when he overthrew Gough Whitlam and set about restoring fiscal balances, and was lampooned throughout as a stone-hearted Easter Island figure by cartoonist Patrick Cook and then journalist John Edwards. But he wept when his turn came for the feather duster, and we’ve grown to appreciate his enlightened policies on apartheid, Aboriginal rights and boat people (Vietnamese then).

Now, in his new book, Dangerous Allies, he’s urged us to step back from our close alliance with the United States, pointing out how it took us into futile wars in Vietnam and Iraq, and might yet lead us into war with China as it emerges into an otherwise natural position as a great power on our side of the world.

We certainly do need a review, and from the discussions I heard during four months recently spent in US foreign affairs wonkdom at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Centre, there would be many US policymakers who would be surprised if we didn’t undertake one.

America itself is reflecting ruefully on how it used and misused its “unipolar moment” since the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The more reflective Americans can see this moment ended in 2008, with the collapse of the Reagan–Thatcher economic paradigm and the rise of new Asian powers able to mount at least a regional challenge to the US. The American public is war weary and scared of diminishing prosperity. US conservatism is sunk in toxicity, the sane mainstream elements shouted out by anarcho-libertarians and bigots. For all the Republican bloviating about Ukraine, Syria and Iran, the actual appetite for more war is quite low. Fraser is a bit out of date on this score. The anxiety among friends and allies is whether the US will fight at all, if needed.

1 . China's Pacific policy

Still, as this column discussed last week, our defence forces are ever more closely integrated into the US war-fighting systems, through shared space and intelligence networks and interoperable combat units. As Fraser correctly points out, the US Marine Corps battle group to be posted in Darwin for half of each year will be ready to jump into action directly, with or without Canberra’s consent. An Australian Army general has been assigned as deputy commander of the US Army’s Pacific forces. How long before Canberra agrees to US Army officers taking command positions in our army?

Unfortunately, China is not helping us step back and reflect. Since the 2008 global financial crisis, the Chinese mood has been triumphant, helped along by some Western authors suggesting Beijing will “rule the world” this century, and Beijing has been overbearing towards smaller regional nations, especially over maritime claims.

Its core policy, however, is to avoid a direct confrontation with the US. It is evolving a technique of small-scale pressure, using civilian government agencies and ostensibly private-sector actors. It is also determined to head off “envelope push” by other claimants to offshore islands and resource zones by showing a readiness to up the ante, as the University of New South Wales’ China scholar You Ji pointed out in a recent paper. “This is embodied in a one-plus strategy,” Ji says. “China does not initiate any event but if others make the first move by one, it will respond by one plus.”

That may be meant as deterrence, as Ji thinks, but the effect can also be escalation. And it is not at all clear that China is reactive. The recent insertion of an oil-drilling rig, backed by a fleet of 80 civil and naval vessels, into waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its resource zone came immediately after US President Barack Obama’s tour of Asian allies, and just before last weekend’s meeting of south-east Asian leaders in Myanmar. What was that if not a defiant push of China’s claims in the South China Sea?

2 . Arbitration hypocrisy

Instead of falling into a military-strategic response, however, a more subtle approach is needed, and Fraser’s call to review our US relationship could help us along the way.

In many ways, Americans are strangers to us for all the top-level networking of outfits such as the Australian American Leadership Dialogue. Our kids still go off to Britain and Europe for their gap year. Our great flow of outbound tourists along the Kangaroo route goes the same way. Australians are sometimes fearful of America: the guns, the Christian fundamentalism, the death penalties, the mediaeval-length jail terms. Australia is a blank, too far away for many Americans to consider visiting.

The biggest gap Fraser sees is American “exceptionalism”. This gets to the heart of the dilemma many find in being allied with the US, not just in Australia. America is truly a great fount of liberty, freedom and law − but insists on being a law unto itself. Our armed forces are subject, by freely entered treaty, to international law against war crimes. America’s are not.

The US began this year to challenge the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim to most of the South China Sea. The Philippines has initiated an action before an international court at The Hague to have its dispute with China over resource rights in nearby waters arbitrated by neutral judges. Vietnam is now debating whether it should mount a similar case at the International Court of Justice about its claim to the Paracel Islands (seized by China from the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War), a big step for a country still ruled by a Communist Party with fraternal party ties in China.

Like most parties sitting in occupation of disputed islands (such as Japan with the Senkakus, South Korea with Dokdo, Russia with the Southern Kuriles), China is refusing to join the proceedings. Yet the process of litigation does have a shaming effect, and can stimulate more sincere approaches to bilateral talks. International lawyers also point out the ICJ has shown itself quite creative in its judgements, producing what are essentially compromises that allow both parties to save face.

The Obama administration has been urging Asian countries to take the disputes to international arbitration or adjudication. But this is a bit shameless, when the US senate has baulked for 20 years at ratifying the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the US refuses to accept the international court’s jurisdiction. If Tony Abbott or another prime minister (who knows, perhaps another Malcolm) gets invited to address the US congress, they might point out this is one values gap that needs to be closed, for the sake of the alliance.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 17, 2014 as "Getting caught between the global superpowers".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.