Overbalancing: The Folly of Trying to Contain China
Former Australian PM Malcolm Fraser
As the US reorients its foreign policy toward Asia, with the attendant redeployment of military assets to the region, fears are spreading that the American pivot is really aimed at containing the rise of China.
Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser warns that countries such as Australia, where US Marines are now deployed, should strongly resist being drawn into a potential dangerous American strategy.
After the Second World War there was a consensus that the defense of Australia was not viable with 7 million people. In response, the great migration program was launched. Hundreds of thousands came from around the world and changed us into a stronger, more interesting and creative nation.
That Australia was one of vision and courage. The migration program through the 1950s was substantial, a far larger burden on 7 million people with the infrastructure and resources then available to Australia than migration has been in recent years.
Politicians spoke of investing in the future. We then said, “We cannot use all today’s wealth for personal consumption, but for making sure there would be a better life for more citizens in years ahead.”
We wanted to broaden the base of our society. In those days we achieved much. In the 1970s, the first major Asian immigration since the days of the gold rushes more than a century earlier was undertaken. That too has contributed to and diversified our society and strengthened it culturally and economically.
POST-WAR AND COLD WAR
While building a stronger nation, we also wanted some protection from a larger power. The Second World War ended British power east of Suez. During that conflict, we had looked to America and after the war we continued to do so, as indeed we do to this day.
We got the Americans to agree to the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), a condition of our signing the peace treaty with Japan.
ANZUS provides for consultation if there were any danger of attack, limited in geography to the territory or forces of the United States, Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific theater. The commitment to consult could lead to military support, but it is not a NATO-type defense guarantee.
Australians like to think we are in a special position with the US, but ANZUS was only one of a string of defense arrangements entered into by the US in East Asia and the Pacific after the peace treaty with Japan and also in the wake of the Korean War.
It was clear from our experience that ANZUS was not seen by the US as creating an obligation on their part to support us in local and regional issues, and that attitude had special reference to Indonesia. As Australia positions itself for the future, it is vital that we understand the reality of our position with the US.
Through all this period, the Cold War continued. ANZUS helped us to demonstrate cohesion with the US and other countries. It was a central tenet of Soviet Communism that the world’s greatest democracy had to be broken — and that if it were broken, other democracies would surely follow. The Soviets sought to dominate Europe and exploit situations elsewhere.
This concern led to the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and to co-operative arrangements throughout the West. The policy of containment to prevent the further spread of an aggressive outward thrusting power was successful. It was appropriate for the time.
Eventually, the Soviet Union disintegrated, and disappeared. The Cold War was over, and many thought the world could relax. Many hoped that from 1990 on, we would be able co-operatively to build a fairer and more just world, alleviate poverty worldwide and help nations in all regions enhance their self-esteem and dignity.
The opportunities that opened to the West generally were brushed aside. Nations became mired in the present and did not look to the future and seize the chance to create something lasting and better. NATO behaved as if the Cold War were still on.
It should have proclaimed a bloodless victory and made it clear that NATO’s work was done. Instead, NATO pushed to embrace all the countries of Eastern Europe and even sought to include the Ukraine and Georgia within NATO — two regions historically part of Russia’s sphere of interest.
These mistakes were to have implications for policy in many fields, especially throughout the Middle East, especially during the War on Terror. The West is still paying the price for those mistakes.
In Asia and the Pacific also, great change was starting to gather pace. A number of Asian countries had developed their economies with remarkable speed, order and strength.
China, the sleeping giant that in earlier years had supported overseas insurgencies, was starting to awaken. The extent to which China opened her society and her economy to the world, the way in which she has managed her own economic progress with stability and a sense of purpose, is remarkable indeed.
I saw the beginnings of these changes when I first visited China in 1976. Everyone, men and women, wore grey Mao uniforms. When next I was in China, Deng Xiaoping was Paramount Leader and Zhao Ziyang was his Premier.
People wore suits and colored dresses. The public manifestation was of change, of a remarkably different society, and that change has gathered pace in the years since. It is a remarkable achievement. And while China is still communist, it is very different from Soviet communism or North Korean communism.
During the Cold War, China was not part of the global economic equation. Her markets were small, her influence meager. In today’s world, China dominates markets for many products worldwide and has become wealthy on a world scale.
China is the largest trading partner of every country in the Asia-Pacific area, including Australia. Her trade and investment weight in Africa and South America are growing apace. China has also for some time been the largest buyer of US treasury bills.
STUCK IN THE PAST?
Even though the Cold War is over, America’s defense spending is still more than 41 percent of the world’s total. Where is America’s potential adversary to justify this scale of defense spending? China’s defense spending is about 8.2 percent of the world’s total.
As it increases — as inevitably it will — we get alarmist reports as though China were arming to become a danger to countries worldwide. We take no note of the fact that China has difficult borders.
There is unpredictable North Korea. There is Russia, historically competing for territory but with whom most territorial disputes have in recent years been resolved without conflict. There is India, with whom she has had quite recent wars.
And there is Pakistan, unstable and fragile. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed states. Iran and Iraq, meanwhile, are not so far away, nor is Syria or Afghanistan. If the US were surrounded by a band of such unstable countries, the American people would be concerned to the point of paranoia. So, of course, China wishes to strengthen its military. They also need to strengthen their ocean defenses.
I was last in Beijing in May this year, speaking with senior ministers during the time when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led the 4th round of the annual China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue.
the dialogue seemed to go well. There was talk of peaceful resolution of disputes, of discussion enabling the two countries to get to know each other better and to understand and work through differences. That policy should have the strongest support from Australia.
However, the US is not content with that policy. She has a second policy in relation to China: a policy of containment, which is now masked in the so-called US “pivot to Asia.”
More use of naval facilities in the Philippines, Singapore and potentially Vietnam; Marines based in Darwin; more use of air force facilities, surveillance and communications facilities and military exercises in Australia; spy planes based in Cocos Island; Stirling Harbour perhaps to become a home base for an Indian Ocean aircraft carrier taskforce, and strategic discussions with India.
We should also note a report published in June by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS),1 which feeds off of a close relationship with the US Department of Defense. It may not be American policy yet, but the CSIS report points clearly to the direction of policy. It is worth looking at the extracts concerning Australia. They are written as though we are a strategic colony, taken for granted, totally supportive of whatever the US may do.
This policy of containment seems to suggest that the US does not understand the difference between the former Soviet Union and today’s China. One was a formidable, ideological, aggressive military opponent with whom there were minimal economic or trade links.
With China, there is no evidence of the imperialism practiced by Russia or by most European states and indeed by the US. A policy of containment also ignores the fact that China and America’s economy are closely interlinked by debt, by capital investment and by markets, all of which are important to both countries. In addition, there are no territorial disputes between China and the US.
At a conference in Singapore a few months ago, the 11th International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia Security Summit, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made by far the best speech.2
He spoke of the way in which Asian countries had been able to overcome problems — many of which have been substantial — and his clear message was, if left to ourselves, we will overcome future problems in our way.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta spoke next, and to any non-American in the audience, he talked as though the Western Pacific is really America’s backyard. He said America has always been interested in and concerned with peace and stability in the Western Pacific.
America has always contributed to the wellbeing of this region and will continue to do so, he said, adding that the US plans to station 60 percent of its naval forces and related support facilities in the Pacific, implying Western Pacific areas. It should have been called “the new Cold War speech.” It was totally at odds with everything that came out of the Clinton mission to Beijing. If that mission meant anything, such a speech was extraordinarily inappropriate.
The fact that Panetta then went to Vietnam, where he visited Cam Ranh Bay, a major US naval base during the Vietnam War, and talked with the Vietnamese about using that for American naval ships, was further provocation.
China has refused to be provoked, and that is not surprising because they are well aware that this was an election year in the US. We need to be aware that China can behave in profoundly measured ways in international affairs.
Obama’s inappropriate speech to the Australian Parliament in November 2011 implied that Australia fully supports American militarisation of the Western Pacific and the policies of containment that this implies.
In that speech, Obama spoke of most of the countries in the Western Pacific and South Asia either as strategic allies or as close friends of the United States, but he spoke in quite different terms of China.
He spoke of the need for China to uphold international laws and respect universal human rights. Instead, he could have said something about the way living standards in China have been raised and, more importantly, how China’s own economic strength has contributed greatly to peace and prosperity not only in the Western Pacific, but indeed, worldwide.
But he did not. Instead, he spoke of the second American policy, a policy of containment.
Senior Chinese officias have said that they do not want the US to withdraw from the Western Pacific, because some of her neighbors were nervous about China’s growing strength.
If America were to withdraw from the Western Pacific, that would make smaller countries even more nervous. This shows that China is a country with a realistic view of the world. But can we imagine China knuckling down to a US policy of containment?
In light of recent events, can we say that the US is a country with a realistic view of the world?
Time for Visionary Thinking
One of the problems that America will have to deal with is the growing ideological divide within the US itself. In other ways as well, it is not an easy time for America. The last thing that America needs is friends and allies who succumb to ideas and policies that endanger us all.
The US that managed the Cold War to its successful conclusion, the US that under President Richard Nixon opened the doors to China, in many ways no longer exists. In those days, there was often a broad consensus between Democrats and Republicans concerning the international dimensions of American policy.
I mentioned earlier the opportunities lost when the Cold War ended. Australia also lost a great opportunity to become more independent, less tied to American policy, more active in diplomacy to advance peace and understanding throughout our own region.
Instead, at that time, we allowed ourselves to be more enmeshed by the American military and intelligence machine, in ways that had not occurred on earlier occasions. Our leaders failed to grasp the significance of the fact that the Cold War was over.
Not many people know that at the height of the Cold War in 1956, when China was shelling the offshore islands Quemoy and Matsu and people feared an invasion of Taiwan, then Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies exercised an independence of mind, a capacity for judgement in Australia’s interest, which the last three Australian governments have dismally failed to do.
At that time, Menzies advised US President Dwight Eisenhower that if the US had a war with China over Taiwan, we would not be part of it. He recognized that there were limits to an alliance and to the obligations it created. He had a vision of an independent Australia. That vision has been lost for some time, and the urgent question now is, how can we regain it?
That is the kind of independence we need from Australia in today’s world.We need confidence in our own wisdom and diplomacy, we need to be vigilant and farsighted about our own independence, we need to think and speak for our own interests.
The Australian government, especially the current Defense Minister, says there are no American bases on Australian soil and there will not be. This is straight political spin of the worst kind because it is designed to deceive Australians on matters of peace and war. We certainly have both US and joint bases in Australia, even if technically they are under Australian control.
HOSTAGE TO AN AMERICAN AGENDA
Australia has, under this Labour Government and with the apparent consent of the Coalition, become the southern bastion of America’s re-arming in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia. In this regard, we are doing what America wants and paying little attention to Australia’s own national interest.
Having undertaken hugely costly and counterproductive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with turmoil in Libya, Egypt and Syria, with no end in sight for the problems of Israel and Palestine and with the difficulties of Iran unresolved, the US is shifting her main focus to the Western Pacific. That spells danger for the entire region.
The major danger, and one that China recognizes, is that the US, as a power whose relative economic weight is less than it used to be, may seek to maintain supremacy through armed conflict at a time when there is no valid dispute between China and the US that would justify war.
I would have no concerns that this danger would materialize if America were governed by an Eisenhower, a John F. Kennedy, a Lyndon Johnson, a Bill Clinton or a George H.W. Bush Sr., but today’s America is different.
In an Aug. 9 article in The Age newspaper, Obama’s former intelligence chief, Admiral Dennis Blair, confirmed that China is the principal target of US war plans.
Noted Australian academic Hugh White, who has some knowledge of these matters, indicated that the US’s Air-Sea Battle (ASB) plan, which is applicable in the Pacific to China, was significantly flawed and ran the risk of rapid escalation into a nuclear conflict.
The Australian government has made us hostage to the politics of the US, to the machinations of the Pentagon, and the plans for continuing supremacy of the US in the Western Pacific.
The Republicans in the US Congress are seeking to get an amendment to the Defense Appropriation Bill for next year through the Congress.
That amendment urges the administration to deploy additional forces, including tactical nuclear missiles, in the Western Pacific.
I consulted with Senator Richard Lugar, whom I have known for many decades as one of the most reasonable and farsighted of Americans. He advised me that the amendment will likely be approved. The White House has not opposed it. Let us consider this just a little further.
If American naval ships end up using Cam Ranh Bay and those ships are nuclear-capable, and if the China-US relationship becomes more difficult, is that not reminiscent of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the Cuban missile crisis?
The US now talks as though China may wish to curtail freedom of the seas in the South China Sea. That sounds like an absurd allegation. It is an important waterway for trade involving many countries.
I am advised that two-thirds of China’s own trade goes through the South China Sea and much of it in foreign-registered ships. China and the US have an equal interest in preserving freedom of the seas.
The US does not need a military build-up to maintain that. It also worth recalling that China has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, while the US has not.
Since the end of the Second World War, the US record in East and South Asia has not been good, except in the case of South Korea. Vietnam was unequivocally a defeat. Iraq was a defeat. Afghanistan is a defeat in the making.
There is a danger that the US is seeking to maintain supremacy in Asia, which could likely lead to war. If, on the other hand, she is prepared to come to an accommodation with China, there is no reason why peace cannot be maintained.
The US does not need this military build-up in Asia. She does not need a policy to contain China. She does not need to enmesh allies like Australia in policies that are fraught with danger, rather than achieving a sensible and rational accommodation between two significant powers.
We have to tell America that policies of containment won’t work and are arousing significant hostility, and that hostility will grow. Such a position would also send a powerful message to our neighbors in the region where we live — including China — that we want to play a co-operative and constructive role in partnership with them to secure peace throughout the whole region.
Let there be no mistake regarding today’s policies: America is in charge of our destiny, and that fills me with concern. The imperative for Australia is to make sure that Australian governments place the interests of the people of Australia first.
We must be subservient to no one. Certainly, we must preserve alliances, but we must not extend the scope of those alliances in a way that binds us to follow America into wars that are contrary to our own interests.
We have not yet fully recognized that the end of the Cold War, the rise of China, and the ideological changes inside the US itself, have created a new world. Current US Cold War-style policies are relevant to a world that no longer exists, and their continuation would be wrong-headed and dangerous.
We live in the Western Pacific, close to East and Southeast Asia. We are part of this region. This gives us a different set of interests from the US, whose home is on the other side of the Pacific.
Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister of Australia from 1975 to 1983.