30 November 2017
The latest Australian White Paper on foreign affairs published in November 2017 was the first such attempt to define Australia’s place in the modern geopolitical world and how it might appropriately respond to regional and global challenges since 2003.
The world has changed significantly in that time and one might have expected to see more recognition of that in the White Paper. Certainly, there were phrases in the document, and particularly some diagrams, that revealed the extent to which fundamental changes are occurring. For example, figure 2.4 presents the Treasuries estimate of GDP growth in some key economies in period 2017 to 2030, a span of only 13 years.
That graph shows Australia’s GDP going from one trillion US dollars to 1.7 trillion, but that is dwarfed by China’s GDP which is predicted to grow from $21.4 trillion 42.4 trillion in the same period. The US has an expected growth from 18.6 trillion to $24 trillion. $24
This has enormous implications for China’s geopolitical role, but the White Paper fails to analyze what China’s growth vis-à-vis that of the United States will translate to in terms of geopolitical power.
Instead, the White Paper is trapped in a conceptual framework of seeing the world is it used to be, rather than as it actually is and in particular how it is likely to be over the 10 year horizon of the White Paper. This conceptual imagery my more probably be described as delusional.
This delusional thinking manifests itself in a number of ways. There are three in particular that I wish to note. This analysis will focus only on the Asia region, as that is the one of the most relevance to Australia. It should be noted however, that the White Paper makes a series of statements about NATO, Russia, Ukraine and Syria that merely reflect the Washington propaganda machine’s view of those entities than it does reality.
The most egregious example is in Syria. The White Paper claims that Australia’s approach to international relations is “anchored in international law, universal standards of human rights, good governance, transparency and accountability”. Yet the government lied about seeking legal advice before entering that war; refused to disclose that legal advice; breached international law in entering that conflict without the consent of the sovereign government of Syria; is a party to war crimes carried out in Syria by its ally the United States; refuses to disclose to Parliament what its troops are doing in Syria; and is silent on the recent announcement by the US Secretary of Defence that the US intends to stay in Syria despite its presence being both illegal and unwelcome.
The first point of note about the White Paper is that its view of post-World War II history bears little or no resemblance to reality. Both in the White Paper itself and in comments made at the time of its release by both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister, the view is repeatedly expressed in one form or another that the United States has been a force for stability in progress in what the white paper insists on calling the Indo-Pacific region, and indeed elsewhere in the world.
That is a view unlikely to be shared my other countries in the Asian region who in the post-World War II period have seen United States foreign policy:
-Intervene in the Korean civil war, taking advantage of the USSR’s temporary absence from the UN Security Council to justify a United Nations military action that destroyed the North’s agriculture, cities and infrastructure and killed at least 3 million North Koreans (Cumings The Korean War: A History 2011).
Such American interference in Korea goes back to at least the 1880s; created an artificial division of Korea in 1945 without reference to the population of either regions; lent their support to the brutal Rhee dictatorship; renounced a negotiated non-proliferation nuclear agreement with North Korea that is a direct antecedent of the current crisis; and continues to this day with bellicose statements and provocative military exercises. Russian and Chinese proposals aimed at defusing the situation and leading to a lasting peace treaty are simply ignored.
– In 1965 and Indonesian coup organized by the CIA replaced President Sukarno with the dictator Suharto who ruled for the next 30 years. The US supplied the Indonesian military with a kill list of communist or suspected communist sympathizers. Between 500,000 and 1 million Indonesians were killed as a direct result.
– Indochina, we’re American involvement began in 1954 by blocking the agreement reached at the Geneva accords to hold nation wide elections because the “wrong man” i.e. Ho Chi Minh, would have won.
That war gradually escalated until the Americans were unceremoniously dispatched in 1975. They left behind at least 3 million Vietnamese dead, a landscape devastated by defoliants, and a genetic time bomb from the same causes. The devastation extended to Cambodia and Laos, the consequences of watch plague those countries to this day.
– Afghanistan was invaded in and 2001 on the pretext of their alleged responsibility for the attacks of 11 September 2001. The Americans are still there and showing no inclination to leave. Apart from hundreds of thousands of dead Afghani’s, and millions forced into exile, the major “achievement” appears to be the restoration of Afghanistan is the opium capital of the world, producing some 93% of the world’s supply.
Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan are singled out for mention because each of these wars involved in the enthusiastic support of the Australian governments of the time. A similar willingness to follow the US into its illegal wars of choice was manifest in the invasion of Iraq in 2003(more than 1 million dead) and Syria in 2015(more than 400,000 dead and millions displaced).
As has been well documented by William Blum (America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy 2015) and others, these are but a tiny fraction all of countries invaded, bombed, plundered or who suffered regime change at the hands of the Americans over the past 70 years. The numbers of people killed as a result of these various interventions already exceeds 30 million.
To describe this record as an example of global leadership to be applauded and supported and as the White Paper clearly hopes, will continue, is to suffer delusion of the highest order. The White Paper sees Australia’s role is upholding international law, universal standards of human rights, good governance, transparency and accountability. Those are enviable goals and one wishes that they actually reflected Australian Government practice of recent decades.
The White Paper is also very ambivalent as to how Australia should approach its relationship with China, which as the figures quoted above suggest, is already the dominant economic power in the world on a parity purchasing power basis.
This is partly because of the impossible conundrum that Australia faces with China. On the one hand, China is Australia’s largest trading partner by a very considerable margin, and the single most important reason for Australia’s unprecedented run of wealth and prosperity over the past 30 years.
On the other hand, the US sees China, correctly, as the great power most likely to replace the US’s previous hegemonic position, backed as that power invariably has been by the brutal exercise of military force. That military force has been used to enforce commercial advantage, to control the production and distribution of raw materials, especially oil, and to ensure political subservience.
For the first time in modern history, the US is being outclassed in every sphere, including military technology. It cannot win a war with China (some delusional Washington thinking to the contrary) and especially so given that China is forging ever-closer economic, political and strategic links with Russia. The Russian-Chinese combination is for all practical intents and purposes unbeatable.
Instead, the US will continue to wage proxy warfare, using different militant groups as it has done since at least Operation Cyclone in the 1970s to sabotage and impede Chinese and Russian progress. The hundreds of military bases that currently encircle both Russia and China are clearly intended in part to serve as forward bases for that activity. The Australian spy base at Pine Gap fulfills a critical role in the American war machine, and as such Australia is a party to the daily commission of war crimes carried out by the Americans in their worldwide military operations.
Quite apart from Pine Gap, the Australian military is increasingly integrated with the US, and that puts Australia, certainly in Chinese eyes, on the wrong side of history. The conundrum that Australia faces manifests itself for example, in Australia’s attitude to the South China Sea dispute.
The White Paper alleges that China’s actions in the South China Sea are an illustration of its alleged disregard for international law and the rules based system Australia professes to uphold. The claims of China within the so-called Nine Dash Line however, were first espoused by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai Shek in 1947, two years before the People’s Republic of China came into existence. The present day government of Taiwan echoes those claims.
As to the alleged militarization of the South China Sea by China’s island building activities, it is true that the PRC government has constructed eight such atolls. Vietnam has also constructed a similar number of militarily reinforced atolls, as have other littoral states including the Philippines and Taiwan, doing exactly the same. As China but minus the criticism leveled against China. Their activities do not merit a mention in the White Paper.
The White Paper ignores all of this other relevant activity in its anxiety to make a propaganda point against China. The White Paper seems similarly ignorant of the fact that China and the ten ASEAN nations have reached an agreed framework under which they will settle outstanding issues in the South China Sea. Significantly neither Australia nor the United States are parties to this agreement, but this has not stopped either nation from proffering opinions nor carrying out actions that do nothing to reduce tensions and achieve a settlement.
Australia’s ambivalence to the rise of China is reflected in its attitude to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the world’s greatest infrastructure project to which more than 65 countries have already signed up. Australia was specifically invited by the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang earlier this year to join the project and declined. There has been no plausible explanation for this reluctance.
Although the White Paper makes a passing acknowledgement to the BRI it is silent as to the project’s enormous potential. This is to say the least curious, particularly as there is considerable potential for Australia to benefit from the BRI. The BRI is, to use president Xi’s term, a “win-win” situation we’re all parties derive a benefit. They do so on the basis of infrastructure and related investment without a shot being fired. The contrast with the Anglo American model of colonial exploitation and gunboat diplomacy of the past 300 years could not be greater.
Australia’s failure in this regard reflects a wider problem that permeates the White Paper. Australia seeks the restoration of a world that never really existed. That is, a world where the US was the international policeman bringing peace, democracy and the rule of law to less fortunate nations.
As long as Australia clings to this delusional fantasy it will be forever doomed to being the colonial handmaiden of a western power. As the semi-official Global Times of China editorialized, “Australia is difficult to be reasoned with or comforted. Fortunately, the country is not that important, and China can move its ties to Australia to a back seat…………… China should prepare a friendly face and a cold shoulder.”
If China does indeed decide to cold shoulder Australia, the economic consequences will be devastating. This is insufficiently appreciated in Australia, and certainly not acknowledged in the White Paper. The facts are that Russia, the Central Asian and Southwest Asian nations linking to the BRI all produce the commodities that Australia has grown rich on in the past four decades supplying to China.
A White Paper truly concerned with defining Australia’s national interest and proposing policies to benefit Australia would recognise these economic and geopolitical realities. Unfortunately it does neither. As Hugh White (The Guardian 27.11.17) succinctly puts it, (the Australian) “government has once again failed to come to terms with the full implications of the profound shifts that are transforming our international setting. It is a triumph for wishful thinking over serious policy…………… until we find leaders with the imagination to see what is happening and the courage to start talking frankly about it, Australia has no chance of adapting effectively to the new Asia into which we are being thrust.”
I could not agree more. It is a message that will be read in Canberra but in all likelihood ignored. When the inevitable deleterious consequences flow from that blindness we will have only ourselves to blame.
* Barrister at law and geopolitical analyst.