- Malcolm Fraser: Does anyone want to be the 51st state of America?
An alternative heading to what I was going to say might well be, ‘Do we want to really be an independent Australia for the first time in our history?’
I am honoured to be asked to speak as part of the State Library's Big Ideas lecture series.
Foreign policy needs to be looked at in the context of the times. From the foundation of Australia to federation, it was natural that we rely on Britain for defence and foreign policy. There may have been some who believed that at Federation, we would become fully independent. It was not to be. It was not wanted in those early years. In many ways, Britain still looked upon the new Australia as a larger colony that would still follow Britain and support Britain whenever it was necessary.
We still approach the United Kingdom through the Colonial Office. We were expected to approach third parties also through the Colonial Office. When Deacon asked the United States’ great white freights from America to visit Australian ports, the Americans accepted and the British were greatly annoyed and Deacon got into a lot of trouble.
The colonial and empire conference through the early part of last century were all directed towards giving the dominions a greater say in empire policy. It was appearance and not reality. Great powers do what is in their own interests. They may listen others, but it is the great power's interest that will always and inevitably prevail.
In 1931, pressures from Canada, South Africa, and the Republic of Ireland in particular for greater freedom within the empire were great. The Statute of Westminster was passed in 1931. Those three dominions immediately ratified. Australia didn't. We maintain the policy of strategic dependence on Britain, long past it’s used by date.
The Statute of Westminster, which really says that no act of the British Parliament can really impact on the dominions in future, was not ratified here until 1942. There had been a grand bargain with the United Kingdom. We would supply men, money, resources, to help Britain fight Britain's wars and in return, in theory, they guaranteed the defence of Australia. When we needed it, no fault of Britain, but they were not able to help, they were beleaguered themselves.
Through this, through the first period of Australian history, the idea of strategic dependence on a great power became deeply ingrained in Australia. It was appropriate for the time. A young country, few people, few resources.
After the war, rivalry between the Soviet Union, the United States and the Free World soon began. There had been communist insurgencies in their own part of the world. Australia, again, wanted the protection of a major power. It was Percy Spender who negotiated and ultimately achieved answers. It was less than we wanted, less than he wanted, a commitment to consult and maybe to defend. It was only achievable because Spender had made it clear that we would not sign the peace treaty with Japan, which America wanted, if we didn't have some formal arrangement with the United States.
ANZUS in the words of the treaty is limited to the forces or territory of the United States and Australia and originally New Zealand in the Pacific Theatre. None other wars in which we followed the United States, with all their disastrous consequences, had been covered by ANZUS. Again, in the context of the time, with the Cold War alive and well, ANZUS and dependency on a great power made sense. The fear of worldwide communist expansion was real, or believed to be real.
After 1991, that has changed. The strategic context changed. When there were two superpowers, both were to an extent restrained by the other. I know there were serious moments, but neither wanted a nuclear war. Neither wanted to press the other too hard. Once the United States became supreme, the only superpower, greater military forces and a stronger economy than any other nation, other changes began to unfold.
American exceptionalism had always been present in the United States. The idea of these have been praised and supported by President Obama. A nation like no other. Better than any other. What America does is ‘right’ simply because America does it. Rules are for other countries.
Together with the policies of the neoconservatives, the political faith of the United States had changed. Many believe that the United States will only be truly secure…many in America…if the whole world were a democracy. America's duty, therefore, was to achieve that. If possible by persuasion, if not, by force of arms.
This philosophy, this policy, offers the best explanation of the second Iraq war. Against the advice of all, President Bush, the first President Bush senior advisers, indeed, indeed many, many others. It was a war based on a lie. It was a war that has unleashed terrible and seemingly irreconcilable forces within Iraq and indeed throughout much of the Middle East. It has contributed to the loss of America's prestige in the Middle East and unleashed sectarian forces throughout the whole region.
How can people who have probably got double firsts at some university be so naive to believe that a benign democracy would emerge, which by its very strength and character would spread throughout the entire Middle East? But, such was America.
Nobody would have followed America into a war with that objective, and so the idea of weapons of mass destruction was adopted. It was based on what many people at the time knew to be a lie. Intelligence was cherry-picked on Rumsfeld's direction by a man called Feith in the Pentagon.
He supported a policy already determined.
Events in the Middle East have not gone well for the United States, or for peace, or for that matter for any of the inhabitants of the region. Now the United States has turned their attention to the Western Pacific. There are no real signs that her diplomatic skills will be better demonstrated in this region than they were in the Middle East.
There are many who support the military build-up, the pivot, so-called. But I would argue that people, such as Goh Chok Tong, former Prime Minister of Singapore, that it is dangerous, ill-conceived and cannot, will not succeed. America already has significant forces throughout the region.
While some countries might welcome an addition to their forces, in the longer term as they contribute to increased tension between China and the United States, they'll come to realise that the military build-up is not adding to security but it is, indeed, detracting from it.
Others have written that a conflict at some time between China and Japan is possible. Indeed, at one point, Hugh White suggested it could have occurred as early as last year. I agree that it's the most likely flash point, even probable, although an emboldened Philippines, not enormously stable, could also cause difficulties.
I'm not concerned about Taiwan or Macau, those issues, one has been resolved and the other is well on the way to being resolved without American assistance.
Japan's present government is militarist. Their Prime Minister will shortly be in Australia. Japan has already armed forces more significant than that of any European country, with the exception of nuclear arms, but she could develop nuclear weapons virtually in a matter of weeks.
President Obama has already made mistakes in his relationship with Japan. Only at his recent visit, he reaffirmed the absolute commitment to defend Japan, including those islands in the East China Sea. He should have extracted a commitment from Japan that they would recognise that there is indeed a dispute and also gain a commitment that Japan would negotiate either directly with China or through agreed international arbitration. That opportunity has passed. And so the commitment tied America, has tied America firmly to Japan.
Before, the President had claimed to be neutral over the question of ownership of the islands, which even the New York Times has included in its columns, articles suggesting they more properly belong to China.
One brief comment on that point, the islands had been Chinese, had been seized by Japan in the 1895 war. After the World War, the islands were only returned to Japan around 1971. China, still communist, would not have been in the equation. There are many who believe that the Chinese claim is in fact stronger. The point to recall, however, that the seizure those islands was one of the indignities inflicted on China during a period of maximum Chinese weakness. The unequal treaties imposed by European powers, by Japan and America, before and around the time of the Boxer Rebellion, will in the Chinese view all be redressed.
It is claimed that the military build-up is necessary because of China's growing economy. American spokesmen come through Australia and travel around the region, emphasizing American friendship with every country from Japan, to Australia, to India, but warning against China. It is not wise diplomacy to imply an enemy in such a fashion, especially when people are blind to any understanding or viewpoint other than their own.
China had been through a long period of internal conflict and then, with the Communist revolution, they were tightly preoccupied with their own internal affairs. It was only in the last two or three decades that China, economically much more powerful, has started to awaken and work to resume a position of influence that she would formally have had as a great and ancient nation.
I've been told by Americans that China is a threat to the freedom of the seas in the Eastern South China sea. It's an absurd claim. Two-thirds of their own trade goes through those seas. It's a two way business. A two way benefit to China and to America and the countries between. Nobody would want to upset their trade.
It is extraordinary bad judgement to suggest that America needs the military build-up to protect commercial and trade interests. The commercial and trade interests do not need military support to be progressed in today’s world.
ASEAN countries have demonstrated, that if left to themselves, they can form a useful and effective association. They've overcome past enmities and now ASEAN contributes greatly to stability in the region. ASEAN is also negotiating with China, which may be difficult to achieve, for a code of conduct in the South China Sea. America has had no part in this. But America's interference now, would a great, make agreement harder to achieve.
The United States would not regard USS Washington, patrolling the Eastern South China seas, stationed in a Japanese harbor, as being provocative. Even sailing within sight of the Chinese mainland. Imagine, however, the American reaction if the Chinese had such a carrier, which one day they will, and copied that action off the East Coast of the United States within sight of the American mainland. It would then be regarded as a major and dangerous provocation.
China has found a greater capacity to manage her economy well, over the last 30 years, than either the Europeans or the United States. I know there are those who believe and perhaps hope that the Chinese economy will fall apart. But on the record, so far, that's unlikely to happen. Breakdown within China is the only thing that could prevent the continued growth in Chinese economic power, and that is something that America, at some point, is going to have to learn to live with.
Hugh White has suggested that Americans should share power with China over the Pacific. That we should seek to persuade America to do so. We have no special relationship with America. If we want to call it a special relationship, it is one shared by many other states.
In any case, in the United States system, they make up their mind what they want to do and only then will they discuss matters with other countries. A capacity to influence policy in that way would be minimal to non-existent.
The evidence available suggested America wishes to remain supreme, number one, unchallenged, certainly through this century. Sometimes great powers, during a period of relative decline—and it is relative decline because power in other parts of the world are growing and at a greater rate than American power will grow—but a declining power, in relative terms, can be more dangerous than a rising power.
The last part of my book discusses Australia's position in this strategic context. I’ve made it clear that strategic dependence was appropriate during the Cold War and, indeed, in earlier times. I had believed after the fall of the Soviet Union that we could become more independent, have our own voice in international affairs. I've had more than one senior leader throughout Asia say to me, ‘Of course, we will talk to Australia. We will welcome Australian leaders, but we don't need Australia to give us American views. We talk directly to America ourselves.’ It is one of the advantages of age. You can, perhaps, build relationships over time which will never be experienced by governments in office.
Instead of exercising a degree of strategic independence after 1991, we have over the last 25 years become more closely enmeshed in the American military machine than ever before.
I assert that our constitutional independence will not protect us if America goes to war in the Pacific. If they go to war, we will have to go to war on current policy settings. When we, as a powerful three service task force, which can deploy power anywhere throughout the region, we are inevitably complicit in whatever it does. We cannot say we are not involved.
When President Obama speaks from the Australian Parliament, as though it were a State of the Union and not an independent country that is driving in the same direction, some Americans believe that Australia is one of those rare allies who will do whatever they want, whenever they want, without a question. And at the moment, that is Australia.
More problematic and more difficult is the new and diverse use to which Pine Gap is now put. It is no longer merely an information gathering agency. Information gleaned from Pine Gap can be used almost in real time to target United States missiles.
The Australians were probably involved in the drone attack that killed two Australian citizens in Yemen. Shrug our shoulders, it doesn't matter too much, they were bad people.
Americans seem to care to a great extent, when President Obama kills Americans abroad by the same means. The Federal Court in America has ruled that the President must publish, as he now has, the Justice Department's advice, which suggested that such killings of Americans in third countries was legal. If they're legal in America, they rest as much as anything on the War Powers Resolution following 9/11. There's no such legal type of Australians at Pine Gap. And I've now seen a copy of that legal advice and I don't believe it would persuade any American, Q.C., or barrister to take a case to our High Court. It is not possible to shrug off this and say Parliament is supreme. The government can do what it wants.
If there is a conflict, perhaps started between China and Japan, the most likely flash point dragging in America I'm thinking that we can stand aside. If a Prime Minister in these circumstances said, we're going to pass this one by, as Canada passed by Iraq and Vietnam years ago, it would not be believed by America's enemy, because of those troops in Darwin and because of the uses to which Pine Gap is put.
Other things have also been put in place, which have not really been reported in Australia, not announced by Australian government, but they increase our complicity. The United States Army secretary announced some time ago that Major General Burr, an active serving Australian Major General, would be number two in charge of 60,000 American troops in the Western Pacific. An Australian frigate was in station with USS Washington for a period last year and I understand again this year. We are embedded in many ways.
Darwin and Pine Gap are the greatest difficulty. Thus, I argue in the book, that association should be ended. But for Pine Gap over time. Nevertheless, Australian's working there should be pulled out and we could tell Americans, we're telling the world that it is your base. The fiction that it is an Australian base under American control is a nonsense.
Now, many people will get frightened. What are the consequences? When New Zealand refused entry to nuclear-powered Iran ships in years past, we continued to share intelligence with the Five Eyes group. We would also have many things in common with the United States. But any government that can only go so far as to allow the United States the power, effectively to take Australia to war, is abdicating our sovereignty and that is a step much too far. And it would only be appropriate if it was the unstated policy of the government to make Australia another state of the American union.
To break away from this encirclement by the American military, there would certainly be hard negotiations. If there's a will, it could be done. If Australia is to be Australia, it must be done.
An Australia independent would be better respected through East and Southeast Asia. We'd have more influence. If there are difficulties, we'd be better placed in co-operation with others.
With ASEAN, for example, we contribute to peace and security. We need to spend more on defence, probably that which we now spend. But what price is integrity of Australia worth? What is Australia worth to Australians?
'Do we want to be an independent Australia for the first time in our history?'
- Malcolm Fraser
About this video
Hear the arguments of former prime minister Malcolm Fraser as he discusses Australia’s history of strategic dependence on 'great and powerful friends'.
In this video, he presents the case that since Federation in 1901 Australia’s sense of national security and foreign policy direction have relied on our alliance with major powers – Britain in the first instance, followed by the United States after WWII.
Malcolm Fraser was the 22nd Prime Minister of Australia and has become a well-known spokesperson on human rights and asylum seeker issues.