Australia must never
become Asia's poodle

It is wrong to assume Australia panders to
the US. It must pander to no one.

The Age 14 April 2003


With the liberation of most Iraqis, the Howard Government’s courageous decision to deploy military forces points to Australia now becoming both an international leader in promoting freedom and an active participant in that cause. The pursuit of such a role in the new terrorist world is undoubtedly in Australia’s interests.

But it will mean a major departure from our previously perceived strategic policy, with an increased importance for the American alliance. Such a change will seriously disturb those keen on a closer relationship with Asia and on playing down our American alliance.

One such is Professor Paul Dibb, first known as the author of the 1986 officially commissioned review of Australia’s defence capabilities, which devoted only one page to ANZUS and the US relationship. And even that page managed no better a description of it than "significant" - followed by a clause suggesting the USA has no particular interest in Australia and a judgment that the principal value of our US defence relationship lies in the practical benefits it brings, such as intelligence and technology transfer. Extraordinarily, while mentioning the treaty provision for consultation, it omitted the treaty commitment to act to meet the common danger occasioned by an armed attack on any treaty party or their forces in the Pacific Area.

The basic mind-set thus exposed is not these days often displayed in all its nakedness. Still, it remains, though clothed in different form.

Indeed, Dibb argued again recently ("The downside of being too close to the US", on this page on April 4) that our US relationship complicates, even challenges, our relationship with Asia, and threatens to divide us from some parts of our own region; that this is the result mostly of recent American behaviour and Australia being seen as America’s deputy sheriff; and that the solution is to distance ourselves from the USA by building a reputation for a more independent, and even sometimes dissenting, position.

This threefold line, echoed by most ALP members and associated academics, pits our US relationship against our association with Asia in a kind of zero-sum game: closer engagement with Asia is allegedly possible only by lessening our US relationship, thereby becoming more independent and so acceptable to Asia.

This is dangerous nonsense, both in its analysis and prescription.

Those who think thus never produce hard evidence for the assertion that our American relationship harms us in Asia. Mention is sometimes made - as Dibb does - of Australia’s not being included in some formal regional groups; but that is not because Australia is regarded in Asia as being too close to America. It is for quite other reasons, including our advanced economy and the fact that we are not Asian and cannot even become so even if we tried.

So the perceived need to balance our alliance with the US with our interests in Asia is an oppositional delusion. If taken seriously by the government it would harm our American relationship without helping our Asian engagement. Except for those who naively judge Asian relations by protests in those countries, that engagement is anyway doing fine in practical terms.

Likewise, Dibb’s prescription - that Australia become more independent, and even sometimes dissenting - is an abdication of responsible concern for Australia’s national interests. Those seemingly unexceptionable words imply Australia is truly independent only when it differs from the USA, which is an absurd measure of independence. Should Australia distance itself from the USA not because we genuinely disagree with a particular American position but simply in order to curry favour with Asia?

Australia’s national interests, independently determined, will not always coincide with the USA’s. When that happens, we should not - and do not - hesitate to say so and to fashion our policy accordingly. What we should not do - but would do if Dibb and others had their way - is seek to manufacture differences with America in order to make ourselves more acceptable in Asia, which moreover far from being impressed would be contemptuous.

Australia is fortunately not America’s poodle. Why on earth become Asia’s?