Is it time to downgrade US defence?

Our slavish devotion to US geopolitical needs is in danger of rendering Australia ‘irrelevant’ to our most important trading partner, China.

Malcolm Fraser says it is time we end our "dangerous and foolish" complicity with US military policy in the Asian region and renegotiate the ANZUS treaty.

He calls Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s assertion that joint US Australian military operations are not bases as "political spin of the worst kind”, something that Professor Richard Tanter, the Director of the Nautilus Institute for security studies agrees with.

Fraser says that the 2500 marines on permanent rotation in the Northern Territory, proposed US surveillance bases in the Cocos Islands and expanded roles of Pine Gap linked to US bomber command in Hawaii, send a clear message that Australia is becoming the "the southern bastion of America’s re-arming in the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia” – something that "spells danger for the entire region”. If citizens fully understood the level of US control over military operations here, there would be "rage across Australia”.

Fraser is calling for a complete review of the ANZUS treaty and says that we have failed to work within the treaty’s stated aim of "consultation" on defence, and instead we have become "supplicants” who uncritically take part in American wars.

It is time, Fraser says, to show "the guts, the grit and the gumption” to communicate to the region that we are independent of America. Under current American policy, Fraser believes, our unwavering alliance with the US puts us in more danger than not.

That is because the US is engaging in a policy of containment of China, aligning itself to allies undertaking dangerous posturing in the South China Sea, such as the Phillipines, and potentially falling into the trap of being seen to support a growing nationalist element in the Japanese parliament.

Fraser says we have too readily been drawn into American conflicts, and he fears that as America declines, the likelihood of conflict in the region grows.

"America is a power whose influence is waning economically, and the waning power is likely to rely on that power which is still supreme, which is military. If American wants to remain number one, there will be war one day. Maybe not for ten years but I think you have to take a ten, fifteen year perspective on these things.”

Fraser says that we must demonstrate our military independence and realise that the days of US and European power are over and may never come back. China is already the major trading partner of almost every country, he says, and holds the keys to the global economy. Our future lies in the region and Fraser says it is now time to end our slavish devotion to US foreign policy and look to become a middle power in the way Canada and the Nordic countries have successfully done.

Instead, Fraser says, our leaders have abdicated the hard thinking on our security to the Americans. Not only could that endanger Australia if hostilities were to break out, but it is also rendering our views irrelevant in the eyes of Asia’s leaders.

"Why would we talk to you about geopolitics?” senior Asian officials have asked Fraser. "We know what you are going to say because it is what the Americans say, and we already speak to them directly.”

Fraser makes a crucial point here. He says that what China becomes depends hugely on the way it is treated. Do we want a China that is constantly on the look out for anti-Chinese sentiment? Certainly, Fraser believes that our decision to allow US military operations on Australian soil sends the message that China is seen as a threat by both the United States and by us. America, he says, is adopting a policy of ‘containment’ with regards to China, something the former Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong has described as dangerous and foolish.

This is particularly important given the anti-China sentiment emerging in the current US election and the rise of the Tea Party, which has created a "crude and ignorant” neoconservative force in American politics, that espouse policies which "endanger us all”.

Fraser believes that America still maintains a Cold War stance when it comes to geopolitics and that Australia lost a huge opportunity to create an independent vision for Australia. To re-establish that identity, he says, we should immediately pull US troops out of northern basis and do it quickly. We should declare that we will not accept any US ships or submarines in Australian ports that are nuclear armed.

Once we have established our independence militarily, Fraser says it is time for Australia to develop a proper relationship with the region.

Reports that Julia Gillard will be visiting China before the release of the Asian Century White paper are welcome but as Nick Bryant points out at the Lowy Interpreter, neither Gillard nor Abbot have made any significant foreign policy speeches. Indeed, they tend to make a virtue of appealing solely to domestic audiences.

We should expect more of our leadership. We have known for 15 years that the China juggernaut is coming, yet our engagement with the region is pathetically low. We educated tens of thousands of Chinese students in this country every year but we fail to engage them once they return.

On the recent trade mission to China, I met a number of former students of Australian universities who had very favourable memories of their time studying in this country but little contact after they graduated (China's subsidy is Australia's economic opportunity, September 20). This is a hugely missed opportunity for Australia to become a middle power, something that Malcolm Fraser believes can be a role that we play in the region – much as Canada has successfully done.

It is time we fully comprehend the importance of our neighbours to the north and make use of both the hard tasks of negotiating our defence treaties and employ the soft skills of developing a relationship based on mutual trust and experience.

Click here to read or watch Malcolm Fraser's recent speech, titled "Australia-US Relations in the Asian Century".

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