21 October 2013
Can Australia claim to be a sovereign nation?

By Malcolm Fraser
The Age


Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Anyone who has a sense of pride in Australia as an independent nation, as a nation that can make up its own mind, whose values are worth supporting, should be disheartened.

We have followed the United States into three wars: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Vietnam and Iraq were costly and tragic failures. Afghanistan is a failure in waiting. US policies have failed in the Middle East. As a consequence, that region is in greater turmoil and America's influence has greatly diminished.

The US is now turning its attention to the western Pacific, the famous ''pivot'', the policy of containment of China. If American policy is no more successful in the western Pacific than it has been in the Middle East, then those of us who live in this part of the world are in for a rough time.

America claims that a growing and more powerful China is being assertive, some even say aggressive. However, that charge could equally be laid at the door of the US.

Powerful American taskforces, of which we are at times a part, through the deployment of escort vessels with the USS George Washington, parade through the East and South China seas. An American spy ship, the USNS Impeccable, is anchored close to a Chinese submarine base on Hainan Island. The Chinese would certainly have regarded this act as provocative. The build-up of US arms, from Japan to Australia and involving the Philippines and Singapore, and strategic discussions with other nations, many would regard as aggressive, in a region that has had a long period of peace. Certainly, compared with the Middle East, where the US has been most active, the western Pacific has been peaceful indeed, much of that due to the efforts of Indonesia and other ASEAN countries.

The increasing American attention to the Pacific is not good news for Australia. Iraq was far away and did not affect our regional relationships in any significant way. But if present US policies are pursued, there is a possibility of conflict ultimately between China and the US. If we are involved, our relationships with all countries of the region would be affected.

A conflict could be begun by a newly militaristic Japan seeking to change the status of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. It could be caused by the Philippines, believing they would have American support and behaving aggressively as a consequence. While the Americans claim not to take sides in disputes in the East and South China seas, their statements, their dispositions and deployments, suggest they have sided with Japan.

These events affect Australia deeply. We have little or no capacity for independent action or decisions. If America is involved in conflict, our hosting a powerful Marine air-ground taskforce in Darwin, capable of deploying power anywhere throughout the region, makes us complicit in whatever that taskforce may do. Australians have been deceived by statements in Australia, belittling the significance of that deployment, but outside Australia, US secretaries of defence have spoken more openly of its capacities.

Perhaps more important, Pine Gap, whose initial purpose was to gather intelligence concerning the performance of Soviet missiles, now provides information, virtually in real time, that can be used by a variety of US weapons systems, including drones. Pine Gap is part of America's drone killing program. If targets are selected anywhere in east Asia or the western Pacific, we are complicit in such actions.

Of greater significance still, Pine Gap information is now used to help target and to perfect America's anti-ballistic missile system. China has 250 nuclear warheads, America has 7700. China, committed to a no-first-use policy from the start, may be concerned about the adequacy of its present programs, because the ABM system being put in place by America and Japan will seriously limit China's deterrent nuclear force. Pine Gap is integral in such developments.

In any conflict in the western Pacific, because of the the Darwin taskforce and Pine Gap, it would be impossible to say that we are not involved. Therefore, if America goes to war in the western Pacific, we also will be at war. Washington will determine whether Australia goes to war or not, just as Britain and the empire did in days of old.

We should be finding ways of asserting Australian sovereignty and establishing strategic independence, as Canada has, for example. It did not participate in Vietnam or in Iraq.

Our situation will be compounded, and America's hold on Australia's future will be made all the stronger, if an option being pushed by American defence analysts is accepted in Australia. America, short of money, is looking for ways to cheapen its deployments in the western Pacific. The suggestion is that 10 or 12 Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines would be run and managed by the Australian navy. While they would be used for Australian purposes, a significant function would be to undertake part of patrolling and operations that America regards as important, in the western Pacific. The same reports suggest that tensions are going to rise throughout the region, and that this is an additional reason why we should accept this option.

If tensions rise, it will be a consequence of America's increased militarisation of the western Pacific.

Many countries in east and south-east Asia have shown a remarkable capacity to overcome old enmities and to work together in peaceful association. The members of ASEAN, without American support, have shown how this can be done effectively in the Asian way. All the countries of this region, not merely Australia, should be concerned with the current posture and activities of the US. We, above all, should be concerned because of the Marine air-ground taskforce and because of the activities of Pine Gap.

We must find a way to reassert our own sovereignty.

Malcolm Fraser was prime minister from 1975 to 1983.

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