Security for Australia in the ‘Asia Pacific Century’ (Part 2)


Jake Lynch – TRANSCEND Media Service

Let’s cup our ear to some echoes from the past. Andrew Alexander, a journalist on the right- of-centre Daily Mail newspaper in the UK, recounted how his research for a book about the origins of the Cold War confounded his presuppositions: there had, in reality, been “no Soviet military threat”, and wrong-headed western assessments that one existed were responsible for “one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time, and certainly the most perilous”. Disagreements hardened into enmities after President Truman made “an aggressive start” to his term in office, at the prompting of some in the military, and Winston Churchill demanded “a showdown” with Moscow.

An assessment of conflict dynamics on the Korean peninsula by leading peace researcher Johan Galtung seems particularly apt to read across to the present situation in what Australia terms the ‘Asia-Pacific century’. “There are hawks and doves in North Korea”, he remarked, “and they are sometimes in the same person. The question then is, how does one strengthen the doves?” As with China: Admiral Yang Yi appeared to be expressing alarm at an unpleasant surprise, but for every senior strategist with that view of our relationship with China, there will be one for whom the unveiling of the White Paper was an ‘I-told-you-so’ moment. As Galtung says, the two views may coexist in the same person. And the hawks on either side draw strength from each other.

With today’s interdependent system of world trade and finance, to envisage an Asia-Pacific cold war may be fanciful. But divisions do exist and they risk becoming wider. The cool response from Mr Yudhoyono to Rudd’s notion of an Asia-Pacific community would have come as no surprise to anyone in Canberra who had consulted Barry Desker, a ‘wise old owl’ of regional diplomacy who was Singapore’s Ambassador to Jakarta. Shortly after Rudd launched the idea, Desker declared it “dead in the water” because the PM had not held prior consultations with any Asian leader.

Earlier, while delivering the inaugural Michael Hintze lecture at the University of Sydney, Desker drew attention to growing tensions over regional governance, in particular the ‘Pacific’ concept, inscribed in the alphabet soup of inter-governmental alliances, bodies and fora: APEC, APC, ASEAN, EAS, SCO and so on. He detected an incipient divide between sets of policy stances and assumptions that he characterised as belonging either to the “Washington consensus” or the “Beijing consensus”. It was profoundly in Australia’s interests to avoid that divide widening, Desker averred, and for Australia to use its unique status, as both a major trading partner of China and a longstanding military ally of the US, to contribute something in efforts to close it.

Another way forward

One key area of differences, highlighted by Desker, concerned the interconnected questions of intervention and state sovereignty, with the Chinese particularly sensitive to the latter. The bombing of Yugoslavia, which flattened China’s embassy in Belgrade in a ‘NATO targeting error’, was halted only by a UN resolution that appeared to pull back from granting Kosovo its independence. A couple of years ago, however, came the US-inspired démarche whereby Kosovo upped and declared itself a sovereign country and Washington and its friends led the way to recognition. The twin concepts of humanitarian intervention and the so-called Responsibility to Protect of the international community, or ‘R2P’, had been implicated in the redrawing of international borders and ‘regime change’.

Ten years on from NATO’s ‘Operation Allied Force’, some of its ramifications began washing up on our own shores. In early 2009, the world effectively stood by as the Sri Lankan army pounded Tamil areas in the country’s north-east. A later report by the US State Department identified 158 credible accounts of shelling and bombing of civilians – a serious breach, if proven, of the laws of war – attacks that could only have come from the government side. By now, R2P had been accepted in principle by a unanimous vote of the UN General Assembly, meeting at Heads of State and Government level at its summit meeting of 2005. When it came to protecting the Tamils, however, any prospect of effective UN Security Council action, of any kind, to stop the violence was undermined by the certainty of a Chinese veto. Beijing simply kept the subject off the agenda.

Later, the Rudd government was buffeted by the usual tidal wave of synthetic outrage, from right-wing politicians and media, as a few hundred Tamil refugees made their way by boat to Australia. The experiences of recent electoral politics in Australia suggest that no issue is more likely to unravel what the Federal finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, called “Labor’s… compromises to marry progressive reform with majority government”. It would be in Australia’s interests, and certainly in the interests of anyone seeking to govern Australia in the cause of progressive reform, to renew the drive towards creating some consensus on the world stage that a wide range of measures, besides military intervention, should be developed and deployed in circumstances when human protection is at issue, thus avoiding refugee flows at source. Shortly after the Cold War had ended, in 1993, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans published a book, Cooperating for Peace – seen as his own personal manifesto to become UN Secretary-General, but still worth reading as a reminder of the potentialities for tackling problems through the patient building of consensus:

“No single government – not even that of the United States, with all its current pre-eminence – can be expected to contain, let alone resolve, the enormous range of security problems that now confront the world community. If there is to be any meaningful response, it can only be based on a cooperative approach, with governments tackling these problems… on a cooperative, multilateral basis”.

The case put forward by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on its website for Australia’s renewed candidacy for UN Security Council membership makes much of Canberra’s commitment to human rights. If our voice is to carry any influence, that commitment needs to be applied across the board, and be seen to do so. For example, a switch, early in 2010, in Australia’s habits of voting and speaking about the Israel-Palestine conflict, while measured in infinitesimal gradations, represents a welcome shift in this context. Canberra went from a ‘no’ to an ‘abstain’ in General Assembly votes on the Goldstone Report into war crimes allegations arising from Israel’s attack on Gaza. Also, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith criticised the Israelis over plans for new building in illegal settlements on Palestinian land.

China condemned Israel’s attack on Gaza but kept quiet over Sri Lanka; the US, where these crises happened either side of a change in the White House, played it the opposite way round. At the time, Australia was, by my reckoning, the only democracy that condemned neither (many others having been ‘covered’ in statements put out on their behalf by such organisations as the EU, AU and OAS). If concern for human protection and human rights could be convincingly reasserted as the property of no single group of UN member states and simultaneously the responsibility of all, then the prospect of rebuilding such a consensus would gather strength.

But such a consensus depends on ending double standards and ‘exceptionalism’, and Australia could clearly signal that this is our intention and our interpretation of the mandate implicit in provisions for protecting non-combatants and their human rights such as the Responsibility to Protect. Hesham Youssef, Chief of the Cabinet to the Secretary General of the Arab League, made it clear during a recent visit that Canberra would get no Arab support for a Security Council seat while it is seen as an extension of Washington, especially on Palestinian issues.

Climate change policy presents another example of the urgency of our positive engagement with China. China was reported to have been instrumental in confining the Copenhagen climate summit to such a puny outcome. An eyewitness to the talks, Mark Lynas, told the London Guardian: “China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered”. Beijing saw a “rich-country conspiracy”, according to Lynas, and moved decisively to snuff it out. It is, again, profoundly in Australia’s interests for effective action to counter climate change to be brought forward, not pushed back. We live on the driest inhabited continent, after all.

For China to feel as if its back is against the wall, encircled and denied, plays to its worst instincts and brings them out. That is to Australia’s disadvantage now, and risks plunging us into a dangerous stand-off, which would divert precious resources away from other more important uses. Set out on a more even-handed policy, and attend to Barry Desker’s caution about the need to consult in the region – not just in Washington – before making suggestions, and we could look forward to a more cooperative and productive relationship.

It may be in the interests of the US military-industrial complex, and its offshoot here, for an arms race to ensue in the Asia-Pacific; but it is not in the interests of Australians. We must be prepared to put down our sword and shake hands, then we can all come out from behind our shields. Who knows, we may then get our seat at the round table.


Jake Lynch, Director, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney

This is Part Two of Jake Lynch’s chapter in Vision 2030: An Alternative Approach to Australian Security, a publication by Medical Action for the Prevention of War, edited by Michelle Fahy. It is commissioned and published as a response to the Australian government’s Defence White Paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. The publication will be launched at the parliament in Canberra on Monday May 24th. Part One of Jake Lynch’s contribution appeared last week on TMS.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 May 2010.

Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Security for Australia in the ‘Asia Pacific Century’ (Part 2), is included. Thank you.

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