Former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser has had an interesting change of thinking over defence. Formerly an ardent supporter of the American alliance, he now sees it as dangerous. He warns that it might get Australia into a dangerous war with China that it would not win.
Mr Fraser’s change of mind comes about through a change in the position of the US in the past decade rather than a change in his own core belief which presumably the best defence of Australia.
The reason for Mr Fraser’s rethink is that with the end of the Cold War, the strategic position has changed radically. We now have one super-power not two. And that super-power, the US, according to Mr Fraser is playing its hand in Asia in a way that could be contrary to Australia’s best interest.
That argument has some difficulty. True, the Cold War is over, but Russia is still a nuclear power. Moreover, its new president Vladimir Putin has recently issued a new policy on Russia’s nuclear arsenal. He says it must be kept in good shape. It is too easy to dismiss this as domestic grand-standing of no consequence. The trouble is that domestic grand-standing is most often the prime reason for leaders taking their nation to war. That is precisely what is happening in Chechnya now.
Mr Fraser argued that US policy in Eastern Europe had de-stabilised relations with Moscow because at the behest of the US, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation had extended its coverage to the border with Russia and bombed the former Yugoslavia without permission from the United Nations.
As to the former, it was the Eastern European nations that wanted to join NATO. They begged to join. The US just welcomed them. As to the latter, what was NATO to do, sit on its hands allowing China to veto any action in the former Yugoslavia while innocent civilians were murdered?
On the Asian front, Mr Fraser is far too supplicant to China. He argues that the US position on Taiwan could lead to a nuclear war in which Australia would become involved. That is fanciful. China will continue to posture on Taiwan, but will not attack precisely because of the US position.
He argues that the US should reduce its role in north-east Asia. That would allow the Chinese-back North Korean regime breathing space if not licence to attack South Korea. It is because of the continued US presence that South Korea has prospered enabling the communist system in the north to be exposed as a misery-creating dictatorship.
It is fortunate that Mr Fraser argues that any Australian distancing itself from the US alliance should be seen as a long-term prospect. He argues, perhaps correctly, that it would be possible for the US to withdraw and leave the nations of the region to sort out their own relationships in a more trust-filled environment. Maybe that is an ideal goal in the long-term.
But that is not going to happen while China remains undemocratic and hostile to the democratic reforms that have made Taiwan prosper and while North Korea continues to pose such a threat to peace.
In the meantime, the US pressure and presence remains essential to Australia’s interest which is a peaceful Asia.
Mr Fraser’s argument that the US should withdraw over 10 to 20 years and let Australia and other countries in the region sort out their own security arrangements puts the cart before the horse. When nations in the region sort out security with arrangements that can be based on trust, which ultimately means dealing with stable democracies, then the US can start withdrawing.
Mr Fraser’s order puts far too much unwarranted trust in China. Without a US presence and without an alliance with the US, in the current environment and for the foreseeable future, Australia would have to increase its defence effort substantially.
Mr Fraser’s dove-like calls would only give local hawks ammunition.