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Issue #1573      14 November 2012

“Australia in Asia”

The Whitlam Labor government brought the troops home from the Vietnam War, was the first Western government to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1973 and wiped the White Australia policy from the statute books. Whitlam also adopted a foreign policy that would have seen the removal of US bases and other military installations from Australian soil when their leases came up for renewal. (Guardian 11-05-2011, Issue # 1500 see PDF page 9). He did not go as far as threatening to end the military alliance with the US.


The Australian Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam during a trip to China in 1973. Dressed in a long coat, Whitlam has his ear to part of the circular Echo Wall in the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Among a small crowd watching Whitlam is Australia’s first ambassador to China, Stephen Fitzgerald, dressed in a coat and tie. Beside him, with her arms crossed, is a Chinese interpreter.

These were radical ideas at the time, shaking the foundations of “White Australia”, its strong cultural ties with “Mother England” and blind military and political allegiance to the US. (He was thrown out of office in a bloodless coup in 1975 executed by the Governor General.)

It was also a period of significant progressive social and cultural reform, including the promotion of multiculturalism and support for nuclear disarmament. While no left-wing radical, Whitlam was far more culturally and socially enlightened and had a great deal more foresight than the social democrat (and Coalition) leaders who followed.

Labor Treasurer Paul Keating in the 1980s, albeit from a far narrower (neo-liberal) economic perspective than that of Whitlam, also recognised the importance of Asia to Australia.

Ross Garnaut’s report, Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy, commissioned by the Hawke/Keating Labor government in 1989, emphasised the importance of China and other Asian states to Australia. Garnaut also raised the question of contradictions arising from Australia seeing itself culturally as a European outpost, its strong political and military ties with the US and its economic future leaning towards South East Asia.

Since Garnaut, Australian trade and investment relations with the region have grown, albeit at a relatively slow pace compared with earlier years. Prime Minister Bob Hawke opened the doors to mass migration from Asia for the first time and more recently large numbers of migrants from Africa have been accepted.

Many of Garnaut’s economic proposals and calls for stronger ties with and knowledge of Asia in the Garnaut report are repeated in the Gillard government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper (October 2012) (See Australia in the Asian Century – Blueprint for war and corporate exploitation this issue).

Come 2012, we have another Labor government looking to Asia, China and India in particular, for trade and investment growth. Asia is also seen as a source of low paid, non-unionised labour which can not only be exploited by going offshore, but can be shipped into Australia on special short-term visas, a point passed over by the Gillard government’s White Paper.

The Paper sees Asia as the engine of global economic growth during the 21st century. “Australia will have the necessary capabilities to promote Australian interests and maintain Australia’s influence,” the Paper says.

It is not just about economic interests and influence. The government hopes to influence political developments as the growth of “Asia’s large powers, especially China and India” have “an impact on the strategic established order.”

The growth of Asian economies and the US’s relative decline as an economic power is of major concern, although not stated explicitly.

The main target of the US’s military “pivot” into the Asia-Pacific region, now renamed as “rebalancing” its focus, with its build-up of military forces in the region, is China. This build-up has not been welcomed and is not seen as a friendly move by China.

The White Paper does not hold back: “We consider that a strong and consistent United States presence in the region will be as important in providing future confidence in Asia’s rapidly changing strategic environment as it has been in the past.”

US imperialism’s past history is not one to glorify – wars in Vietnam, Korea, its bases in Japan, occupation of Guam, former bases in the Philippines, etc. First and foremost, its stance is anti-communist.

The US presence continues to be a major source of tension with its bases and huge military presence in the South China Sea and huge build-up in Australia and elsewhere in the region. The US is not a force for peace and regional security.

“We will continue to support US engagement in the region and its rebalancing to the Asia–Pacific, including through deepening our defence engagement with the US and regional partners.” These include South Korea, the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia with India increasingly being drawn into the US net.

As to the recent increase in US forces in Australia, with the permanent presence of US marines and equipment, China sees it for what it is, war preparations. The alliance with the US locks Australia into the US’s strategy of containment of China. Repeated denials by the government do not alter the reality, Australia plays a key role in the US’s policy of containment.

“In managing the intersections of Australia’s ties with the United States and China, we will need a clear sense of our national interests, a strong voice in both relationships and effective diplomacy,” the Paper says, but does not do this.

It avoids dealing with the contradictions between advocating “greater co-operation and understanding with China” at the same time as strengthening its alliance with the US and war preparations.

At present the government thinks it can have its cake and eat it – feed off China’s growth while beating US imperialism’s war drums. This is not a sustainable path. It might suit China to continue trading with Australia now, but it will not have forgotten Australia’s double standards and who its true friends are. Australia has been warned.

Sections of Australia’s ruling class are questioning our blind allegiance to the US’s military and political agenda. The more economically dependent and integrated they become with Asia, and China in particular, the more difficult it becomes to support the containment of China and war preparations.

Australia does have another option: to develop genuine, friendly relations with China and other Asian neighbours based on respect, equality and recognising sovereignty and independence. This would necessitate the adoption of an independent foreign policy, removal of all US bases and other military installations and personnel and an end to the US alliance.

This would not only bring peace and stability to the region, it would serve the interests of the people of Australia. The additional bonus is that billions of dollars would be saved that could be directed towards job creation and pressing social needs.  

Next article – We are obliged to care for the environment – Conservation Council WA Conference

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