|MacArthur and Curtin|
Simultaneously last week, I finished reading Roland Perry’s The Fight for Australia and Hugh White’s Quarterly Essay Without America – Australia in the New Asia.
Putting the two together is fascinating.
Perry describes Australia’s World war 2 experience, with particular reference to the changing relationship with our two great allies, the USA and the UK.
White puts a proposition about the retreat of the USA from its position of a superpower engaged in our part of the world in the face of a more assertive, and more economically powerful China.
White pulls no punches – he discusses a scenario where we find ourselves completely on our own when it comes to the strategic balance in the Asian sphere. With Trump in the White-house, anything is possible, including an isolationist foreign policy which denies any mutuality with Australia’s interests.
“That will never be”, I hear you say, gentle reader.
Let’s take a look at the History as described by Perry. In the first instance, both Churchill and Roosevelt were in lockstep with the “Hitler first” notion, even after the attack on Pearl Harbour.
After the Yanks entered the war, the Americans began to see Australia as an unsinkable aircraft carrier and a garrison for troops and supplies to pursue the war in the Pacific. Curtin, the Labor PM at the time, saw the writing on the wall, and pretty much gave Douglas MacArthur a free hand once he arrived from the Philippines.
Curtin’s decisions are, when examined with the benefit of 75 years of hindsight, perfectly rational. Churchill made it abundantly clear that Australia was expendable, and Curtin had to fight to ensure our sovereignty.
We found our fortress Singapore overwhelmed, and Churchill reluctant to allow Australian troops to return from the Middle East to defend against a very real threat of invasion.
Complacency had allowed our defence industries to languish, and we found ourselves panicking to produce munitions, tanks and aircraft to defend the country. The pace at which this industry developed was nothing short of stunning, but we ended up relying on the Yanks, especially for aircraft. A couple of decisive sea battles turned the tide, but it was a close-run thing.
There are a few lessons in this history.
The first and most important is that we cannot assume that despite the conventional rhetoric, historic ties of kinship and commonwealth mean anything at all when it comes to warfare. The Brits abandoned us. They may have had no choice, but that is neither here nor there. “Why”, in times of crisis, matters a lot less than “What?”
If we ask the “why?” question about the support of the Yanks, we get a very stark and unequivocal answer. They supported us because they needed us (or at least our bases and geography) as much as we needed them.
Let’s move forward to 2017. Obama’s “pivot” to Asia meant very little. We have some marines in Darwin – big deal.
Trump cannot be trusted to maintain traditional alliances. He’s made that abundantly clear. China is a rising maritime power. Its economy will overwhelm that of the USA very soon. Any move by Trump to isolate China will simply drive that process harder.
The current imbroglio about Chinese influence provides a strong reminder of what is at stake.
Most western commentators have no real idea of China’s intentions, but it’s pretty clear that the Chinese seek to build influence in our neck of the woods as a deliberate and consistent policy. It’s very much in their economic and strategic interests to do so.
Putting a withdrawal of American influence from Asia together with increased Chinese engagement provides us with a major foreign policy dilemma.
Maybe it’s time to look at our defence planning. Maybe the most recent white paper should have discussed the acquisition of missile capable submarines together with a missile shield integrated in our Jindalee OTH radar. Maybe those submarines being built in Adelaide should be equipped with nuclear power plants as well as ICBMs.
Any rapid increase in spending on defence will of course put a strain on the budget, but it’s funny how the last thing that’s ever considered is cost when politicians are gung-ho to go to war. If you look at our history, our defence spending has always been too little – too late. We’ve been lucky in the past when our powerful friends came to our rescue. We can't assume this will always happen in the future.
To quote White’s closing remarks –
China’s rise is a fact and isn’t going away. It constitutes a profound shift in the distribution of power in Asia, and is creating a new regional order in which China has a lot more influence, and America has less. America’s future role cannot be taken for granted. It won’t help to panic. Australia must adjust to this new order, by working out how we relate to china and working with other countries in Asia. This will require us to rethink a lot of things, to make some hard choices, and perhaps to pay some heavy costs. We will be changed in the process. Let’s get on with it.
He’s not wrong, but when you see China being used by one side of politics to belt the other, I don’t hold out much hope of any carefully considered “adjustment”.
I recall so well how China was seen back in the sixties.
Remember how that worked out?