Australian Outlook

Australia as US Satrap

05 Nov 2014
By Graeme Dobell FAIIA
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Graeme Dobell reports on AIIA National President John McCarthy’s remarks at the AIIA National Conference.

The former diplomatic mandarins of Oz think Australia is so committed to the US alliance it has mislaid its primary focus on Asia. A leading light of the ex-mandarins, John McCarthy, says Asia sees Australia as a US satrap, stating: ‘We have lost our way on Asia.’

The lament comes from a man who served as ambassador to Vietnam, Mexico, Thailand, the United States, Indonesia, Japan and India—a mandarin’s mandarin.

McCarthy says Australia’s decision not to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank illustrates the satrap image problem. The National Security Committee of Cabinet ruled against membership of China’s Asian bank on ‘strategic grounds’, after strong lobbying from President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry.

McCarthy’s says it’s a ‘no brainer’ that Canberra should have rejected Washington’s pressure and agreed to join Beijing’s bank. His warning is not a call to step back from the alliance, to pick silly fights with Washington or to introduce false shades of difference in the alliance. Instead, it’s a plea for Australia to re-commit to its interests in Asia in ways that take it beyond the role of rusted-on US henchman.

As national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, McCarthy told the Institute’s national conference in Canberra:

Asia is changing. If we are not seen as speaking for ourselves on security issues, people will not listen. They will see us—possibly, unhappily correctly—as an American satrap. An American satrap does not speak independently and any views we might have will simply be discounted.

The diplomatic mandarin class lined up to back McCarthy in questions and comments after his speech. Geoff Miller, 40 years a diplomat and former head of the Office of National Assessments: ‘We have to think for ourselves’. Miles Kupa, former DFAT deputy secretary, diagnoses a failure of the Oz ‘political class’. Richard Broinowski, former ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and head of Radio Australia, says China’s going to force Australia to confront ‘more difficult choices’.

John McCarthy argues that 20 years ago the defining feature of Australian foreign policy was its focus on Asia. Australia saw itself as an Asian player and was accepted as such by Asia:

If you were asked today what is the defining feature of Australian foreign policy, my strong sense is the response you would get from leading interlocutors almost anywhere in the world is the proximity or the closeness of the US alliance…And it wouldn’t matter whether you talked to people in Europe or Northeast Asia or Southeast Asia. And that, I think, marks a very, very major sea change in the way we are now looking at the world as compared with the way we looked at the world 20 years ago.

McCarthy listed the rebuttals his satrap sally will get from serving diplomats and both sides of Oz politics:

  • the strength of trade relationships in Asia
  • bilateral trade agreements in Asia
  • work on the East Asia Summit and Australia’s continuing role in APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum
  • the number of two-way ministerial visits with Asia

(That final point, says McCarthy ‘is always used as a yardstick for the quality of the relationship with little reference often being made to the content of those visits’.)

McCarthy says the official and political response would be: ‘How can you be worried? Look at what we have done.’ But his observation, reinforced by talking to other Australian diplomats who spent years in Asia, is that for all the activity, Australia has lost sight of Asia as the fundamental and defining policy goal.

He sees that the intellectual understanding of the importance of Asia continues, but believes there’s not the energy and emotional commitment to that policy. America is easier and more comfortable for a country that belongs to an Anglo, Western tradition with a politics totally different to Asia:

It is far, far easier for a member of the Australian political class to go to Washington to be flattered by a people who are an enormously significant people, but with a capacity for flattering smaller nations which is really quite astonishing.

Australian political style—clash and smash and abuse—generates all sorts of misunderstandings in Asia. The Gillard government’s Asia Century White Paper, McCarthy says, was seen by Oz business and many parts of the community as a genuine effort to rejuvenate Australian thinking, yet it fell victim to Canberra habits:

There was a lot of political ducks and drakes going on. Eighteen ministers in the former government took credit for parts of it. By the time the politicians finished playing around with it, it bore no resemblance to what it was supposed to be. And, of course, the Opposition damned it with faint praise because it wasn’t theirs.

The Gillard government created the Asia Century White Paper but gave it no money; the Coalition ignored the policy because it didn’t own it. Politics isn’t the reason Australia refused to join China’s new Asia bank. Instead, the decision demonstrates Australia’s inability to look beyond the strategic terms of the alliance to serve its abiding Asian interests.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. This piece was originally published on ASPI’s The Strategist. It is republished with permission.