Comment

Self-interest trumps friendship when it comes to supporting foreign allies

If you want a mate in politics, get a dog.

The Russian Navy has paid Australia a big compliment by menacing the east of our continent with a cruiser, a destroyer, a petrol tanker and a tug boat - about as much as our own not-so-formidable fleet could manage to defeat in an afternoon. But those with a sense of history would not be greatly worried. True, Brisbane, yet again, might have to be dispensed with. But Sydney Harbour and Port Phillip Bay still bristle with 19th century cannon emplaced to protect our important cities from Russian invasion. And, mercifully, our national capital is not at Delegate - within shelling distance of the cruiser if it hadheavy guns, which it hasn't -but well inland.

It is not, of course, the first, or the biggest Russian Fleet, to pass us by. In 1905, Russia sent its Baltic Fleet -including 11 battleships and, this time eight cruisers and nine destroyers, plus any number of colliers - into the North Sea, down the Atlantic, across the Indian Ocean into the South China Sea, to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam then in to the Sea of Japan on the way (far too late) to relieve a siege at Port Arthur. Not our own Port Arthur, but the base, in an area leased from China, of the Russian Pacific Fleet.

On the move: Russian Black Sea Navy ships.
On the move: Russian Black Sea Navy ships. Photo: Vasiliy Batanov

The bottom of Port Arthur, itself, already contained a number of sunken Russian battleships after a surprise (Pearl Harbour style) attack by the Japanese in late 1904, and later, an assault by the Japanese Army. (A good many historians give credit to an Australian, George "Chinese" Morrison, for encouraging the Japanese to look at the potential for a surprise attack, but that is another story).

It was the Japanese army that did the most damage to the First Russian Pacific Fleet, but by the time the siege was over, the Russian Pacific Fleet was no more

The Second Russian Pacific Fleet - formerly known as the Baltic Fleet - had been intended to teach these Japanese a lesson they would never forget. It was Russia's main navy.

Its 18,000-nautical-mile voyage around the world was full of incident - an epic voyage of the damned - even before its shocking conclusion. It was still in the North Sea when it fired on British fishing boats, in the belief they might be Japanese torpedo boats.

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The British responded by denying the fleet the use of the Suez Canal, extending the already extended time and arrangements. This meant that the point of the voyage - the relief of Port Arthur - no longer existed by voyage's end.

The British Fleet also kept the Russian Fleet under surveillance, and monitored its messages, secretly passing on all of its intelligence to the Japanese, not at that stage known to be even a friend. 

By the time the Russian fleet was near Siberia it had fuelling, engine and maintenance problems, appalling morale and crews out of practice, and many of its ships were fouled. It met the Japanese Fleet, by accident rather than its own design, in the Sea of Japan in May 1905. By day's end, the Second Pacific Fleet had joined the first, mostly at the sea bottom.

The Russians lost 11 battleships, four cruisers and six battleships. The Japanese lost three torpedo boats.

At this stage, the Japanese were friends of the UK, even if most of Europe had no idea. The warm relationship flourished after the Japanese put down the Russian adventurism (into which it had been encouraged by Germany) and ultimately developed into a naval treaty, by which Japan was not only an ally, if a passive one, on "our" side in World War I.

This  effectively provided a naval guarantee of Australian and South East Asian security while the main British Fleet was on the other side of the world. Australia was not, during the term of the treaty, entirely sanguine about Japanese benevolence, and was rather relieved when the treaty was allowed to expire in the early 1920s. As a part of its reward for its friendship, Japan took over most of Germany's former Pacific colonial interests, apart from New Guinea, which we took.

The spectacular Japanese successes against the Russians empowered militant Japanese politic factions, a major factor in its own adventurism with attacks on China and Manchuria in the 1930s and, after the British and Americans responded by embargos and blockade, the attacks on Pearl Harbour, Malaya and the Philippines in 1941.

Inside the extreme nationalist expansionist factions was a group who thought Japan should "go north" and attack the Soviet Union, adding to its conquests in China and Manchuria. Others wanted to "go south", not least in a search for the fuel and raw materials unavailable because of the blockade.

Ultimately, Russia and Japan entered a non-aggression pact, in somewhat the same manner as the Soviet Union did with Germany. Both sides kept it until the very fag end of WWII, when Russia, having disposed of Germany (who had betrayed it) suddenly stabbed Japan in the back so as to conquer some Japanese territory and have a place at the peace treaty table. In discussions about the history of Russia and Japan, phrases such as "treachery" and "surprise attack" constantly recur. 

This Second World War situation developed in a way not necessarily to Japan's advantage, but the misunderstanding was put aside and we are all great friends again. Not so with the Russians who were, in 1904, our secret enemies, then our allies in WWI, then hostiles, then utter bastards, then our glorious allies, then our enemies again, then relatively benign, but are now, under Vladimir Putin, angry, prickly, aggressive and likely to foment ethnic nationalism in old parts of their empire.

Thanks heavens we have  the US and Japan on our side to cope with our ambivalence.

China, too, was of course, our ally, then our enemy, then our best trading partner, if not our best friend. In recent years, Australia has been trying to develop a mature relationship with a somewhat suspicious China, which always wonders why, after protesting relative independence of mind, we always fall into complete line with the US if there are any disagreements in the region. Even when, sometimes, our economic interest would seem to point otherwise.

Increasingly, the Chinese are also wondering why we seem to anxious to put ourselves under a Japanese umbrella as well.

Essentially, the answer is that we see America as the only one we can rely on. As a child we try to take a few little steps of our own. But as soon as we perceive danger, we scurry home to mama.  Only it has our best interests at heart. Or would have, if we really really needed it to.

So secure can we be, indeed, in American benevolence that America does not even have to tell us what it is doing.

When, in 1971, Gough Whitlam conceived the idea of wrangling an invitation to China - a communist country Australia did not recognise, for all that we traded with it - the Australian government of the day, led by Bill McMahon, regarded as a form of treason to the American Australian alliance. (China, of course, had been our ally during the war against Japan, if one of our ultimate foes in Korea and vicarious enemies in Vietnam).

The boot was properly put in about Whitlam's naivety and untrustworthiness. How much more embarrassing thus, to Billy McMahon, when it emerged that during the very Whitlam visit, the American Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had also been in China, negotiating, on behalf of President Richard Nixon, the western rapprochement with the communist regime.

Tony Abbott, an apostle of doing nothing, or nothing much, about climate change, must have felt the McMahon tingle when he discovered that the US and China had been secretly negotiating a pact by which the two biggest world polluters would act jointly to cut their carbon emissions. For nine months, without telling Australia, a country that Barak Obama often goes out of his way to assure us is, is one of his (and America's)  deepest friends. One of the few countries, with one of the few leaders, in Tony Abbott, who didn't ask for favours or exemptions but which offered itself up, simply and on a plate to help the US when it became clear that things were going to hell in Iraq and Syria.

It was not, necessarily, that Abbott might have persuaded Obama not to deal with China, or that Obama might have persuaded Abbott to change his already well-known skepticism and unwillingness to do anything that might impair the immediate Australian economy. The public knew that Abbott and Obama had different views about the need for climate change action - and, indeed, had been reminded of it when Abbott lauded the do-nothing principle with a fellow-agnostic, Stephen Harper, just before one of his meetings with Obama.

But, surely, mates tip each other the wink, don't they? Even a little warning about the fact of intense talks going on might have helped Abbott politically in his own backyard, without the slightest risk of compromising the secret talks, or what they implied about how America plays its foreign policy.

Indeed, over the period, there were various little American and Chinese mini-belligerences, whether over islands claimed by China, relations with Japan, China's trade practices, and China's plans for an international development bank, in all of which Australia took positions more affected by its American relationships than by what might have appeared to be in Australia's best national interests.

This is not to suggest that the US is consciously selling Australia down the drain, or, intentionally, making one of our political leaders look silly in his own constituencies at a time when he is struggling to stand on an international stage. It's not really like that.

It is rather, as one senior American diplomat once remarked to me, that when America consults its own national interests, it thinks of Britain's national interests about as much as Britain, when considering its interests, considers the interest of the Island of Wight.

He did not have to add that even when Australia was being a particularly attentive lap-dog, its interests rated rather further down the scale than those of Britain.

America, moreover, has been in the national interest game a good deal longer than Australia and, while there have been periods, particularly in the 19th century, in which it has had to temper its hopes and ambitions against realities, it has not, in many generations, felt forlorn, in desperate need of allies, big brothers or international reassurance. Security is not its central anxiety. Its internal political and economic dynamics differ from Australia's.

While there is an essential unity between America's international defence, foreign policy, economic and trading interests, it shows itself in different ways than in a much less complicated Australia. In particular, as one might expect of any competition of capitalists, American business, assisted by the American government establishment, is in sharp competition with the businesses of other countries, and gives no quarter, even as we are military allies, "cousins," people of a common culture and experience, or people who, more or less, speak the same language.

Who was it who remarked that if you want a friend in politics, get a dog? Perhaps in Obama's case, a puppy.