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China versus Japan: it's time for us to be independent

Date

Malcolm Fraser

Australia must not slavishly follow its superpower friend the United States, writes MALCOLM FRASER

The ownership of islands in the East China Sea now represents a highly sensitive and dangerous issue. There has been a significant escalation that could easily lead to conflict between China and Japan.

A senior American intelligence officer has strongly sided with Japan and called China a bully on the high seas with ambitions to sink American warships and seize control of waters from its neighbours. He described China as a principal threat. We have the US and Japan lined up in concert against China.

I had believed that America's containment policy, if not changed, could lead to war between China and the US within a 10-12 year time frame. Not so long ago, foreign policy expert Hugh White suggested there could be conflict between China and Japan within 12 months. White has also written a piece opposing a defence treaty between Japan and Australia.

He pointed out that Japan has interests that are not ours and that such a relationship could be dangerous for Australia.

All of this makes for a most unpleasant mix. China, Japan and the US are not showing the calm reason that is necessary to avoid conflict. President Barack Obama's pivot greatly strengthening forces in the western Pacific, placing a marine fighting unit in Darwin, to which will be added air and naval elements, is not only provocative to China, but dangerous for Australia. Does anyone think that if America wants to use those forces from Darwin, it will ask our permission first? It will do what it wants and we would be complicit in whatever it does.

The New York Times is hardly a left-wing journal. Nicholas Kristof is a highly respected commentator and in the last part of last year, he gave his imprimatur to an article by a Taiwanese academic pointing out what was headed ''The inconvenient truth behind the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands''.

Kristof wrote: ''I find the evidence for Chinese sovereignty quite compelling. The most interesting evidence is emerging from old Japanese government documents and suggests that Japan in effect stole the islands from China in 1895 as booty of war.'' He then prints the article by the Taiwanese professor documenting these matters in detail.

If the current standoff results in warfare, America is committed to Japan. If they wanted to use Australia's resources or support, the Americans would demand it. In any fight involving China and the US, we should stand out of it. If the giants in our region are going to war, we should not be part of it.

Robert Menzies, as prime minister, understood this clearly in 1956. The Chinese were shelling islands in the Taiwan Straits, testing American resolve over Taiwan. Eisenhower moved the 7th Fleet in, or close to, the Taiwan Straits.

At this time, not long after the signing of the ANZUS Treaty, which of course had no relevance to that particular dispute, Menzies let Eisenhower know in the clearest terms that if war eventuated between China and the US, Australia would not be part of it. He clearly saw an Australian interest separate from that of the US, standing alone as an independent nation.

We have had a history of following America into war. Vietnam, with the knowledge of later years, proved to be a mistake. I must carry my responsibility for supporting it at the time. Then Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars ending in failure. There were massive objections to our involvement in Iraq. The original involvement in Afghanistan, which was to hunt al-Qaeda and nothing else, was correct. President George W. Bush, on his own initiative, turned that into a plan to reshape Afghanistan.

It is time Australia started to have a mind of its own. We should not follow a superpower into war, merely because it wants us to, or because of ANZUS. There has been no conflict to which ANZUS has had any relevance whatsoever.

Do we believe that we must follow America into American wars, simply because that is the only way we can guarantee one day, that if we need help, it will help us. If that is our attitude, it is false.

Great powers follow their own interest and not that of any other country. We should have learnt that through our short history.

The result of a war between China, the US and Japan is problematic. China would have the capacity to sustain a level of casualties quite beyond anything that America could endure. In addition, China would be fighting for China, America would be fighting for foreign influence. The motivations on the two sides would be entirely different.

If war does occur, Australia should stand out of it, as Menzies did in 1956. I believe Prime Minister Julia Gillard, or her alternative, Kevin Rudd, or the alternative to both, Tony Abbott, would do that which America wanted.

China has a sense of history that is foreign to America and to Australia. Through the 1800s and the 1900s, it suffered many indignities at the hands of Western powers, of Japan and of the US and indeed of Russia also.

This was the time of Chinese weakness, but that has changed. China is no longer weak and will not endure humiliation again.

If anyone thinks containment against China and containment against the Soviet Union had any similarities, they should be disabused. The Soviet Union had minimal trade links, no financial and capital market links worth mentioning with the West.

China, on the contrary, is heavily entwined in the economies of nearly every Western country, certainly of Australia. It is the largest buyer of US Treasury bills. A war between America and China would have catastrophic results, first for America's economy, then for the economies of the world.

If we had a government with a sense of history and of the future, we would seek to use our influence for peace and moderation.

We should make it plain to America that we will not be going to war on that issue. We should oppose provocative action by any party.

Kristof, as an impartial observer, believes that China has made a decent case for ownership. Could the parties be persuaded to take it to the International Court, how else can a peaceful solution be found?

When is Australia going to have sufficient courage to act as an independent nation?

Malcolm Fraser was Liberal prime minister from 1975 to 1983.

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