It was a long time ago, and the Cold War was not over. In 1987 I was awarded a Jefferson Fellowship, what the other participants and I fondly called our CIA scholarship. One of the more amusing party games I learned to play with the others was called "inverting the turtle." The purpose of the game was to get some brash and confident American diplomat or military officer explaining the self-evident need for some American policy, then remember who he was talking to, slow down, begin anticipating some contrary arguments against himself, to acknowledge different points of view, and, ultimately, to deny it was an American policy at all, merely an idea or ideal worth taking further. The turtle had been turned over, legs waving in the air.
The best, but by no means the only issue with which we "Asian" journalists could roast Americans over a spit involved Japanese rearmament. America thought Japan - increasingly rich, outward-looking and a big exporter of cars and consumer goods to Europe and North America - the China of that day - ought to be contributing more to the general peace of the system within which this prosperity was happening. America, at least as America saw it, was paying for Japan's security. There were to be sure some constitutional problems - some imposed on Japan by the Allies at the end of WWII - which prevented Japanese re-armament. But times had changed. Japan was definitely among the good guys, but should not be getting a free ride. (Donald Trump in 2016 had not dissimilar ideas about whether the nations of western Europe were making an adequate contribution to their own security via NATO, whereas the US thought itself carrying the major expense.)
The common sense of American policy on Japan's making a bigger contribution was so obvious to any American strategist that it was fairly easy to ask a polite question and get her, or him, going a distance before she realised that she was speaking, say, to a journalist from the Philippines, with an experience of Japanese militarism, aggression, occupation, loss of civilian life and economic destruction that still founded its internal politics. Or perhaps to a Chinese journalist, angry about a war whose toll on its people massively exceeded the loss of life or resources suffered by all of the South-East Asian victims of Japan, plus Australia and the United States, put together. And angry too, like people of many nations, that Japan still did not teach its own citizens about their enormities during the war. When the question came up, I might mention, without anger or animus, that my father had been a Japanese prisoner of war at Changi, and on the Burma Railroad.
We were not seeking to humiliate the terrapin in question, nor did we bring any passion or anger in our polite questions. We were, first, simply waiting for the penny to drop that others might see the issue differently.
At some point, the penny would drop, the officer would acknowledge local sensitivities, and admit that the need for such a policy might not be so obvious to people from the Philippines, or the Chinese or whoever else, perhaps the Australians. But then moving ahead confidently again to throw in some checks and balances, some protections anxious neighbours of Japan might reasonably ask for, and so on. Further polite questioning about Japan's access to resources, the security of the South China Sea, and perhaps the future place of China in American calculations might by itself be enough to have the turtle go upside down, legs waggling uselessly in the air.
We played the game among ourselves with all manner of American admirals, generals, diplomats, editors, and federal and state officials. It was often as easy to trip, or at least discombobulate, an assistant secretary of state or assistant secretary of defence. Of course some did not even seem to appreciate that America had fought with allies against Japan in WWII, that this war had taken place on the soil of Asian nations, and that some of America's allies, Australians for example, spoke English.
In 1987, not even full-time think-tankers, strategies studies institute or other rent-seekers from the American military industrial complex did much to argue that China was the coming thing as the threat to peace of the 21st century. And despite some heightened domestic repression, the idea that China has new and sinister territorial ambitions or a plan for aggression is weak.
China, as such, didn't seem to enter heavily into the argument, even about why Japan should do more.
America's Cold War enemy was the Soviet Union. China was, of course, a totalitarian communist country, but was generally viewed with a benign and hopeful American eye. Or its future was an enigma - potentially good as well as bad - with questions about the impending handover of Hong Kong, further opening of its markets and apparent liberalisation of ordinary life. Tiananmen Square was in the future. The ownership of the Paracels and the Spratley Islands, and other rocks in the China Sea, were in dispute, but seemed an unlikely catalyst for a general as opposed to local set of conflicts. China was regularly promising to recapture the prodigal Taiwan, but not doing much to make its life more difficult.
China's staggering economic growth, particularly as Japan was beginning to stagnate, was the subject of much comment. But no one spoke, or wrote, as though the only game in town was Chinese ambition to become the major power in Asia, mostly by forcing the retreat of the US. Still less did the western intelligence establishment manifest a jot of concern about the human rights treatment of Chinese ethnic or religious minorities. Australia, indeed, had helped pioneer the process of shoving human rights issues to a "dialogue" conducted by junior officials, quite separately from, and thus incapable of embarrassing, trade talks and other deals.
We "Asians" had different levels of interest in, and attitudes to, Japanese re-armament and only brought the question up, and hunted as a pack after doing so, as a form of politeness and interest in almost every aspect of a very intensive program in which six middle-level American journalists and six from Asian countries (including me, from Australia, regarded for the purpose as an Asian) studied, sat in seminars, listened and talked together about Pacific Rim economies and politics. The Jefferson Fellowship was organised by the East-West Centre at the University of Hawaii, and ultimately funded by the US Information Service. Our own backgrounds and experiences added to the brew. One of the Americans was a former speechwriter to an American president, another a senior executive of American public radio. Among the Asians were a senior editor of the People's Daily, almost by definition an important party official; a campaigning Filipina journalist whose work had helped bring Marcos down; another making a difference in developing an active politic in Hong Kong, once Britain, belatedly and just about to give it up, decided to develop some local political institutions to cause friction with Beijing.
The CIA had nothing to do with our composition, if only because it hadn't thought of it first. Like a lot of similar fellowships and study programs organised for members of political parties, journalists, academics and others, it began with the idea that many of America's actual and potential critics had no close knowledge of the USA, and might be less inclined to criticise and judge if they appreciated how open a society the US was, and how seriously public policy and critical issues were studied at all levels of American politics and administration. I came home incredibly impressed. Later, I was to participate in similar programs organised through our Department of Foreign Affairs, and to attempt to establish fellowships introducing Australian journalists to Asian countries, and Asian ones to ours.
All of our choices over the past 50 years have been bad ones, and going to America (or Britain) and going nuclear will be a bad one too.
The theory was that we would convene and study together for a few months, after which each participant would undergo their own study-tour, alone or in a group. Here was a focus on getting Americans more interested in Asia, and they would travel there. We Asians would go to the mainland US, with fabulous allowances to follow our noses. If one wanted help in arranging appointments, meeting people, or getting to particular places, there would be an embarrassment of riches and access. Not knowing anything much of Kansas, but slightly interested in wheat politics, for example, I asked for some help in getting about and was presented with a program of breakfast with the Governor at 6am, coffee with the secretary for agriculture at about 7, and an extensive briefing from and visit to the siloes of Cargill, an American operator who stored, in that state alone, more than twice the volume of the Australian wheat harvest.
Likewise in Washington, I met Supreme Court judges, President Reagan (perfunctorily; he was walking towards a loud helicopter on the lawns and neither of us could hear a word each other said), a range of senior officials in the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom, Senators, Congressmen, and lobbyists and advocates, not least from the FOI, right-to-know and race-relations people.
We were astonished at the frankness and openness of politicians and officials, and at the level of access we received. Nor were people we met carefully screened for correct views. The recently retired head of the National Security Administration was inclined to be understanding of the Soviet Union's then tendency to think that Afghanistan fell within its sphere of influence, and could not think of an occasion in which American statecraft, policies or intelligence discussion had benefited from government secrecy.
When I asked an innocent question about Soviet nuclear submarine activity in the Indian Ocean (a big issue at the time) the enormous map of half the world in the Pearl Harbour Commander in Chief Pacific's (CINCPAC) war room became a map of the Indian Ocean with six lights (mostly to the northern and African side) blinking at us. I was somewhat shocked that they were showing this to a senior communist Chinese official, but I am sure it was deliberate, and contained a message, perhaps also for the chief executive of a host of Bangladesh newspapers: "We have capability you have no idea about''. Some of that same capability was shown in satellite downloads on North Korea's borders, including with South Korea.
Some of it was simply great fun. When we arrived at Pearl Harbour, for example, a civilian aide to CINCPAC, whom I had met briefly as an American diplomat in Canberra, dragged me aside to read some material which was only just being broadcast in early Australian news media. It was the very fruity intercepted telephone conversation between Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, and former Liberal leader, Andrew Peacock, in which they had been canvassing the dismal political performance of then leader of the opposition, John Howard. It had not been an intelligence intercept but a production of poor phone security on early satellites, and though the cable with the transcript was official, it merely reproduced what was in Australian newspapers. He wanted me to see it because he thought I would enjoy it as much as he did. I did. More, possibly.
Australia has never bought a sub for the right military reason, or even the lowest price. We buy to suit domestic political needs, industry policies and to prop up regional economies. All of our choices over the past 50 years have been bad ones, and going to America (or Britain) and going nuclear will be a bad one too. That is to say if we ever get another sub.
Each of our current options, including a humiliating return to the bad French deal, are very long periods without any subs at all.
Submarine politics were as much an Australian domestic political issue then as now. Much more a domestic one than ever they were in some sort of strategic scale of international line-up. In 1987, the Collins Class submarines were soon to come in line to replace the Oberons, but, surprise, surprise, the acquisition had been badly mismanaged, and costs had blown out because getting the best submarine for Australia's defence was subservient to the need to get jobs for South Australia, with the tempo of the program also a function of Australian domestic industry policy. No one was very pure. A view that Kim Beazley, minister for defence, developed for a time - that we should increase the order - was based more on his view about the electoral bang for the government's buck than strategy.
Australia has never, in 50 years anyway, bought the best sub for our needs. Whether under Labor or Liberal, purchases have been influenced by demand for local offsets - always virtually certain to add at least 50 per cent to the price - and to make the product at least 20 per cent louder, slower and less efficient than if it had been constructed by the tenderer at its own shipyards.
Politics has delayed purchase decisions, while allowing those who ultimately do make a decision, however bad, to claim that delay by the other side of politics left Australians exposed. That has never been true so far. The business of deciding what is actually wanted has been confounded by state politics and their economies. Tony Abbott's instinct to buy Japanese subs owed more to his desire to do a cosy deal with Japan than getting a bargain. Malcolm Turnbull was not pure, or putting his primary focus on the national security interest, when he went for a French bid. He has his point about Australia damaging its reputation as a good customer, and he may be right in thinking that whatever we get, the latest deal is not the best. But his deal was a bad one, and was already falling apart.
Defence acquisitions have long been made worse by the use of lobbyists, and the provision of good-old-boy jobs to former defence personnel to keep up contacts, by blow-outs on time and budget, and by the high expense of changing technology, including in integration with the systems of allies. We need subs of range able to sink ships and block communications, most likely in the South China Sea. American submarines did more to win the war against Japan operating here in the 1940s, than all of the surface or land warfare of the time.
During long periods of peace, however, subs are mainly deployed lying close to the Chinese coast - a long way from Australia - and sucking up their communications. It is that additional role - as a team player, if not a very important one - in American great power activities that has so seriously increased the cost and size of whatever submarines, if any, we acquire, and raised the prospect of their being nuclear, so that they can stay indefinitely under the water, not very deep. Britain and the US are not pre-occupied with our subs being nuclear, so much as our subs fitting seamlessly into an international deterrence operation. Such operations may ultimately prevent a war; but if there is to be one, it will not involve Australian subs adding much to the line of battle, nor bringing much to the party.
Our capacity, and our sovereign choices in using our subs for some regional purpose would be compromised both as to operations and command.
The US retired quite a few of its nuclear submarines soon after the Cold War ended in 1989. Some of these were informally on offer to Australia, rather than rusting at Newport News (or Hampton Roads) in Virginia. The idea was attractive to some advisers, if not the Navy, which had not, in any event, been impressed after renting a few retired surface ships. It was also clear that Australia would have to contract in the staff, as well as the components, of the engine room. None of these would ever be allowed to act contrary to the interests of the United States, as, as likely as not, the business of ensuring that this could not happen would mean that Americans could at any time take charge of or disable the sub. We do not know - and cannot take from the Australian politicians involved in the latest deals - that is not implicit in the latest deal.
But the sensible Australian will probably not overstrain herself pondering the higher economics of nuclear versus diesel-electric, range, payloads, or operational capabilities. She should be paying attention instead to the need of the Morrison government for an issue with which it could win an election. That is not the security of knowing that there will be a moment - in say 2065 - when China would not attack us because it would know that for a few years, some of its ships might be blown out of the water. The issue is not security. It is fear. Fear of the other. The fear of the refugee, the potential invader, the foreign ideology or religion, the people who might want to unsettle us. When we are scared, we run closer to Mother Scott. He cannot rely on the thanks of a grateful electorate for saving lives, and jobs, through the pandemic. It is not about a grand alliance - let alone with the major Asian (white and English speaking) imperial powers of the 19th century - to prevent China straining the leash. We should be focused on upending this turtle.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times and a regular columnist. email@example.com
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