Sat 02 Apr 2005, Page 040
One theme has run through John Howard’s approach to foreign policy since 1996 — the attempt to align it with what he sees as the political values and the character of the Australian people.
That does not mean he makes policy by opinion poll nor that he won’t from time to time take a temporarily unpopular stand, as in dispatching troops to Iraq — in political terms a rough analogue in foreign policy to tax reform in domestic policy. But he doesn’t want foreign policy to change or shape our character, he wants it to reflect that character.
That also does not mean that foreign policy is static. Perhaps
Howard’s single most impressive feature has been his ability to keep growing in his job. His foreign policy has certainly evolved and matured.
This week, in the inaugural Lowy lecture, Howard gave perhaps the most comprehensive guide yet to his approach to the world. Because it contains several distinct components, commentators have tended to present it very differently, each, perhaps understandably, focusing on the part that appealed to them most.
Several commentators saw it as Howard converting to regionalism. I was struck by its bold globalist outlook.
But the truth is Howard is simultaneously a globalist, a regionalist and a localist. In a nation with limited resources, inevitably there must be choices and trade-offs, but Howard believes Australia is big enough and strong enough to make a contribution at all three levels.
Iraq is a global commitment, Japan, China and Indonesia embody regional priorities, the South Pacific is local. They all bear heavily on our national interest. What we do in one sphere affects what we can do in the others.
Howard is driven to this conclusion both by Australian interests, and Australian values. It is a marriage, if you like, of neo-conservatism and realism.
Commentators have ignored the strong strain of democratic idealism in Howard’s speech. Paul Wolfowitz would have been proud to utter these words of Howard’s: “The forces of barbarism have set themselves a mission — to break the will of those who seek peace and freedom. This test is nowhere more important at this hour than Iraq … We can choose to turn inward or we can lend a hand for freedom at a moment when the voices of democratic hope are being heard right across the Middle East — from Iraq to Saudi Arabia; from Lebanon to Egypt.”
It is quite wrong to think that these are tokenistic comments from Howard. In fact Howard is much more in touch with Australian history and public sentiment than most commentators. A vein of what one might call muscular idealism runs very deep below the habitually ironic and sceptical Australian surface. East Timor had a profound influence on Howard in this respect.
Howard repeated core judgments he has made about the geo-strategic fundamentals. He strongly reasserted his belief that the US will not retreat from Asia, that the US will become more powerful globally and within Asia, that while we will have occasional disagreements with the US and our regional friends, being close to the US makes us stronger in Asia. And he asserted again that it was his Government’s policy to intensify relations with the US.
But yes, of course, there was also fascinating regional material. Howard has not just discovered Asia. He has been doing serious business there at least since the 1997 East Asian economic crisis and again in East Timor in 1999, more recently with the free-trade deals with Thailand and Singapore, and throughout the record trade deals with China.
A lot of the media focused on China in Howard’s speech, and indeed this is important. But it was the treatment of Japan that was novel. Japan came before China in the speech. Japan was hailed, with the US and Australia, as “the three great Pacific democracies”.
Howard praised Japan’s new-found self-confidence in foreign policy and specifically security matters, saying: “This quiet revolution in Japan’s external policy — one which Australia has long encouraged — is a welcome sign of a more confident Japan assuming its rightful place in the world and our region.”
Howard specifically talked up the developing security co-operation between Australia and Japan, which he labelled a “strategic partner”, and went on to extol the Trilateral Security Dialogue involving Tokyo, Canberra and Washington.
He also declared: “Australia has no better friend in Asia than Japan.”
None of this was remotely anti-Chinese, but the context is that Japan and China have been squabbling pretty vigorously, not least over Taiwan, for several months. In such a carefully reviewed speech, that context is certainly factored in.
Howard rightly said that there was no inevitability about escalating security competition between the US and China.
On Taiwan, he said: “In the context of our one-China policy, we continue to urge restraint and a peaceful resolution of issues across the Taiwan Straits.”
That is exactly the US formula on this issue and the bottom line is that China will be opposed if it uses force.
Part of the China lobby in Australia claims, falsely, that Canberra has told the US it would not get involved in any conflict between the US and China over Taiwan.
The best expression of this analysis came from former senior Defence department official Hugh White, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age last week: “The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, made it clear that if the US and China went to war over Taiwan, Australia would prefer to stay on the sidelines.”
In a conversation with The Australian, Downer said flatly that White was dead wrong, that he had never said anything like that or anything that could remotely be construed as that.
What Downer and Howard have said is that they won’t speculate about what Australia might do in entirely hypothetical circumstances. This column has occasionally criticised Downer for making too much of that refusal to speculate, but that is a million miles away from saying that the Government has decided it is neutral between the US and China.
It seems to be a case of White projecting his own foreign policy on to the Government. It certainly doesn’t sit well with Howard’s stirring pro-democracy rhetoric or, for that matter, with Australian history.
Greg Sheridan – The Weekend Australian
Sat 02 Apr 2005, Page 040