China, the US and Australia: Honest History Factsheet

’18 months of China, the United States and Australia: Honest History Factsheet’, Honest History, 16 May 2015 (updated)

UPDATE 22 June 2015: James Laurenceson and Hannah Bretherton discuss the ACRI poll (see below 3 June) and other aspects. ‘What does China’s rise as a major power mean for Australia? The answer depends on who you ask.’ Meanwhile, Joanna Howe looks at the non-sabre rattling side of the complex China-Australia-US relationship as she factchecks ACTU suggestions that the China-Australia Free Trade Agreeement will be bad for Australian workers.

UPDATE 10 June 2015: A roundup of opinion in the last couple of days: Hugh White counsels the US not to get too gung-ho; American Randall Doyle refers to White’s book The China Choice and reckons Australia has already chosen the US; Briton Euan Graham also discusses choices but comes out at a different point to some others (need to scroll down a little; links to other articles); Graeme Dobell parses China’s strategy (more links here, too). Also, DFAT Secretary, Peter Varghese, answered questions last week in Senate Estimates. He said this as a general statement, responding to a question about Australia’s attitudes to events in the South China Sea:

It is a serious issue, and it is one that needs to be carefully managed, because the potential for this to develop into a major security concern is clearly there. Australia has a long-standing position of not taking a position on the merits of competing claims in the South China Sea, of which there are many. We do, however, have a very strong view that these issues should be resolved peacefully, that they should be resolved in accordance with international law and that all parties should refrain from actions that are provocative, coercive or unilateral in their implementation. We think it is important for competing claims to be resolved through peaceful means. We would encourage China and the ASEAN states to conclude a code of conduct on handling this matter in the South China Sea. We think it is important that the basic principles of international law are consistently upheld in dealing with this matter.

There was more and it is accessible here (Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee Hansards, 3 and 4 June; internal search engine)

UPDATE 7 June 2015: some recent posts on John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations blog put events in the China Sea in context. Former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Butler, asserts:

Australia possesses a national character and values that should not be suppressed by the demands of any imperial power, as they were by Britain until half way through the 20thCentury, and which we have now permitted to happen in relation to US policies, and the continuing assertion of the notion that, as a nation, we need a protector.

Former ambassador to four countries, Cavan Hogue, agrees:

Australian Foreign Policy is dominated by fear, defence issues, the American Alliance and the search for votes in marginal electorates. We talk about the importance of Asia but instinctively cleave to Europe and North America who are said to share our values but don’t always do so. We need to look beyond the next election and question some of our basic assumptions like whether the American Alliance gets us into more trouble than it gets us out of.

Pearls and Irritations also includes, as part of its current comprehensive policy series, foreign policy contributions from former senior diplomats, Stephen FitzGerald, Stuart Harris and John McCarthy, with Professor Michael Wesley still to come. McCarthy looks directly at the China Sea crisis:

We make no argument here for burying our head in the sand when faced with aggressive Chinese actions –provided our reactions are considered and measured against the yardstick of our own interests. The danger posed by an alliance in which no light is perceived between United States and Australian policies is twofold. Australian security interests are not ipso facto the same as those of the United States. This could be relevant where our armed forces are integrated into American force structures.

For example if an Australian vessel were integrated into a battle group in the United States Seventh Fleet based in Japan, what would we do if that group were ordered into an action which could involve hostilities with China? While protocols exist to extract a vessel in these circumstances, the question would arise how we could handle the matter in political terms. As a former Chief of the Army said recently about our dilemma, were the Americans to look to us to take action where we did not think that to do so would be consistent with our interests, “I hope we would have the courage to say No”.

UPDATE 6 June 2015: Howard W. French in Foreign Policy proposes some actions the US might consider. Philippines concern at reports of China firing on a Philippines fishing boat. Vietnam wants to buy fighters and drones. Australian commentators note threats to exports. Roundup on the World Socialist Web Site, noting the suggestion of Australian plans for provocative action.

UPDATE 4 June 2015: David Rosenberg, who had this in the Canberra Times today, also edits a useful online resource, which includes a map showing the different bases for (overlapping) territorial waters claims in the South China. His article has some practical suggestions for sorting things out, in the environmental sphere, at least.

UPDATE 3 June 2015: interesting poll, perhaps not noticed much by the general public at the time, suggests Australians would not be falling over themselves to have us involved in a fight in the China Sea. Seventy-one per cent of Australians polled thought Australia should remain neutral in any armed conflict between Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, even if the US supported Japan. The poll seems not to have asked for opinion in the case of a direct clash between China and the US.

The poll was done six months ago by the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS. ACRI’s director is Bob Carr.

UPDATE 2 June 2015: Late in the day: the World Socialist Web Site looks at some of the other material that has come out today, focusing particularly on where Australia stands (or flies). Earlier, we just found this piece from distinguished American academic, Amitai Etzioni. He suggests the US moves in the South China Sea follow a tradition: ‘It reveals once again Washington’s propensity to be a one-move chess player – the kind of chess player that makes a move without considering how the other side will respond, and what it will do then’. Mark Beeson in The Conversation and Peter Hartcher in Fairfax also try to take a longer view.

The territorial dispute in the South China Sea is building towards a flash point [says Hartcher].  There is a persistent idea that it’s about nothing more than tiny islands and useless reefs … On a strategic level, it’s about control of the world’s busiest shipping route. China is laying claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea. About half the world’s commercial shipping passes through the area, including 60 per cent of Australia’s exports. On a geological level, it’s about some of the world’s most prospective seabed oil and gas deposits. On a military level, it’s about China’s avid desire to push the US navy away from its coast. Beijing craves uncontested domain over its maritime approaches.

Time magazine’s story is headed ‘The Next Step Toward Possible Conflict in the South China Sea’ and includes this:

The chance of shots being fired now stand at better than 50-50, says Bernard Cole, a retired Navy captain and China expert. But he believes any initial volley would more likely come from the Philippines or Vietnam, who also dispute China’s expanding territorial claims, than Beijing or Washington.

Meanwhile, Washington think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, offers some advice to the US. and a Canadian think-tank refers to ‘US provocations’. Makes you think.

UPDATE 1 June 2015: fencing in Singapore at the Shangri-La Dialogue, including by Australia, followed by divergent media, from which we again pick out the Australian and the World Socialist Web Site. Australian Defence Minister Andrews said this:

We remain concerned by any developments in the South and East China Sea which raise tensions in the region. Australia has made clear its opposition to any coercive or unilateral actions to change the status quo in the South and East China Sea. This includes any large scale land reclamation activity by claimants in the South China Sea.

We are particularly concerned at the prospect of militarisation of artificial structures. It is therefore important that countries agree as soon as possible on a substantive Code of Conduct for the South China Sea between ASEAN members and China. Disputes must be resolved peacefully, and Australia urges all parties to exercise restraint, halt all reclamation activities, refrain from provocative actions, and take steps to ease tensions. Because when tensions are high, the risks of miscalculation resulting in conflict are very real.

UPDATE 31 May 2015: strong words in Singapore from the United States and China, reported in Wall Street Journal via Australian and on World Socialist Web Site.

UPDATE 30 May 2015: George Soros and an unnamed former NATO official warn of the risk of World War III starting in the South China Sea.

UPDATE 28 May 2015: US defence secretary Carter says US will remain top in Asia for ‘decades to come’. Earlier, Australian defence secretary Richardson speaks, expressing concern at Chinese actions. ‘Expressed in its most simple and basic terms, our relationship with China and the United States can be summarised in one simple phrase: friends with both, allies with one.’ More extracts. Meanwhile, the Chinese Ambassador wrote an article and a Chinese official did a Q and A.

UPDATE 26 May 2015: The Independent; Chinese Foreign Ministry, US Defense Department (NB dated 8 May), World Socialist Web Site, and again earlier, the Australian (‘long-drawn but inexorable’ … but towards what?), Taiwan tries to mediate, South China Morning Post (Hong Kong). ‘We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked’, says China.

UPDATE 24 May 2015: more from the World Socialist Web Site, the Australian, the Australian again (B1 bombers coming after all), the ABC and CNN.

UPDATE 22 May 2015: Greg Sheridan in The Australian: ‘The Americans will mount their FON [freedom of navigation] operation, I think, we will support it and the Chinese will cope. But we live in interesting times.’ Over at the World Socialist Web Site, Peter Symonds (WA resident) characterises what is happening as ‘the advanced preparations being made in Washington for a provocative confrontation with China in the South China Sea’. Symonds draws upon a wider range of secondary sources than Sheridan though Sheridan claims to have been briefed by ‘US and regional’ officials.

UPDATE 20 May 2015: Alison Broinowski writes: ‘There is no way that Australia cannot be involved in this latest effort to deny China the influence off its coast that the US has for years exercised in its own maritime sphere of influence’.


If a clash occurs [in the East China Sea] then the chance of that escalating to a wider China-Japan conflict is very high, the chances of Japan calling on the United States is 100 per cent, the chance of the United States saying “yes” to Japan is 90 per cent, and if that happens, the chance of the United States seeking active Australian support is 100 per cent. The step in that causal chain which has the lowest probability is the initial clash between China and Japan: 20 per cent chance of it happening over the next couple of years. But if that 20 per cent chance comes off – that’s a one-in-five chance – then there’s a 100 per cent chance, 90 per cent chance, 100 per cent chance, in other words, near enough to a certainty. Then Australia has to say, either we support the United States or we don’t.

That was Professor Hugh White of the ANU talking to Honest History in November 2013 about the choices Australia might be faced with in the event of a clash between China and Japan in the East China Sea. (More resources from that period. See also our material on recent anniversaries from the Vietnam War. Plus another article from Professor White.)

This was Professor White last night on Lateline:

The real problem for us [Australia] is that we’re not doing anything to help discourage that pattern of escalating rivalry between the US and China. And if that rivalry continues to escalate, as it has quite sharply in the last couple of years and even couple of months, Australia gets closer and closer to the point where that divide becomes impossible to straddle and we do find ourselves having to say either we go with our biggest ally or we go with our biggest trading partner, and that’s a choice that, you know – well, there’s no good answer to that. If we find ourselves forced into that choice, we’re in very deep trouble as a country.

The causal chain Professor White described 18 months ago seems to have shortened noticeably. There may be no need for a separate China versus Japan stage, though the choices confronting Australia remain.

Professor White was appearing on Lateline to discuss the remarks this week of US official, David Shear, which included the suggestion that the US intends to place B-1 bombers in Australia. Shear’s opening statement was in general terms only, although it included this notable sentence: ‘We are already leveraging changes in our force posture to make existing engagements more robust’. These words came straight after a sentence about moving US Marines around the Pacific, including to Darwin. A little further on there was this: ‘we’re working closely with our friends in Australia, Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere to coordinate and amplify our efforts toward promoting stability and prosperity in Asia’ (emphasis added).

Shear’s response to questioning, including the explicit B-1 words, is widely available on the internet. The US has claimed Shear ‘misspoke’ (and Australia has concurred) but, taking account of the Delphic hints in Shear’s opening statement, this may well be cover for discussions that have been taking place in Washington (or even between Washington and Canberra) but have not been made public yet. Watch this space.

I don’t think it would have found its way into David Shear’s script [Professor White said last night] if people hadn’t been at least – on the US end hadn’t been at least thinking about this, even if they hadn’t bothered to talk to the Australian Government about it.

We have not moved all that far, it seems, from the days when, in the words of Marshall Green, US Ambassador to Australia 1973-75, ‘President Lyndon B. Johnson always thought that Australia was the next large rectangular state beyond El Paso, and treated it accordingly’.

Other recent material on this subject includes:

  • Peter Hartcher in Fairfax: ‘So far Australia has dealt with it [developments in the East China Sea] the same way almost all countries have – by pretending that it’s not really happening. The benefits of trade and investment with China are lucrative. Governments do not want to put trade relations at risk by confronting Beijing over its bad behaviour in taking territory from weaker states.’
  • Muhammad Faiz Aziz (Indonesia) in The Conversation: ‘Indonesia, the largest country in ASEAN and a neutral player in the dispute as China does not claim Indonesia’s part of the South China Sea, could play a part in pushing for a peaceful resolution’.
  • the World Socialist Web Site: ‘The Obama administration has placed the United States on a path for a military confrontation with China in the South China Sea. Washington’s reckless and provocative brinkmanship underscores that the danger of war—which would engulf the region and threaten the lives of millions—is far more advanced than the international working class is aware.’ And a later report from the same source.
  • Simon Denyer in the Washington Post: ‘China said it was “deeply concerned” on Wednesday about a reported U.S. proposal to consider sending naval ships and aircraft toward man-made islands in the South China Sea as tensions escalate between the two nations over the vital waters’.
  • A report in the Wall Street Journal on US plans: ‘The U.S. military is considering using aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to a chain of rapidly expanding artificial islands, U.S. officials said, in a move that would raise the stakes in a regional showdown over who controls disputed waters in the South China Sea.’
  • Stuart Harris, former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, in Pearls and Irritations: ‘Given the importance of China to Australia’s economic fortunes, we need to focus more on that relationship, develop greater understanding of its many dimensions, and establish depth comparable to that we have with the US relationship. We also need to decide for ourselves issues affecting China rather than seek guidance from the US, whose interests are often different to ours.’

Perhaps the final word should be left to James Brown in Anzac’s Long Shadow, a book which, apart from its skewering of the Anzac commemoration jamboree, is a plea for closer attention to current defence scenarios and resourcing:

The soldier walks down the steel beach and into an amphibious landing craft. It is tight, soldiers are huddled on either side – sitting on their patrol packs, helmets chafing against their skulls, boots wet, pistol holsters pressing into skin. The giant ship lurches in a turn and then slows. The sound of water, and the well-dock doors crack open. The night is quiet and the sky dark as the small boats skim the surface towards the beach. The landing starts, the soldier alights. Has our obsession with the Anzac legend helped prepare us for what happens next?

This is the very last paragraph of Brown’s book. Might it be a description of an imminent phase of Australian history? Will ritual burbling about ‘the Sons of Anzac’ really cut it in such circumstances?

David Stephens

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