Commentary | 20 October 2014

Blinkered views on China and the US feed Malcolm Fraser’s Asia delusion

Blinkered views on China and the US feed Malcolm Fraser’s Asia delusion

Rory Medcalf

The Australian

20 October 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Blinkered views on China and the US feed Malcolm Fraser’s Asia delusion

Rory Medcalf

The Australian

20 October 2014

Please click here for the online text.

  • Rory Medcalf

Executive Summary

The real problem with former prime minister Malcolm Fraser’s foray into contemporary foreign policy is not the predictable way he caricatures America. The most unsettling part of his campaign against Australia’s US alliance is the way he misrepresents Asia.

Australians are rightly urged to be more Asia-literate. Fraser’s recent book, Dangerous Allies, sets back this goal, drawing a mental map of Asia with little bearing on its dynamic reality. In his crusade to condemn the US, Fraser privil­eges his version of China’s interests and sensitivities far above those of other Asian countries.

The resulting one-dimensional portrait renders inexplicable some of the most significant developments in Asia this year, including the Hong Kong umbrella protests, the re-emergence of a confident India, Japan’s strategic diplomacy, The Philippines’ pursuit of a rules-based outcome in the South China Sea, China’s island-building program to rewrite geography in disputed waters and Vietnam’s tilt to the US. Why, in the face of evidence, persist with the notion that what China wants is automatically what Asia wants? Presumably because it is crucial to creating the impression of a US alliance putting Australia perilously out of step with its region.

Such an argument rests on dubious propositions. Never mind Washington’s well-known defence budget cuts, its need to deal with multiple global-security problems and the ensuing lack of much additional military weight to its Asia-Pacific pivot.

No, in Fraser’s view the US is actively expanding its power in Asia to “contain” China, though containment is never defined. The problem, it seems, is not China’s two-decade military build-up; it is a supposedly “militaristic and assertive” Japan, although with a defence budget at about 1 per cent of GDP this must be the best-disguised militarism in history.

In this version, Japan has no cause for concern about a rising China, and Asian security problems from North Korea to the South China Sea can best be managed without the US. That would be news to Vietnam, The Philippines, even Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, quietly encouraging a sustained US regional role.

The subtext is that all will be well only if China can have its concerns accommodated. Fraser hastens to add this is “not to say that the world should acquiesce to all of China’s demands”. Yet he does not specify a single point on which any country is right to push back.

Indeed, Fraser is not even sure China really is becoming all that assertive, suggesting it is doing “little more than returning to a place of historic influence” it had “enjoyed” before. Thus, he assures us, if the Taiwan issue “is left to China and Taiwan alone, the problem will be resolved peacefully”, with a solution “much like the arrangement in Hong Kong”. Taiwanese watching Hong Kong might not see this as a happy ending.

Fraser’s presentation of the tensions between China and Japan is uncomfortably one-sided. No mention is made of the risk-taking behaviour of Chinese maritime forces, which began well before Japan’s purchase of disputed islands in 2012. No mention is made of Japan’s decades of effort to work with China through development assistance, technology, trade and investment, nor of the Communist Party’s cultivation of anti-Japan­ese sentiment as a way of changing the subject after its ruthless Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.

As for China’s relations with India, these get precisely no treatment at all. One of the century’s most consequential bilateral relationships and the interests of 1.2 billion Indians count for nothing in this imagined Asia. India, like Japan, is a big Asian country more wary of China, and more comfortable with the US or indeed with Australia, than Fraser’s preconceptions can possibly explain.

Fraser is absolutely right to refer to the need for America and other countries to respect the dignity, security and welfare of China and its people, and to acknowledge China’s huge economic progress and the benefits this has brought to others. However, a road map to peace and stability in Asia is incomplete if the same due respect is not accorded to other countries and their independent choices.

Geopolitics wasn’t meant to be easy. If it was, China’s rise would be uncomplicated, its defence and foreign policies unfailingly enlightened and deft, and Asian countries would feel no strategic anxiety about the changing balance of power. But it should not be that hard to countenance the possibility that many in Asia want a multipolar order, not one domin­ated by any single country.

By misrepresenting Asia to manufacture a case against the alliance, Fraser ends up diminishing his own professed cause — that of an Australian foreign policy free from undue influence by any other country.

That is a shame because, of course, Australia should place a premium on projecting its distinct influence in Asia. This need not be at the expense of the US alliance, as the recent military exercise in the Northern Territory involving Australia, China and the US reminds us.

An effective and independent Australian foreign policy is a worthy goal, best advanced if its advocates keep their arguments fair and their facts right.