Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Biden Sydney speech fails to account for a changing world order

Biden Sydney speech fails to account for a changing world order
Published 22 Jul 2016 

Vice President Biden's speech at the Paddington Town Hall on 20 July was very assertive and, in my view, it lacked appreciation for the way the world has changed in the last two decades. Biden said America had 'an unmatched ability to project our power to any corner of the world'. He gave an emphatic description of US power which reflected feelings of exceptionalism.

Biden spoke of maintaining open sea lanes. But while the US itself announced in 1986 that it would not defer to International Court of Justice decisions that were contrary to its interests, and while it has not signed the International Law of the Sea Convention, this has not prevented Washington from suggesting that China should do so. China has in fact signed the International Law of the Sea convention and argues that for more than 100 years many thousands of ships carrying trade have gone through the South China Sea without any interruption.

There was no acceptance in Biden's speech of the way new powers, especially China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam, are continuing to rise. He said that the US economic and military supremacy would continue indefinitely. He added that the US would maintain a 'rules based international order'. He overlooked the fact that what American and some Australian political leaders refer to as 'a rules based international order' was in fact established by the US and Britain after World War II. Countries which have risen in influence since then naturally want to participate in framing an order more relevant to the first half of this century.

Biden also said that the US presence was 'essential to maintaining peace and stability' regionally and globally. America is the 'lynchpin'. He said he had told the Premier of China, Xi Jinping, that the US intended to play a leading role in shaping the future of the dynamic Asian region. [fold]

Biden praised Australia for joining the US in every conflict since World War II. In so doing he overlooked any judgement as to whether these conflicts — in particular Vietnam, the invasion of Iraq, and Afghanistan — have been in Australia's interests, or predominantly in the interests of the US.

Also, no reference was made to the fact that on the only occasion we sought US support under the ANZUS treaty, when our armed forces were in Sabah and Sarawak in conflict in 1964 with Sukarno's Indonesian forces, opposing the establishment of Malaysia, the Kennedy Administration declined.

Historically, Australian governments seem to have gone readily to war. They do so with a curious lack of feeling for the humanitarian need to do so. For example, Australia lost 600 men in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902, a three-year conflict in Africa which really had nothing to do with Australia. Australia also sent forces to New Zealand to join in the suppression of Maori uprisings. Maybe, like the US, we feel the need of a threat to rally the Australian public to support a conflict.

I am certainly not a pacifist but I do believe Australia should only go to war when it is under attack, as it was by Japan in World War II, or under actual, not imagined, threats. Our relations with the US are of great importance, but we should tell our larger ally when we consider that a conflict is not in our interests, as Prime Minister Whitlam did in 1973 in respect to the Vietnam conflict.

In the world of 2016 and beyond, our foreign, security and trade policies should have a more appropriate balance, especially in respect of the US and China. 

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