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Malcolm Fraser's Whitlam Oration

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8 June 2012 11:07

Daryl Morini is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. He is Deputy Editor of e-International Relations.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser's Whitlam Oration, delivered earlier this week, provided a fascinating and blunt discussion of Australia's role in the Asian Century.

A major theme was a biting critique of Australia playing a role of 'subservience' in support of a US 'policy of military containment of China'. Fraser gave a lesson on Alliance Theory 101. 'There are too many who believe,' he said, that 'if we support the United States and go to war when they want us to, they will in turn support us...' However, 'the real determinants of the actions of great powers are their own interests. We should not expect anything else.' 

Fraser called US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's intervention at Shangri-La 'not a constructive speech because it shows quite clearly that the United States believes that the backdrop of military power is necessary for her to achieve the outcome that she wants.' Fraser asked:

Why is Secretary of Defense Panetta visiting Cam Ranh Bay? Why is he examining with Vietnam the potential to use, not only the naval facilities there, but an adjoining airfield? Far from contributing to peace and stability in the Western Pacific, they (the US) are creating a period of tension and even danger. Why? The United States can say this is not containment, as does the Australian Government, but nobody believes them. To continue to say that something that is obvious is not so, is to damage your own credibility.'

Fraser's verdict on Australian support for the Darwin Marines base deal was damning: 'The way Australia immediately rushed in, and once again tied herself to American coattails shows that the Australian Government does not understand how to secure peace.'

What was Fraser's proposed alternative to unconditional support for the US? Here, he tacitly referenced the hotly debated proposal by Hugh White on creating a Concert of Asia: 'The only solution that I can see of minimising the potential friction between these two major powers, is by cooperation. It is by partnership. It is if you like, by a concert of nations.'

The portion of Fraser's speech on balancing Australia's approach to the US-China strategic rivalry contained three allusions to the prevention of war as a policy approach. Firstly, that a concert of powers, presumably modelled on the historical Concert of Europe, could help to sustain dialogue and cooperation between the great powers, despite their disputes. Secondly, that Australia could help avoid conflict by acting independently and sending signals of engagement with China, rather than containment. Thirdly, that such balance and independence in Australia's approach to the US-China rivalry could, as when Robert Menzies refused to support any American-led war against China in the 1950s, give Australia more leverage to prevent future catastrophic wars.