Asia-Pacific Security An Australian Perspective


Even though the Australian government and officials keep a particularly sharp eye on the dynamics of power interplays in the Asia-Pacific, Canberra repeatedly expresses Australia’s neutrality, particularly in the Asian Regional Forum and the Shangri La dialogue, insists Richard Broinowski.

Australia is as concerned about the evolution of relations between major powers in the western Pacific as any of its neighbours. It has a particular stake in encouraging continuous and rapid economic growth in China, whose burgeoning demand for Australian raw materials, particularly coal and iron ore, has helped insulate the Australian economy from the worst of global economic vagaries.

Japan and the Republic of Korea remain Australia’s second and fourth largest export markets respectively. (The United States is third). All three North Asian countries are our natural trading partners - a happy coincidence in that they want our raw materials and we want their manufactures. Political ballast has been added to the narrow commercial bases of these relationships through the addition of negotiated cultural and social ties, as well as through immigration.

A fourth major Asian power, India, remains for Australians full of as yet unrealised promise - a potentially enormous trading partner with a burgeoning prosperous middle class many times larger than Australia’s total population, but with an intricate democratic process and uneven growth which inhibit the realisation of its full economic potential.

Some commentators see our common colonial British heritage (especially a love of cricket) as binding the two countries together, but that is not so. Ever since former Prime Minister Robert Menzies turned down Jawaharlal Nehru’s invitation to attend the Bandung conference of Non-Aligned countries in 1955, New Delhi has seen Australia as not quite independent – either from British monarchy or reliance on America for defence.

Indeed, Australia still has a British head of state, and Canberra’s interpretation of the 1952 ANZUS Treaty has produced increasing subservience to US policy. Reliance on American arms has created a rather schizoid attitude in the minds of successive governments in Canberra. On the one hand, we profess friendship for China as our export trade with that country expands into tonnages of coal, iron ore, base metals, grains and horticultural products unimaginable to financial planners in Canberra even 10 years ago. Australia even provides education and other services to China.

On the other hand, we continue to tighten the bonds of military dependency on the United States by maintaining a comprehensive series of communication installations serving US missile strike capacity, and allowing American military forces extensive access to our telecommunications, training areas and bases. The latest of these was the establishment two years ago, without parliamentary debate or public consultation, of a US Marine base outside Darwin. Despite disclaimers from Washington, American assets in Australia, as elsewhere in the Pacific, are aimed primarily at the containment of China.

Canberra’s Position on Contentious Issues

A perennial nightmare for any Australian politician is the possibility of warfare between our largest trading partner, China, and our ally, the United States. Two conservative ministers, former Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and the current Defence Minister David Johnston, have denied that Australia would be obliged to join forces with America if war broke out between China and the United States. But recent Australian practice suggests that no Australian prime minister would defy Washington’s expectations.

Apart from watching developments between China and the United States, Australian governments and officials keep a particularly sharp eye on the dynamics of power interplays in the South China Sea. As China asserts a greater regional role, clashes between various neighbours over disputed Pacific territories become more and more likely. Potential flashpoints exist between China and Japan over the Ryukyus; between China, Vietnam and Taiwan over the Paracel Islands; between Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei and China over the Spratleys; and between the Philippines and China over the Scarborough Shoal.

At stake is the exploitation of potentially rich oil and gas deposits, as well as fisheries. Towards these disputes, Canberra repeatedly expresses Australia’s neutrality, particularly in the Asian Regional Forum and the Shangri La dialogue. After all, we have little to gain by getting involved, and Australia is not seen as sufficiently neutral to intervene effectively in dispute settlement.

Our position towards contentious three-way issues further north is quite different. The issues between North Korea on the one hand, and Japan and South Korea on the other, include North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, the kidnapping of Japanese citizens, and occasional clashes between North and South Korean forces along the ill-defined western sea boundaries of the 38th parallel. The conflicting Japanese and South Korean claims to the Senkaku/Dokto Islands in the Sea of Japan is another issue which requires due consideration.

Canberra repeats its neutrality in the Senkaku Islands dispute, but not in the various issues involving North Korea. Here it is as eager to condemn North Korean ‘aggression’ as the most belligerent hawks in Washington. Neither Liberal nor Labor governments, however, have ever seen fit to criticise as provocative the military exercises carried out by US and ROK forces on the Korean peninsula south of the 38th parallel.

Japan is also outspoken in its condemnation of North Korean nuclear tests (of which at the time of writing there have been three), as well as of the testing of North Korean missiles into the North Pacific. As North Korea’s friend and mentor, China is supposed to act as a moderator on North Korean behaviour, but Pyongyang does not always listen to counsel from Beijing. Indeed, Beijing can become as frustrated by North Korea’s bellicose posturing as Tokyo, Seoul or Washington.

The overarching security situation in the Pacific has become more tense and prone to miscalculation as China asserts its right as a great power in the region, and North Korea its right to develop a nuclear deterrent against real and imagined enemies. Recourse to the UN Security Council is unlikely to be effective; is there any other machinery that could encourage mediation of regional disputes leading to peaceful solutions? There are in fact two groups, the Asian Regional Forum and the Shangri La Dialogue.

The ARF grew out of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was established in 1967 by Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Singapore to strengthen their regional influence. The original five also agreed not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, and to settle any disputes between themselves by peaceful means. With the addition of Brunei, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar, ASEAN then grew to 10 regional members, and attracted the interest of six outside countries as dialogue partners.

The ARF was established in 1994, and now includes a total of 27 countries - the 10 of ASEAN, its 10 dialogue partners, and seven others. The dialogue countries include Australia, Canada, China, the EU, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States. Recent additions include the DPRK, Maldives, Pakistan, Timor Leste, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

At ASEAN’s insistence, especially Malaysia’s, each country joining the ARF must sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), undertaking not to resort to threat or use of force in the settlement of regional disputes. Both Australia and the United States were initially reluctant to accept such a condition, but eventually did so with secret reservations. At successive ARF meetings from 1995 through 2011, an evolutionary approach to peacekeeping was adopted, involving confidence-building, preventive diplomacy and conflict resolution. A vision statement was adopted at the ARF meeting in 2010 in Hanoi, and ministers adopted a work plan in 2011.

Surely, one would think, such a consultative structure would be enough to avoid regional conflict. But such may not be the case. History is full of examples where carefully laid and agreed consultative machinery has done nothing to prevent conflict. One needs to look no further than the failure of the League of Nations to stop the march to conflict in World War II.

Frank Exchanges at the Shangri La Dialogue

The other regional forum, the Shangri La Dialogue, or ‘Unofficial Defence Summit’, is sponsored by the London-based International Institute for Security Studies (IISS). Meetings have taken place annually since 2002 in Singapore between defence ministers and officials from 28 countries. These meetings, which include legislators, academics, business people and journalists, are intended to allow frank, unofficial exchanges about security issues, a safety valve to blow off steam and solve problems informally.

Does Shangri La work? No, if the meeting just concluded in June 2014 is any guide. Attended by senior defence ministers and officials from Japan, ROK, Russia, Vietnam, China, India, Australia and the ASEAN countries, it became a forum for some tense exchanges between US, Japan and China. After listening to admonitions from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel about the need to obey rules of international maritime law, the leader of the Chinese delegation, Lt Gen Wang Guanzhong, diverting from his set speech, launched into a blunt attack on what he alleged were provocation, intimidation and threat by Japan and the United States. Even before the main plenary got underway, Wang’s deputy and deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA, Fu Ying, lambasted Japan and the Philippines for their conduct in separate territorial disputes with China. Ying accused Abe in particular of constructing a ‘myth’ about China posing a threat to Japan.

The Australian delegation, like most others not in the firing line, closely observed the exchange. It appears that they would have had little comfort and constructive dialogue to report back to home governments.

No doubt, Canberra will continue to pose as an honest and impartial observer of events as they unfold in East Asia. But its capacity to express reasoned and impartial opinion will remain tainted, not least in the eyes of Beijing, by its determination to remain a close and loyal military ally of the United States. Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s declaration during a recent visit to Tokyo, that Japan remains Australia’s closest friend and ally in Asia, has done nothing to dispel that impression.

Go to Content Page


Richard Broinowski

Richard Broinowski was Australia’s Ambassador to Vietnam (1983- 85), Republic of Korea (1987-89), and to Mexico, the Central American Republics and Cuba (1994-97). He is currently an Adjunct Professor in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, and Vice-President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in New South Wales.

Back to Top

Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.