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‘Times Have Changed’: The Man Who Helped Build the US-Australia Alliance Says It’s Time to End It

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser wants his country to abandon American military dependence before it gets dragged into war.

by Jason Toon
Jul 7 2014, 6:15pm

Photo by Mashley Morgan

Imagine Henry Kissinger calling for the closure of Guantanamo Bay, or Donald Rumsfeld demanding the release of Bradley Manning, and you'll have some sense of the pleasant surprise with which left-leaning Australians have viewed the political journey of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who also previously served as his country's minister for the army and for defense.

During his Liberal Party administration from 1975 to 1983 (Australia's Liberal Party is actually conservative), Fraser was widely reviled by the left for his staunch anti-communism and for expanding the Australian military alliance with the United States. Their opinion wasn't helped by the fact that he took office after a highly controversial ouster — some say coup — toppled Gough Whitlam's leftish Labor Party government.

But these days, the 84-year-old Fraser calls climate-change deniers "demented" and decries Australia's treatment of asylum seekers on his very active Twitter feed.

He's also written a new book, Dangerous Allies, warning Australia to abandon its military dependence on the US before it gets dragged into a war against China.

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"These views don't come from any hostility to America," he told VICE News during a recent discussion of his views on the US-Australia alliance. "We will always have many links in common with the United States. But times have changed in relation to the strategic balance."

VICE News: You were one of the leading advocates for Australia's strategic partnership with the US. How and when did your thinking change?
Malcolm Fraser: I strongly believed in the alliance during the Cold War. There was then a worldwide Soviet expansionist threat that had been demonstrated many times, especially in the 25 years after the Second World War. It existed, really, until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. When that global threat disappeared… America then changed. The ideas of American exceptionalism became much more dominant, the policies of the neoconservatives became much more influential, and American policy became more unilateral, less collaborative than it had been formerly. When you look at America's principal involvement in the Middle East, it's not possible to point to a single diplomatic success. With what's happening in Iraq now, it looks like being an ultimate failure.

And now [Americans] are turning their attention to the Pacific. The policy of military containment of China, in my view, is quite wrong, and I don't want Australia to be involved in that. We followed America into Vietnam, into Iraq and Afghanistan…. I don't want to be involved if America has a conflict with China that would most likely be provoked by a newly assertive and militarist Japan.

In Dangerous Allies, you point out that Australia and the other countries in the region actually see China's rise as beneficial. In the US, the strengthening of Chinese influence is seen as diminishing America's power. Can you explain how China is more a force for stability rather than instability in the region?
Over the last 25 years, China has managed its economy a good deal better than the European Union and a good deal better than the United States. Its steady growth has underpinned not only stability but economic progress for pretty well every country in the Western Pacific. And their economic growth has obviously been very important to the United States and to Western Europe also.

I think that is going to continue. I have confidence in the quality of Chinese leadership. I know it's not a democracy, but I think the last 30 or 40 years have demonstrated that you can't export democracy by force of arms. Iraq has been a most horrible failure. Vietnam was a failure. Afghanistan is almost certainly a failure-in-waiting. And I don't think America has learnt that yet.

'If America goes to war in support of Japan, they drag us with them.'

One of the great differences between now and the period when there were two superpowers is that America is top of the pole by itself, supreme militarily and economically, and I believe it's determined to stay there no matter what. They see China's economic influence as threatening that position when, really, they should see it as something with which to collaborate and increase the wealth of America as China increases the wealth also of China. China has never been an imperial power the way European powers were imperial — or, indeed, the way Japan and the United States have been imperial powers in past years.

One of the strange things that's happened in recent times is that a newly militarist government in Japan seems to behave as though it's the aggrieved party when it was Japan who committed atrocity after atrocity through much of Asia and most of China during the last World War. And the Chinese know about this. It's in their schoolbooks. The Japanese try and obliterate it from their schoolbooks.

I think an argument over the islands of the East China Sea quite likely would probably start by mistake. But when people start shooting, you never know where it ends. And I don't want Australia to be involved in that.

At the moment, because of American bases in Australia — one of which houses a powerful US Marine task force and the other of which is used for targeting offensive weapons systems — when a civilian prime minister says we want to stand aside, we wouldn't have the capacity to do so. China wouldn't believe us. If America goes to war in support of Japan, they drag us with them. And that's the nexus that I want to cut.

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Is it safe to say you consider the US stance of containing China more of a threat to stability than China's ambitions are?
Yes, I do. It is the US reaction to China — increasing military cooperation [with other nations in the region], increasing armed forces, sailing the USS [George] Washington, which is stationed in Japan harbors, up and down the East China Sea, probably in sight of the Chinese mainland — clearly China would regard these as provocative acts. If China had an equivalent aircraft carrier that could sail up and down the East Coast of the United States, just outside the territorial sea, I believe America would regard that as an extraordinarily provocative act. But it's all right if America does it in regards to China.

I think that some of the activities that we've seen [by China] in relation to Vietnam in recent times is really a response to the American military buildup. The American military buildup gives countries close to China, including Japan, the idea that America will help them no matter what. Well, in a sense, that provokes China to testing whether that help is real or not. In relation to Vietnam, I'm sure it's not. Japan might be a different matter, because when President Obama was in Japan… he expanded the defense treaty between America and Japan to cover the islands in the East China Sea, which were taken from China by Japan as a booty of war a few years before the Boxer Rebellion. That's one of the indignities which I'm sure China is ultimately determined to redress….

Now that was a major mistake on the part of President Obama. He should have said instead, "All right, the defense guarantee is continued, it's absolute, but you must recognize there is a dispute with China over those islands. You must be prepared to negotiate with China, or at least submit to international arbitration." Now, China may not have accepted that. But it certainly would have put Japan in a much stronger position, and would have stopped American from making the mistake of giving a blank check to Japan.

Let's talk about the bases in Australia that you mentioned. The official Australian legal definition of the surveillance base at Pine Gap and the US naval task force in Darwin is that they are not US bases — they are Australian facilities that the US has access to, therefore Australia is not culpable for any US actions originating from those bases. You say that's complete fiction.
It's an absolute fiction. Let me put it this way: America used to have bases. Then the term base became unpopular. So now they call it "rotating through." Wherever America uses the words "rotating through," they have a base.

They can use that task force in Darwin for whatever purpose they want. Now, a hypothetical situation: let's say China buzzes those islands [in the East China Sea]. Japan shoots down a couple of Chinese aircraft. China, in response, puts some paratroopers onto those islands and takes possession. Then America decides to use the Darwin task force to recapture those islands for Japan. Now, our prime minister can't get up and say we're not complicit. We've housed that task force….

'What price is your own independence in matters of peace and war worth?'

But perhaps more important than that is Pine Gap, which used to be merely an information collecting agency…. The development of modern weapons systems, including drones and drone killings, has meant than Pine Gap is also now used for aiding, firing, and targeting a variety of modern American weapons systems which are offensive. So if Pine Gap is used for that purpose and there's a conflict with China, we can't say to the Americans, "You can't use that information for that purpose." The person in charge of the base is American.

People have tried to soften the reality by saying it's an Australian base. But that, in fact, is absolute mythology. It's a falsehood.

Dangerous Allies addresses Australia's history of strategic dependence: remaining under the protective umbrella of the British Empire until World War II and then turning to the US. You say it's time for Australia to "grow up." Do you think Australia is psychologically ready to assume responsibility for its own defense?
The idea of strategic independence is not going to be adopted [right now] because of the attitudes of the government and the opposition. But in many areas, I think the Australian public and Australian politicians are very far apart. There's a deep suspicion of the United States among the Australian body politic. So [Australians could support] a government that stood back and said, "Look, we'll always have many things that we hold in common with the United States. They'll always be an important country for us. We will want to have continued defense cooperation with them as we do with many other countries. But we do not want America to have the capacity to take Australia to war."

In the old days, when we relied on the Empire for defense, if Britain declared war we were automatically at war. We didn't even make a separate decision. Now we have grown into the same relationship with the United States. And I don't think the United States should have that power.

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One reason you view the alliance as no longer in Australia's interest is that it's not truly reciprocal anymore — the US would not militarily intervene on Australia's behalf the way Australia has followed the US. But there's a strong feeling of American kinship with Australians. Do you think that affinity matters, or does it obscure the different interests of each nation?
I think it obscures different interests. A great power, a superpower, will always follow what it believes to be its national interest. I know three occasions during my political lifetime when the United States chose Indonesia over Australia. Now, no Australian government is going to want to trumpet that from the housetops. They like Australians to think that we're special for America and America will always support us.

But on three positive occasions [America didn't]. Our troops were fighting in Borneo against confrontation years ago, and they were not covered under ANZUS [the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty]. We had wanted a genuine act of self-interpretation for western New Guinea — the Americans did not, they wanted it to be Indonesian. And also over East Timor, there were very serious differences. So assuming that America would support Australia is itself dangerous.

Certainly we would need to spend much more on defense. We now spend very little, about 1.5 percent of GDP. That would have to double, at least. But we're not a poor country. We could afford that. And what price is your own independence in matters of peace and war worth?

As a country independent of America, we would have a much better chance of working with Indonesia and ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. And if there were problems arising in the East China Sea, for example, we would have a much greater influence in playing a mediating role, perhaps, than we do just as a deputy sheriff of the United States.

You've actively commented on Australian and world affairs, including on Twitter. And you've been vocally at odds with your former party, the Liberal Party, on a number of issues, from climate change to school fees to reconciliation with aboriginal Australians. Do you feel that your views have moved leftward, or that Australian politics have moved rightward?
I don't believe my views have changed all that much. World circumstances have changed dramatically, and it's foolish to go on hanging on to policies when the world changes around you and makes those policies inappropriate.

But in terms of domestic policy, both political parties have moved leagues to the right. The great refugee movement out of Indochina, which occurred after the Vietnam War and in which America and Canada also participated with great generosity, could not occur in today's Australia because politicians would play politics with race and religion.

And once you start scratching that nerve, you release all kinds of quite unwelcome forces. So the leadership of Australia has changed in both parties. But I continue to believe that there is a growing gulf between the political class and the great bulk of the population.

Follow Jason Toon on Twitter: @jasontoon

Photo via Flickr

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