A while ago I wrote a post responding to a Lowy Institute blurb for a new book by Michael Wesley, called There goes the Neighborhood and described as ‘A loud and clear wake-up call to Australians’. In response, I said that ‘At the global level it’s hard to think of a time when we have been less threatened, at least within living memory’, and concluded ‘unless commenters can point to something I’ve missed, I’m going back to sleep’.
Michael Wesley has now responded, and sent me a copy of the book, which I hadn’t read when I responded to the blurb. It turns out that he agrees with me that most of the threats that worried us in the past have dissipated. Also, as I surmised, his main concern is about the way in which the rise of India and China changes our strategic environment. He concludes
In short, we’re entering a world not of threats but of agonising choices that will come at us constantly. My bet is that we’ll look back on the vanished threats that Quiggin talks about with nostalgia for a world that all seemed so simple.
I agree with Wesley that the rise of India and China makes life more complicated in important ways. In the past, our foreign policy consisted, in essence, of the US alliance. That alliance gave us some protection against our local fears, most notably with respect to Indonesia, while also exposing us to some big costs (the need to join faraway wars in which we had no say) and an increased risk of nuclear annihilation, which faded away along with the Cold War, though it hasn’t disappeared.
In the new world, Wesley correctly argues, an uncritical adherence to the US alliance would be a disaster, particularly in the event of a major dispute between the US and China. I agree, and I think most serious foreign policy types already know this. Kevin Rudd’s recent visit to Washington seemed to be devoted, in large measure, to hosing down any expectation that Australia would line up with the US against China in any future dispute (a much more sophisticated line than the updated “All the way with LBJ” line, typically repeated by visiting PMs, up to and including Gillard). Even under the Howard government, generally gung-ho about the US, our diplomats sent the same kind of message from time to time.
Wesley also wants the Australian public to be more engaged and informed, pointing to the deplorable ignorance and anti-Indonesian prejudice surrounding the Schapelle Corby case. Actually, I think this was a good learning experience – most people eventually worked out that, while she cut a sympathetic figure in prison dress, Corby was given a fair trial, (if fact, the Indonesian courts had bent over backwards to give her justice, admitting evidence that would never be allowed in Australia). Australians are gradually adjusting to the idea of Indonesia as a friendly neighbor rather than a foreign threat. Even so, I think they are well justified in leaving to the experts the kind of diplomacy involved in telling three great powers what they want to hear, while committing ourselves to none of them.
fn1. While I’m on this, I’ll welcome the news that the death sentence imposed on Scott Rush has been commuted. This case was a far worse travesty of justice than anything in Corby’s case, but those most to blame were the Australian Federal Police, who sent Rush to possible death in Indonesia, rather than warning him off (as his parents begged them to do) or arresting him on arrival in Australia (which would have reduced their chances of convicting the ringleaders).