A useful idiot?

downer.jpgIt’s fashionable both in the mainstream media and blogosphere to portray Alexander Downer as an effeminate goose. He may well be, but that doesn’t mean his statement that Australia would not necessarily support the US in a war with China over Taiwan was wrong, either factually or diplomatically.

Australia certainly shouldn’t automatically (or perhaps at all) support the US in that situation. The US State Department’s claim that our obligation under the ANZUS treay is “pretty clear” is nonsense. No such obligation exists. It would be otherwise if America was directly attacked by China, but not if (as seems more likely) the US intervenes to protect Taiwan from Chinese attack. Australia is no more obliged by ANZUS to support the US in that situation than it was to support America in Iraq.

Whether Australia should intervene on either side in a China-US conflict will depend entirely on an assessment of Australia’s national interest at the time, and that assessment wouldn’t necessarily result in a decision to back America given China’s increasing importance as a trading partner (not to mention the fact that Taiwan arguably is and always has been an integral part of China, used as a temporary refuge by the losing side in a civil war). Moreover, the fact that both nations are huge military powers with vast nuclear arsenals tends to suggest we’d be well advised to keep our heads down unless there’s some overwehelming reason to get involved.

Normally it would be unwise for an Australian Foreign Minister to make a statement like Downer’s: it would be best to maintain a strategic diplomatic silence. But maybe in the current environment it was necessary for Downer to make it clear that the US couldn’t count on Australia to be a sycophantic camp follower in a war with China. After all, they might well have been assuming to the contrary in view of our sycophantic stance on a range of other recent issues.

Downer’s subsequent partial climb-down (reverting to the standard diplomatic formula of not commenting on “hypothetical” situations) has undoubtedly defused the situation as much as it needs to be. But the message has been received, both in Washington and Beijing. And conveying that message very much coincided with Australia’s national interest. Whether than means Alexander is an inspired diplomat or a useful idiot is another question.

The fact that Downer has also conveyed a timely political message of “non-lackeyness” for domestic consumption is no doubt purely coincidental.

PS – Greg Sheridan offers a rather more nuanced approach to China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Sheridan is right:

In principle, there is no reason, under the normal practice of self-determination, why it should not be independent if it wants to be. But China insists that it must reunite with the mainland. Nobody, but nobody, wants a war with China, so everyone accepts the one-China policy that holds that Taiwan is part of China.

But equally, the US and Australia hold that China should not use force to compel Taiwan to reunite. In other words, China should seduce Taiwan, not rape it at gunpoint.

However, Sheridan’s assertion earlier in his article that ANZUS might oblige Australia to intervene to support Australia is gibberish, both legally and logically:

If China and the US were ever, God forbid, to be in military conflict over the Taiwan Straits this would surely involve a Chinese attack on US armed forces in the Pacific, thus invoking ANZUS.

That interpretation would oblige Australia to support the US anywhere in the Pacific rim even if the US was the initial aggressor in a conflict, on the basis that once conflict started there would at some point be an “attack” by the enemy on US forces. It’s an interpretation that would indeed make Australia no more than a colonial camp follower of the US over half the globe. Sheridan would be well advised to think for himself instead of taking US background briefings at face value.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Assuming he did really mean to say that, I thought it may have been a backhand warning to the Taiwanese President that not every democracy automatically supports his current high jinks. It’s a message that the US cannot really state as explicitly as Downer has done, since that might encourage the Chinese in the wrong way and court serious domestic political strife in US.

That’s assuming he did mean to say that, and I really hope he did.

Dave Ricardo
Dave Ricardo
2022 years ago

“not to mention the fact that Taiwan arguably is and always has been an integral part of China”

Ken, it’s either a fact or its arguable, but it can’t be both. And even if it is a fact, it’s only a historical fact. It’s also a fact that large parts of Poland were once an integral part of Germany. That doesn’t give Germany the right to start a war with Poland and get their old territory back.

I’m with the Americans on this. Taiwan is a democracy. True, it used to be a military-fascist dictatorship, but not any more. China, for all its economic importance, is a dictatorship, with an appalling human rights record- and I mean now, not just during the cultural revolution.

The Chinese should get over it, show a bit of maturity and let the Taiwanese get on with their lives, free of miltary threat. If they can do that, then we can all get on mightily, continue to do lots of business with China (as they now do with Taiwan, BTW) and everyone will be happy. (Except the dissidents in China, but the sad reality is there’s nothing we can do for them.)

PS Downer is not useful, but he most certainly is an idiot.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Dave

Your argument is one for which I have some sympathy, but I don’t think the rights and wrongs are clearcut enough for us to intervene on either side in a war situation, when both the US and China are vital trading partners (and given the nuclear dimension).

Moreover, I doubt that any of the parties actually want war. It’s a matter of what diplomatic moves are best calculated to minimise those risks. In that context Downer’s statement, accidental or otherwise, was useful, both to signal our independence to the Americans and Chinese, and (as Stan suggests) to send a message to the Taiwan government to act with a bit of restraint and avoid unnecessarily antagonising Beijing. I suspect Beijing is as much worried about the creation of a precedent for rebelliousness in other provinces as with any real desire to reclaim Taiwan (Tibet, provinces with Muslim populations etc).

tony
2022 years ago

Thankfully you added the last line about ‘domestic consumption,’ my exact thought as I read the article.

yobbo
2022 years ago

Taiwan was never a part of China, and the only time it’s been though of as China was the short period when Chiang was recognised by the UN as the rightful leader of China.

Since Taiwan is currently not recognised by the UN as a country, you could make the argument that it is a US protectorate, and therefore comes under the Anzus treaty.

The whole affair is fairly meaningless though. The US needed Australian political support to legitimise their aggressive war in Iraq. They would need no such support to feel comfortable defending Taiwan from an attack by the PLA.

Taiwan itself already has more air power than Australia could provide, and the US pacific fleet isn’t exactly struggling either. They’ll be fine without us.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Ken, I have no legal qualifiactions but our dear great leader stated that one of the reasons we went to war in Iraq was because of the alliance.
since only an imbecile would believe Iraq threatened the USA it must have been because of the reason that the US had declared war an in Menzies words we thefore too were at war.

If this is not the case why was the alliance called on?

I agee on Taiwan. If they wish to be a country why can’t they be?

Yee gods Dave Ricardo, yobbo and I are all agreeing.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

I had much the same thought as you did Ken. (Mentioned in the comments over at Surfdom)

I fully agree. It was a good thing that Downer did, serving notice to the Americans and Beijing.

However, I disagree with you assessment on how it will play in the forthcoming election.

Downer can’t now credibly claim that he’s not a lackey, especially after the climbdown once Washington had clipped his ear. The ALP however, can claim that Dower has threatened the alliance.

My making this statement, which is fully in Australia’ interest, Downer has effectively kicked an own goal and neutralised the Governments “alliance card”.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Homer

Howard might have said in vague general terms that Australia was going to war in Iraq because of “the alliance”, although I don’t specifically recall any such statement. But I severely doubt tht he ever said that the ANZUS treaty obliged us to do so, because it clearly didn’t.

Whether Taiwan has (or should have) a right to self-determination is beside the point. The point for present purposes is whether Australia’s future national interest would require us to become involved in such a war of self-determination, and whether our current national interest required Downer to say that the Yanks shouldn’t assume we would become involved in it if they did. One might, for example, think that Tibet has a right of self-determination from China, or Chechnya from Russia, or Quebec from Canada, but few would argue that Australia has any business getting involved in any of those situations. A Taiwan versus China conflict is no different. It’s none of our business.

peggy sue
peggy sue
2022 years ago

Taiwan has not always been an “integral part of China.”

The aboriginal Taiwanese speak austonesian languages, a group which includes Malay/Indonesian and Maori.

Some DNA evidence suggests that Taiwan was the original source of the Malay people.

The Chinese began migrating to Taiwan from Fukien and Guandong from about 1600 when China gained political control of the island. Thanks to this immigration, the Aboriginal population is now only about 1%.

Taiwan became Japanese after China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. The locals objected, declared a republic, but were subdued by the Japanese.

In 1925 Sun Yat-Sen (Sun Yi-xian) said “…we advocate the independence of the Taiwanese nationality.”

In Edgar Snow’s book “Red Star over China”, he quotes Mao Ze-dong as saying in 1938 “…we will extend (Korea) our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies to Formosa (Taiwan).”

After WW2 the island reverted to Chinese control, but the Taiwanese revoled against Chinese Nationalist rule in 1947. The Nationalists said it was communist inspired, and brutally supressed the revolt.

When the People’s Republic was set up in 1949, the Nationalist Chinese forces fled to Taiwan, claiming to be the legitimate government of all China.

Paul Watson
2022 years ago

I’m with Dave Ricardo – we need to call a spade a spade on this one. Whatever the technicalities of the ANZUS treaty might be, we should be backing up the US view (which FWIW, I think errs on the pusillanimous side) simply because it is right.

China is (i) a bully and (ii) a trade partner whose current trading profile hardly fits Australia’s long-term interests (we sell them lots of raw/unprocessed commodities (and equity interests therein), they sell us lots of cheaply manufactured household stuff, all destined for the landfill within a few years).

As far as China being a bully goes, Greg Sheridan is correct that nobody wants a war with China. Nonetheless, a line has to be drawn somewhere. Whatever the historical arguments, the simple fact is that since Taiwan became a democracy in the 90s, there has been one, and only one way the one-China policy can be achieved under civilised norms (and international law?). Firstly, China itself democratises, then both states hold a referendum on whether to “marry”, or not. It’s not rocket science

David Tiley
2022 years ago

If the Americans and the Chinese stoush about Taiwan, we will be in it for sure, and the Government that does it will be very popular. Plucky little democracy v. evil commo hordes.

The left would be for it as well, for those reasons and because we are v. unhappy about Tibet.

Even more weirdly for Dolly, this would be the alliance with the US which Latham would go for.

Mind you, if the Chinese used force over Taiwan, it would be world war three so any attempts to keep us out would be pretty futile. More likely, IMHO, would be some horrible trade in which the US would accede to Taiwan’s joining China. After all, HK went back to the Great Beast despite the inhabitants’ desires; a similar case could be built for Taiwan. (not of course based on the lease terms but on the notion that the island was traditionally Chinese a la Peggy Sue above).

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

Paul, Its not China’s trading profile that’s the problem. Its ours.

We’re the ones who keep on digging up raw materials and shipping it out instead of investing in high value add exports.

If Howard was at all concerned about this his Energy statement in June would have given much more support to MRET and alternative energies, instead of effectively saying “we’ve got 600 years worth of coal, and we’re gonna squeeze every last dollar from it”.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Rex

OK I’ll be the mug. What’s MRET?

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

Sorry. Mandarory Renewable Energy Target. An amount of energy that must be generated by renewable means. The target is set at 2% by 2012, increasing the target beond 2012 would force more investment into renewable energy generation (Wind Solar etc). Howard decided to cap the target, therefore investment in this area will stop.

Eunoia23
Eunoia23
2022 years ago

Our trade with China is bigger than that with the USA. We make almost nothing that competes with the Chinese, but we compete with the USA to supply wheat, wool, coal etc to China. My childrens jobs will come from trade with China. Why on earth would we want to side with the USA. We do need to be more independent to avoid another Singapore 1942.

If China goes to war with Taiwan we will also find out how many nuclear weapons the Taiwanese have. You don’t think they were only trading computer games with South Africans in the early 80’s.

The US has been rattling sabres at the Chinese to discourage them from getting involved in Iran and the Sudan. They had six of their Aircraft carriers in exercises off the coast. Maybe Alex is just being a messenger boy for Beijing.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

ken, two points.
1) the US invoked the alliance for the first time in a war. I don’t believe I heard anything contrary so either Australia is made up of cretins who believed Iraq threatened the US or the US was able to invoke the alliance because they declared war.

2) If China decides to ‘invade’ Taiwan for the only reason being that it is not an invasion because it is already Chinese territory then as with the Kuwait example we would have no way to go except to support Taiwan against the invading horde.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Homer

Apart from the fact that the ANZUS treaty on its face doesn’t oblige Australia to participate in a war unless the US or its pacific forces are directly attacked, I have no recollection of Howard (or Bush) ever claiming that ANZUS obliged us to participate in Iraq. I don’t claim to have a perfect memory, however, and I’m quite prepared to believe it if you can find some reference to support what you’re saying. If they said it then you should be able to find it using Google.

Homer Paxton
Homer Paxton
2022 years ago

Ken, all I am claiming is that the Alliance was invoked for the first ever time in a war.

I don’t know the reasons for it but I would like to however.