Australia: a free-thinking ally of U.S.
P. S. Suryanarayana
India remains in the shadow of cross-currents among Australia, Japan, China, and the U.S. on several issues, including nuclear non-proliferation.
Under charismatic Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Australia has turned into a new-style ‘non-aligned’ or autonomous partner of the United States. Canberra was indeed Washington’s nodding ally until the exit of John Howard as Prime Minister a few months ago.
A relevant question in this new context is whether the global political order is gradually becoming a ‘non-polar system.’ As outlined by U.S. analyst Richard Haas, ‘a non-polar world’ will be dotted by numerous powers and also non-state actors with varying degrees of real influence.
These issues have come into prominence, as a result of Mr. Rudd’s vigorous visit to Japan at this time, following his recent proactive tours of China and the U.S.
Unlike Australia under Mr. Rudd, two other long-standing allies of the U.S. — Japan and South Korea, both now led by old-fashioned loyalists of America — are passing through parallel phases of domestic political uncertainty. And, the challenges of long-term political survival, facing Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, can be traced to their separate but similar pro-U.S. stances. Mr. Lee recently came under fire for having ordered the resumption of U.S. beef imports into South Korea. Mr. Fukuda had assumed office to ‘resolve’ the crisis over Japan’s logistical support for Washington in its “war on terror” in the Afghan theatre.
Now, after holding talks with Mr. Fukuda in Tokyo on June 12, Mr. Rudd said the “broad and deep” Australia-Japan relationship “is embedded in the political cultures [of] both countries.” This, in Mr. Rudd’s view, “can endure differences [like those on whaling] as in fact our relationship with the United States endures differences [such as those over its continuing occupation of Iraq].” He also noted that Canberra and Tokyo would expand their maritime surveillance exercises and draw up new “plans in relation to defence logistics” which would be spelt out later.
Trilateral security cooperation
And, on “taking forward” Australia’s existing “trilateral security cooperation” with the U.S. and Japan, he was emphatic about the need for “a practical way” that would not alarm China or any other power.
Cited in this regard was the imminent possibility of a military-conducted trilateral exercise to meet natural disasters.
Important in this scenario is that neither Australia nor Japan has now sought to co-opt India.
By design or otherwise, India was part of the “core group” which the U.S. organised to rush navy-driven aid to the victims of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. The short-lived “core group” later ‘inspired’ a Japanese proposal, under Mr. Fukuda’s predecessor Shinzo Abe, for a quadrilateral forum of Asia-Pacific democracies, namely the U.S., Japan itself, Australia, and India.
Unsurprisingly, China was not amused
and made its position clear. At that stage, Australia, under Mr. Howard still, did not warm up to this idea of a four-power forum.
High-placed Japanese and Indian sources have told this correspondent that the U.S. was at first very lukewarm to Mr. Abe’s proposal before reluctantly agreeing to it. [
b]Obviously, Washington was not satisfied with the cost-benefit calculations behind a possible strategic expansion of the U.S.-Japan-Australia framework to include India in China’s neighbourhood.[/b] And significantly, at this moment, neither Mr. Fukuda, U.S.-loyalist with a ‘realistic’ attitude towards China, nor Mr. Rudd has cared to pick up this idea of a quadrilateral forum
from the scrapheap of contemporary history. However, India remains in the shadow of cross-currents among Australia, Japan, China, and the U.S. on several issues, including nuclear non-proliferation.
Asked, in Kyoto on June 9, about the chances of his altering course and agreeing to sell Australian uranium to India sometime in the future, Mr. Rudd made the following telling comment. “I understand full well the arguments put by the Government of India, and I have had presentations on this matter from the Government of the United States about the importance of India’s particular circumstances. We are very mindful of that. However, I would remind you of where our policy stands. .... We believe it’s important to maintain the integrity of the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT].”
Pledging to keep the “fragmenting” NPT intact, and without blaming India, a non-signatory, he announced his move to form an international commission on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Australia would be one of the co-chairs, and Japan was later “spontaneous” in discussing the initiative.
Diplomats in the region have noted how Mr. Rudd, widely seen as being not just friendly but really empathetic as well towards China in a big way, has now sought to make common cause with Japan on its traditional priorities. One of them is non-proliferation, especially because Japan still swears by the NPT despite neighbouring North Korea’s nuclear weaponisation, now the subject of China-hosted Six-Party Talks. The other common cause relates to climate change, given Mr. Rudd’s political passion for planet-sustaining environment and given Japan’s leadership role in this domain. As for China’s place in his worldview, Mr. Rudd had said, after his talks with the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing on April 10, that “it is important to embrace this relationship.” At the same time, “we need to deal in a frank and straightforward way with disagreements when they arise,” he noted. He discussed Tibet with the Chinese leaders then; and significantly now, his absence on tour from Australia, during Dalai Lama’s visit there, is seen as a China-friendly gesture.
Expanding 6-Party Talks
On a wider canvas, Mr. Rudd has discussed with Chinese and U.S. leaders “the desirability of the Six-Party Talks being expanded into a broader security dialogue across East Asia.” And, he saw “a supportive attitude emerging” from both Beijing, a prime mover behind the talks, and Washington, a player eager to prolong its “forward military presence” in the region.
Relevant to Australia’s own regional stakes are its Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon’s comments in an interview to this correspondent in Singapore in early June. Canberra’s “U.S. alliance,” he said, “is one of the first pillars of our defence policy and will continue to be so into the future.” He also indicated that Australia would not like to see its independent ties with India and China through the “prism” of zero-sum calculations.
As a free-thinking ally of the U.S., Mr. Rudd has, therefore, proposed the creation of an Asia Pacific Community over time. He seeks to engage all the major players by making common cause wherever possible and discussing differences whenever necessary.