Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:25 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 01:25 | SYDNEY

The Downer legacy: Northeast Asia


Graeme Dobell

14 September 2009 09:38

This is the fourth in a series on the foreign policy legacy of Alexander Downer. The earlier columns were on the Howard-Downer relationship, the US alliance and the War on Terror.

In Beijing in August 2004, Alexander Downer talked about Australia building a strategic relationship with China that went beyond economics and embraced security issues. Pressed on how such strategic ties with China might impact on the alliance with the US, the Foreign Minister produced an on-the-spot analysis of the operation and reach of the ANZUS alliance.

The problem for Downer is that the question from the journalist Hamish McDonald specifically asked about Australia's possible treaty obligation to help the US defend Taiwan. In replying, Downer's answer rested on the correct but highly delicate point that the ANZUS treaty doesn't actually oblige any partner to do anything other than to consult. The option to do nothing is always available:

Well, the ANZUS Treaty is a treaty which of course is symbolic of the Australian alliance relationship with United States, but the ANZUS Treaty is invoked in the event of one of our two countries, Australia or the United States, being attacked. So some other military activity elsewhere in the world, be it in Iraq or anywhere else for that matter does not automatically invoke the ANZUS Treaty. It is important to remember that we only invoked the ANZUS Treaty once, that is after the events of 9/11, because there was an attack on the territory of the United States. It is very important to remember that in the context of your question.

The Sydney Morning Herald headlined this as 'ANZUS loyalties fall under China's shadow', reporting Downer as saying that the Australia would not feel obliged to help the US defend Taiwan. The US ambassador in Canberra leapt in to say the US certainly would expect Australia to help defend Taiwan. And the Prime Minister gave an artful demonstration of the side-step denial, delivered with a heavy garnish of praise. No, John Howard said, Downer had certainly not blundered: 'He has been an excellent Foreign Affairs Minister. I have no more dependable able colleague than Alexander Downer.' As to Taiwan? 'Hypothetical!' said the Prime Minister.

Downer's Beijing presser was one moment when Canberra's complex set of interests in Northeast Asia were seen to clash rather than coexist. It is notable because Downer and Howard can be given high marks for the relative smoothness they achieved in Australia's separate and linked dealings with China, Japan and the US. Trade with China boomed. At the same time, Australia snuggled up to the Bush Administration, built new military sinews into its links with Japan and created a security structure linking Canberra, Tokyo and Washington. 

Previous columns in this series pointed to the costs of Howard Government's enthusiasm for George W Bush. But being the most vocal US ally in Asia gave Howard and Downer a certain freedom in dealing with China. The Howard and Downer approach to China was markedly different to the early inclinations demonstrated by Bush. As the most loyal of friends,  Canberra was able to pointedly disavow US language about hedging against China (and strenuously protest at any thought of containment of China) without any blowback from Washington.

The Howard-Downer achievements with China were built from what was a disastrous start. Australia was put to the diplomatic sword by China in 1996, during Howard and Downer's first year in office. Beijing quickly amassed a series of grievances against the new government in Canberra. Howard met the Dalai Lama and Canberra made some minuscule moves on Taiwan. Howard and Downer talked up a rebadging of the US alliance and, most importantly, publicly backed the US military response to the Taiwan missile-test crisis.

China was test firing missiles over Taiwan. The US responded by sending two carrier battle groups to the waters around Taiwan. The country that seemed to get the most direct political payback in the aftermath was Australia. China stopped official visits to Australia and froze movement on almost any commercial negotiations with Australian firms. By the end of 1996, Howard did a personal deal with China's leadership. Its essence was that Canberra had felt the pain and got the message.

After experiencing the diplomatic death-of-a-thousand cuts from Beijing, Downer and Howard turned into capital 'P' pragmatists in dealing with Beijing. The pain inflicted by Beijing meant there was no talk from Howard of any special relationship, but instead clear respect for China's power and an effort to achieve some respect in return. 'Mutual respect' became one of Howard's touchstone phrases on China.

In 1997, Australia announced a bilateral dialogue with China on human rights. The new bilateral policy meant Canberra withdrew its support for the annual UN human rights resolution criticising China. The acknowledgement of China's power got another run in 1997 at the British handover of Hong Kong. Australia broke with the US and Britain, which boycotted the opening of Hong Kong's new Provisional Legislature, created by China. Alexander Downer joined the rest of Asia in attending the full ceremony.

In the power hierarchy expressed throughout the Howard Government, the US was Australia's most important single relationship. Japan was Australia's most important partner in Asia. China was to be dealt with pragmatically as the coming power which could also offer huge benefits for Australia's economic future. China got all the attention, but the tone of Canberra's relations with Japan underwent marked changes, especially the linking of the US alliance with Japan and the US alliance with Australia.

The shift with Japan can be illustrated by another of Downer's more memorable press conferences — his creation (by denial) of the image of an Asian version of NATO. The shape of what has become Australia's trilateral alliance with Japan and the US was prematurely revealed in the main committee room of the Australian Parliament in July, 2001. At the end of the Canberra press conference, the visiting US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was lobbed a question about the possibility of linking together the separate US alliances in the region. Could the US join together the series of bilateral alliances it had with Japan, South Korea and Australia? Powell delighted and surprised the journalists by giving an honest answer:

Interestingly, we were talking about this subject earlier in the day as to whether or not we might find ways of talking more in that kind of forum. I don’t think it would lead to any formal arrangement.

Downer, sitting next to Powell, glimpsed the diplomatic equivalent of flashing lights. The Foreign Minister added that Australia had already had informal discussions with Japan about the idea, but then issued a caution: 'So as not allow a hare to rush away here, we obviously – I think it must be obvious – wouldn't want new architecture in East Asia which would be an attempt to kind of replicate NATO or something like that. We are talking here just about an informal dialogue.'

Downer headed back to his office telling staff that he'd disarmed a potential diplomatic bomb. On the contrary, his denial of an Asian NATO created an instant label with a loud echo in China's strategic community. Five years later, when the then newly-appointed Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson, headed to his first big Asian conference, the one question he got from a Chinese delegate was about the Asian NATO.

Alexander Downer had triggered the Henry Kissinger rule on denials. Kissinger said that when a state denies it intends to do something it sends two messages. One message is that, for the moment, the country will not do something. But secondly, the denial is a signal that the country has the capacity to take such action if it chooses. NATO was about opposing the Soviet Union. An Asian NATO would be directed at China. Thus, at every stage of the trilateral linking of Australia, Japan and the US, Canberra denied any attempt to contain China. By contrast, the US denials were less vehement and came with a barbed question about China's real intentions.

The absence of South Korea, the fourth member of the structure mooted in 2001, pointed to China growing magnetic abilities – both to attract and repel. China was altering the US alliance system in North East Asia, driving other key powers in different directions. Japan was turning into the Asian version of Britain – the closest and most trusted US ally, the reliable island adjoining the troublesome continent. South Korea was turning into France (for the US, the ally you don’t think of as an ally at all).

The pullback of US troops from their 'trip wire' positions on the demilitarized zone with North Korea and the agreement for the withdrawal from the huge US base in the centre of Seoul were military expressions of a changing, even shrinking alliance. Japan was integrating its military ever more deeply with the US military. South Korea was drawing closer to Beijing’s orbit. In the negotiations with North Korea, the default position for South Korea was often next to China, not the US.

Part of Japan's return as a 'normal' nation has been the trilateral process prematurely unveiled by Powell and nicknamed by Downer. The initial dialogue between senior officials shifted up a notch in Sydney in 2006, with the first trilateral meeting between the Foreign Ministers of Japan and Australia and the US Secretary of State.

Condoleezza Rice went to that meeting saying Japan and Australia should help deal with negative aspects of the rise of China. The Quadrennial Review by the US Defence Department identified China as the greatest potential militarily competitor: 'The pace and scope of China's military build-up already puts regional military balances at risk.' The US would seek to cooperate with China but also create 'prudent hedges.' The National Security Strategy used similar language. For the US, then, the trilateral structure became part of a vigorous hedging strategy against China. (No containment jokes, please, about a hedge being what you use to create boundaries.)

Under Howard and Downer, Australia was just as upbeat about the trilateralism, but denied any hedging intentions. Howard proclaimed that his Government's most remarkable foreign policy achievement had been the simultaneous development of ever-closer links with the US and a booming relationship with China. Australia achieved this dual feat, he said, because Canberra did not share all of Washington's views:

In our approach to China, we do not take exactly the same attitude as the US. There are, from time to time, some differences. They are not just nuanced differences, there is a different perspective and that to my mind adds to the strength of the relationship with China.

The Prime Minister drew that distinction between US and Australian views of China in March 2007, as he arrived in Tokyo to sign the Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation with Japan. The agreement, he said, meant Japan would have a closer security relationship with Australia than with any other country except the US. By the time Japan and Australia signed the Defence Declaration in 2007, the document was the expression of a defence structure that was already in place. The agreement stated an existing reality when its first paragraph affirmed 'the strategic partnership between Australia and Japan.'

The then Opposition Leader, Kevin, Rudd, drew a shallow line in the sand at the time when he supported enhanced security co-operation with Japan, but said there should be no step beyond the Declaration to a full defence pact: 'To do so at this stage may unnecessarily tie our security interests to the vicissitudes of an unknown security policy future in North East Asia.'