Sunday, 2 September 2012

Old antipodean democracies anchor Pacific relations

I talked a bit yesterday about the anxiety that domestic US attitudes can often cause foreigners especially given the generally low level of awareness of international realities among US voters. That post started by looking at the Republican National Convention but it also touched on how aggressive the US was during the Cold War, during which time widespread domestic fear of Communism translated through the country's leadership to oftentimes illegal - and even more often morally indefensible - interventions in the domestic politics of other countries. Such cloddish behaviour, we can only hope, is a thing of the past. The political catastrophe of the Vietnam War and the subsequent humbling of Richard Nixon and, along with him, the FBI and the CIA, might have put to rest that particular bogeyman if it wasn't for the later illegal activities that took place under the current darling of the US Right, Ronald Reagan. Obama would seem to have a safer pair of hands if it weren't for a seeming imperative driven by a sort of messianism embedded within the self-image of the electorate for US presidents to come across as wolfish internationally. Obama being a Democrat has to work even harder than anyone from the other side of politics to maintain a sufficiently hardline stance on the international stage. Political survival depends on it.

Today I want to look at how the mainstream US media performed in covering an important set of meetings between Pacific heads, and then talk about how the old Asia-Pacific democracies - Australia and New Zealand - should be perceived in America.

The meetings took place on the Cook Islands, a tiny democracy with strong ties to New Zealand which is located 5000km from Sydney and 11,000km from mainland USA. It is only 3000km to New Zealand. In covering a set of meetings which included Hillary Clinton, who is responsible for the foreign relations of the US, the New York Times mainly emphasised today's new geopolitical axis, that which plays out between the US and China. The meetings also included China's vice foreign minister Cui Tiankai.

The story mentioned John Key, New Zealand's prime minister, but only in parentheses. There was no mention of Australia's prime minister, who had also been in the Cook Islands to attend the Pacific Island Forum, an event the NY Times article did not mention, and who left the venue early due to responsibilities related to the deaths in combat in Afghanistan of five Australian soldiers. The story went on to talk about larger geopolitical imperatives, including territorial anxieties in Southeast Asia and those that are currently being talked about concerning a few islands that are being claimed by both China and Japan.

A story on the same subject in the Sydney Morning Herald also focused in the main on Clinton. But there is still little reporting on what was actually discussed. This story did point out, however, that access to participants was not always completely free:
Forum officials would not allow reporters to hear the contribution by China's vice foreign minister, Cui Tiankai, despite being allowed to hear speeches from Canada and Japan.
This circumstance would certainly have been at the insistence of the Chinese, whose own mouthpiece, the news agency Xinhua, was reported by the NY Times:
"The thrust of China's policy toward the Pacific is to achieve peace, stability and development," the Chinese government's Xinhua News Agency quoted [Cui] as saying. "China has done many concrete things to support the economic and social development of Pacific island countries, always in light of the needs and interests of the countries concerned."
The same newspaper also pointed out one of the major concerns that countries like Australia and New Zealand have with respect to China's Pacific activities: "some complain [China] is using its overseas investments to exploit resources at the expense of local populations." Places such as the Cook Islands are very small but possess large areas of valuable fishing grounds due to international laws of the sea, and countries like China purchase access to those fishing grounds in order to feed their populations. Illegal fishing is a major issue in the Pacific and there is even an ongoing struggle between local administrations and large Asian fishing companies over how much fish is extracted for commercial sale in Asia. There are quotas agreed at the international level and illegal fishing upsets the balance small Pacific nations are trying to achieve between maximising income and minimising fish stock depletion. Many illegal fishing boats are Chinese and it is fair to say that local administrators want China to do more to curb this influence. The NY Times story quotes Clinton on this subject:
"Here in the Pacific, we want to see China act in a fair and transparent way," Clinton said. "We want them to play a positive role in navigation and maritime security issues. We want to see them contribute to sustainable development for the people of the Pacific, to protect the precious environment, including the ocean and to pursue economic activity that will benefit the people."
Fishing is implied in this quote but it is not overtly apparent. It does not touch on illegal Chinese fishing trawlers, probably to calm Chinese anxieties about international embarassment. China is always anxious to save face, and what neither story mentions is also the sense of brittleness implicit in Cui's mention of "peace" and "stability", words which come loaded with secondary meanings that stem from a sense of China's growing hegemony. Peace at what cost? Stability for what purpose? Does China seek peace only so that it can, undisturbed, more efficiently exploit the natural resources of small Pacific nations?

It is in this context that Australian readers, for example, will scan Clinton's utterances for signals about the role the US envisages for itself in this "Pacific century". But while most Australians have a positive image of the way the US projects its power in the Pacific, an underlying anxiety attaches to that larger geopolitical axis - China/US - and to the fundamental lack of understanding in the US about cultural, economic and political relations especially in the western Pacific. Politicians like Clinton will mainly care about what US voters think of their performances, because it is the voter who ultimately holds sway over the directions US foreign policy will take. If the voter is not aware of the actual dynamics in this region then it is more likely that people like Clinton will make poor decisions internationally. That's the way the system works.

The US can more efficiently achieve its aims in the western Pacific if it works closely with the two old democracies in the region, Australia and New Zealand. Behind the scenes, those relationsips are healthy and filled with dialogue, but from reading the stories mentioned in this post you would not even think about them for a second. The relationship between Australia and the US is the healthier of the two; New Zealand has longstanding disagreements with the US deriving from its refusing access to its ports for nuclear-powered vessels, for example. For their part, successive Australian administrations have worked hard to ensure a strong alliance with the US - we have fought in every US war since WWII, for example - and there is a strategic defence alliance, ANZUS, that underpins relations between the three governments. Beyond that instrument there is a critical bond between Australia and New Zealand, who annually celebrate ANZAC day in commemoration of soldiers from the two countries who fought for Empire together in WWI in Europe and the Middle East.

Australia and New Zealand work on many fronts in the Pacific to foster good government, and Australia also has a major role to play in Southeast Asia in this respect. But how does this complex of relations come over in the US? If this is the Pacific century then it is time for Americans to wake up to the way politics in Asia really play out. Observing popular culture gives us some clues as to how Americans see us, and the message we perceive is not completely reassuring.

In the 2012 movie Battleship, for example, directed by Peter Berg, Japan gets strong play through captain Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano). Nagata is a primary foil for lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) as our hero struggles with the aquatic alien invasion, an impressive series of technological devices that thwart the US Pacific Fleet and vessels from other nations - Australia, Japan - that have been undertaking war games off the coast of Hawaii. Hopper triumphs, of course, and also succeeds in convincing Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson) to allow him to marry his daughter. In the process Hopper takes charge of an old battleship, the USS Missouri - the site where Japan's WWII surrender took place - when his own vessel is destroyed by alien weapons. Nagata helps out by coordinating strike targets (the movie was inspired by the classic board game) and in the final battle scene an Australian jet fighter eliminates the two remaining rogue combat devices that are bearing down on Hopper and his crew. It's a memorable moment, and when you read stories such as those this blog post mentions you realise that such cordial relations really do exist mainly on the periphery of the consciousness of the average American.

This is a shame. Australia and New Zealand are democracies of ancient lineage. New Zealand was originally part of the British colony of New South Wales, and became a separate Crown colony in 1841. It gained representative government in 1852 and the first parliament met in 1854. In Australia, representative government began around the same time as it did in New Zealand. Australia became a nation state in 1901, and New Zealand gained independence from Britain in 1907. A major difference between the two countries and the US is that transition from colonial status to independence happened without military conflict, so that relations between the people of those countries and Great Britain have a very different colour from what applies for Americans. Here, a request was put through to London and consent arrived by return post via Parliament. The British Queen is still the head of state in both cases.

In a sense, George Washington's success smoothed the way for antipodean colonials to gain the political rights and responsibilities they coveted. Just as the death of Charles I at the hands of parliament ensured that British monarchs never again levied taxes in the absence of parliamentary consent - until 1765. Colonial Americans resented a measure that they believed their ancestors had fought to subvert; they were British subjects after all. This new lesson was well learned in London, and antipodean colonials merely fought with words against British administrators, and never with rifles against redcoats. With WWII and Japanese aggression in the Pacific the balance of power shifted so that the US came to occupy a special place in the minds of Australian politicians; Douglas Macarthur established his forward base in Brisbane in 1942. Today, Australian signals bases support many US activities on both a military and a civilian level but military and political interactions tend to operate in a clandestine fashion. Events such as the opening of a US Marines base in Darwin, in 2011, where Obama officiated alongside prime minister Gillard, are the exception to the rule of secrecy.

In actual fact, New Zealand and Australia play a far bigger role on the ground in the Pacific than does the US. Both countries, but especially New Zealand, are home to large Pacific Islander populations. Strong cultural ties exist where Pacific Islander men occupy positions on the rugby field in both countries; TV programs covering rugby and rugby league are watched by millions of people in the Pacific. Seasonal workers from the Pacific take jobs in the agricultural sectors of both countries's economies. Police from the two countries perform peacekeeping functions in Pacific nations when the rule of law breaks down, as it sometimes does.

In Asia, especially Southeast Asia, Australia's involvement is recognised by many countries although it is from time to time problematic. Geographical proximity means that the stakes are higher, and awareness within the minds of the local population is greater because such relations are not diluted by larger geopolitical concerns, and by involvement in an excessive number of geopolitical theatres. Because Australians are personally more involved in Asia, than are Americans, the decisions made by the Australian government will be better, and more meaningful, than those made by US leaders. It's time for Australia to take more of the lead in Asia, and for Americans to be aware of the critical role that Australia plays in maintaining cordial international relations, upholding human rights, and strengthening democracy in countries that will be of major import to Americans and their elected representatives in the decades to come.


harleymc said...

There's been bipartisan support for military co-operation with our 'great and powerful friend' across the Pacific.

This bipartisan support has lead to US troops being stationed on Australian soil, joint military exercises, bases like Pine Gap, involvement in wars etc over the decades.

Bipartisan support also exists for greater engagement with the Peoples' Republic of China, however as yet, we don't have Chinese troops permanantly stationed on Australian soil.

It's been puzzling me that as a nation our political classes seem to think that an alliance with the USA would somehow be compromised by having multiple 'Great and Powerful Friends'. Would it be such a disaster for Australia to be seen to carve out an independent foreign and defence policy? Maybe Washington may not take us for granted as seems to be the case at the moment?

Wondering what you think on the issue?

Matthew da Silva said...

I agree with you. My memory suggests that Australia is keen to begin joint military exercises with China, and may even have conducted some already. I think such activities can serve Australia's foreign policy goals in a meaningful and robust fashion.

Certainly, Australia has built ties with Indonesia's military through education programs. There seem to be a number of ranking Indonesian military officers who have studied in Canberra over the years. Similar engagement with China can only be a positive step, I think.