Let’s cup our ear to some echoes from the past. Andrew Alexander, a journalist on the right- of-centre Daily Mail newspaper in the UK, recounted how his research for a book about the origins of the Cold War confounded his presuppositions: there had, in reality, been “no Soviet military threat”, and wrong-headed western assessments that one existed were responsible for “one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time, and certainly the most perilous”. Disagreements hardened into enmities after President Truman made “an aggressive start” to his term in office, at the prompting of some in the military, and Winston Churchill demanded “a showdown” with Moscow.
An assessment of conflict dynamics on the Korean peninsula by leading peace researcher Johan Galtung seems particularly apt to read across to the present situation in what Australia terms the “Asia-Pacific century”. “There are hawks and doves in North Korea”, he remarked, “and they are sometimes in the same person. The question then is, how does one strengthen the doves?”
As with China: Admiral Yang Yi appeared to be expressing alarm at an unpleasant surprise, but for every senior strategist with that view of our relationship with China, there will be one for whom the unveiling of the White Paper was an “I-told-you-so” moment. As Galtung says, the two views may coexist in the same person. And the hawks on either side draw strength from each other.
With today’s interdependent system of world trade and finance, to envisage an Asia-Pacific cold war may be fanciful. But divisions do exist and they risk becoming wider. The cool response from Mr Yudhoyono to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s notion of an Asia-Pacific community would have come as no surprise to anyone in Canberra who had consulted Barry Desker, a “wise old owl” of regional diplomacy who was Singapore’s Ambassador to Jakarta. Shortly after Rudd launched the idea, Desker declared it “dead in the water” because the PM had not held prior consultations with any Asian leader.
Earlier, while delivering the inaugural Michael Hintze lecture at the University of Sydney, Desker drew attention to growing tensions over regional governance, in particular the “Pacific” concept, inscribed in the alphabet soup of inter-governmental alliances, bodies and fora: APEC, APC, ASEAN, EAS, SCO and so on. He detected an incipient divide between sets of policy stances and assumptions that he characterised as belonging either to the “Washington consensus” or the “Beijing consensus”. It was profoundly in Australia’s interests to avoid that divide widening, Desker averred, and for Australia to use its unique status, as both a major trading partner of China and a longstanding military ally of the US, to contribute something in efforts to close it.
Another way forward
One key area of differences, highlighted by Desker, concerned the interconnected questions of intervention and state sovereignty, with the Chinese particularly sensitive to the latter. The bombing of Yugoslavia, which flattened China’s embassy in Belgrade in a “NATO targeting error”, was halted only by a UN resolution that appeared to pull back from granting Kosovo its independence. A couple of years ago, however, came the US-inspired démarche whereby Kosovo upped and declared itself a sovereign country and Washington and its friends led the way to recognition. The twin concepts of humanitarian intervention and the so-called Responsibility to Protect of the international community, or “R2P”, had been implicated in the redrawing of international borders and “regime change”.
Ten years on from NATO’s “Operation Allied Force”, some of its ramifications began washing up on our own shores. In early 2009, the world effectively stood by as the Sri Lankan army pounded Tamil areas in the country’s north-east. A later report by the US State Department identified 158 credible accounts of shelling and bombing of civilians - a serious breach, if proven, of the laws of war - attacks that could only have come from the government side. By now, R2P had been accepted in principle by a unanimous vote of the UN General Assembly, meeting at Heads of State and Government level at its summit meeting of 2005. When it came to protecting the Tamils, however, any prospect of effective UN Security Council action, of any kind, to stop the violence was undermined by the certainty of a Chinese veto. Beijing simply kept the subject off the agenda.
Later, the Rudd Government was buffeted by the usual tidal wave of synthetic outrage, from right-wing politicians and media, as a few hundred Tamil refugees made their way by boat to Australia.
The experiences of recent electoral politics in Australia suggest that no issue is more likely to unravel what the Federal finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, called “Labor’s … compromises to marry progressive reform with majority government”. It would be in Australia’s interests, and certainly in the interests of anyone seeking to govern Australia in the cause of progressive reform, to renew the drive towards creating some consensus on the world stage that a wide range of measures, besides military intervention, should be developed and deployed in circumstances when human protection is at issue, thus avoiding refugee flows at source.
Shortly after the Cold War had ended, in 1993, former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans published a book, Cooperating for Peace - seen as his own personal manifesto to become UN Secretary-General, but still worth reading as a reminder of the potentialities for tackling problems through the patient building of consensus:
No single government - not even that of the United States, with all its current pre-eminence - can be expected to contain, let alone resolve, the enormous range of security problems that now confront the world community. If there is to be any meaningful response, it can only be based on a cooperative approach, with governments tackling these problems … on a cooperative, multilateral basis.
The case put forward by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on its website for Australia’s renewed candidacy for UN Security Council membership makes much of Canberra’s commitment to human rights. If our voice is to carry any influence, that commitment needs to be applied across the board, and be seen to do so.