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Coalition toes party line between US and China

Payne and Reynolds, in declining Washington blandishments on China, are uncannily in line with the behaviour of their party’s founder, Robert Menzies, during his second prime ministership from 1949 to 1966.

The Menzies diplomacy was disinterred from Canberra vaults by former Australian diplomat and scholar Garry Woodard and published in the Australian Journal of International Affairs in 2018. This article described a deliberate policy of “strategic ambiguity” about how far we would go with the US on China policy, even during the Cold War, even in the wake of the Korean War and during Mao’s totalitarianism.

Dwight Eisenhower (left) and Robert Menzies (right) in 1956.

Dwight Eisenhower (left) and Robert Menzies (right) in 1956.Credit:

Through the 1950s, Menzies assiduously kept Australia away from any notion the ANZUS Treaty, ratified in 1952, would oblige us to join a US war with China − in fact, oblige us to do anything other than “consult” Washington if such a conflict occurred.

Writes Woodard: “Australia deliberately kept ambiguous the relationship of Taiwan to ANZUS. It strictly adhered to it for 15 years and did not specifically depart from it over the next 40.”

During a 1955 crisis between China and Taiwan, Menzies went to Washington to try to persuade then president Dwight Eisenhower not to go to war with Beijing over Taiwan’s offshore islands. Menzies boldly proposed China be admitted to the Big Four, which would have given Beijing status comparable with the Soviet Union and a platform for China to advocate reunification.

Like Morrison, Menzies was under pressure from cold warriors in his party room, specifically Wilfred Kent Hughes and W.C. Wentworth, referred to as the “China or Taiwan lobby.” When Kent Hughes in 1955 spoke about “unleashing Chiang Kai-shek” Menzies sent him a letter of rebuke that Menzies said was so tough he- in Kent Hughes’ shoes- would have resigned.

President Kennedy proposed Australia take the initiative to form an anti-communist New Pacific Community including Taiwan. It’s a proposal that would thrill our cold warriors today. Kennedy was shocked when Menzies turned it down.

This pragmatism about China was made explicit under another Coalition government and from a foreign affairs minister whose father had served in Menzies cabinet.

Visiting Beijing in 2004, Alexander Downer was asked by Australian correspondent Hamish McDonald if ANZUS covered Taiwan. The next day McDonald reported that Downer said if China attempted to regain the island by force, Australia would not feel obligated under the ANZUS treaty to help US forces defend Taiwan.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer in 2004.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Alexander Downer in 2004.Credit:Penny Bradfield

While Downer and Howard, under American pressure, made a partial retreat, nothing they said amounted to an automatic assumption that, in the event of a clash over Taiwan, Australia would be joining the stoush. When I as foreign minister prepared for my first visit to China in 2012, I asked what I might say if asked a similar question to McDonald’s. I received a note with the advice that the question was “hypothetical”. If pushed further, it recommended I say, “the ANZUS treaty is an obligation to consult”.

There it was, strategic ambiguity. Fifty years on, the Menzies caution on us going to war with China, specifically over the Taiwan Strait, was manifest.

Indeed in the first year of the Abbott government it was echoed by defence minister Senator Johnston who, speaking from Tokyo, had to answer the question does the ANZUS treaty oblige us to join a clash between Japan and China in a dispute over the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands. Johnston’s reply was an admirably cool-headed, “I don’t believe it does.” This was in the face of America’s commitment to support Japan. There was no pressure from Prime Minister Abbott to withdraw or clarify.

That might be described as wisdom. And as Menzies’ political offspring, Payne and Reynolds might be picking it up.

Bob Carr is a former NSW premier and foreign affairs minister. He is Industry Professor of Climate and Business at the University of Technology, Sydney, and will appear at a CIS zoom event with Tony Abbott on Wednesday on how Australia should handle the China-US rivalry.

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