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Australia Needs to Think Carefully About the East Asian Community

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by Robyn Lim
Published on April 18th, 2005
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This week, Australian Prime Minister John Howard will be visiting China, and after that Japan. Most ASEAN members want Australia to become a member of the East Asian Community, which is an expanded version of the "ASEAN plus three" - the three being China, Japan, and South Korea. While in Tokyo, Mr. Howard no doubt will be pressed by Japan to join the EAC.

The door has been opened for Mr. Howard by Dr. Mahathir Mohammed's retirement. Dr. Mohammed had wanted to create an East Asian grouping minus Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Following Dr. Mohammed's departure from the scene, Mr. Howard last year became the first Australian prime minister to attend an ASEAN summit since 1977. The final decision on the EAC will be made by a foreign ministers' meeting in Kyoto in May.

The problem for Mr. Howard is that all members of the East Asian Community will be required to sign on to a 1976 treaty, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, or TAC. ASEAN members see this as mere "motherhood stuff" which will help accelerate the process of freeing up trade in Southeast Asia. Both Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi have been in Australia recently, urging Mr. Howard to sign the TAC. Japan did so two years ago.

Yet Australia has been reluctant to sign. But Mr. Howard has been unable to give a convincing reason. And in the last few days he has been doing backflips with treble pikes.

What's going on here? Contrary to some media reporting in the region, it has nothing to do with so-called pre-emptive strike doctrines by Australia, which were media beat-ups in the first place.

The problem is that this is a strategic issue with an economic face. The critical issue is whether signing the TAC would impair or reduce US security guarantees to Australia under the ANZUS treaty. This is not an easy question to answer, and nuclear weapons are part of the equation. 

Those who want Australia in the East Asian Community hope that its growing economic clout and influence will help balance an increasingly assertive China. They also want to include a "rising" India to help balance Chinese influence.

But what are the implications for ANZUS?  Would Australia really be better off in a regional association with China on the inside and its security protector on the outside looking in? Moreover, Australia, like Japan, is caught on contradictions of its own making in relation to nuclear weapons. For the last 50 years, both countries have relied on the US nuclear umbrella. Indeed, both countries have alliances with the United States that were "born nuclear". That was because during the Cold War, nuclear weapons and maritime power were vital to America's ability to "contain" the Soviet Union, which threatened to dominate Eurasia by virtue of proximity and its overwhelming superiority in conventional weapons.  The Soviet Union, while it had no reason to fear conventional war, did fear nuclear war because it would have destroyed its political system.

But because of the awful destructive power of nuclear weapons, the Australian and Japanese publics were vulnerable to Soviet propaganda that the world would be safer if (American) nuclear weapons were abolished. Thus in order to manage the political fallout when New Zealand defected from the ANZUS alliance in 1984 (as a consequence of its refusal to continue to accept US nuclear-capable ships in its ports), Australia was instrumental in creating the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SPNFZ).  The treaty appeased the anti-nuclear groups in Australia, while allowing for the transit of nuclear-capable US warships. The United States eventually ratified SPNFZ during the Clinton period.

To ASEAN in 1995, the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) also seemed a good idea at the time. In 1992, China asserted vast territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Thus ASEAN states started to worry about the prospects of a future China stationing nuclear-capable missiles on some of the islands that it claims. So the SEANWFZ, which covers the continental shelves and Exclusive Economic Zones of member states, seemed a politically acceptable way of thwarting future Chinese ambition. It also provided for unimpeded passage of US nuclear-capable warships.

But Southeast Asia, where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet,  is far more important to the regional balance than the remote waters of the South Pacific.  So even though the United States had removed tactical nuclear weapons from its surface ships and attack submarines in 1992, the United States registered its objections to this treaty. 

Currently, it's hard for Australia to say that SPNFZ is okay but SEANWFZ is not. Moreover, as current Sino-Japanese tensions indicate, the power balance in East Asia is brittle.  And nuclear weapons have shown their political utility in a way that way that will make strategic competition nuclear.  There is a high risk that much of it will be fought out in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea.  It seems fanciful to assume that a nuclear-weapons free zone can insulate Southeast Asia and Australia from all of this.

Nor should the ASEANs assume that Australia's problem with ANZUS is remote from their own concerns.  If Australia had really believed that nuclear weapons do not bear on national security, it would have opted for disarmed neutrality.  Thus for Australia, the only alternative to reliance upon US nuclear protection would be to seek an independent deterrent.  Few in the region seem now to recall Australia's nuclear attraction in the late 1960s when John Gorton was prime minister.  Gorton, who had been a fighter pilot invalided out of Singapore just before it fell in February 1942, believed Australia had been abandoned by Britain.  Thus Gorton believed, like the French Gaullists that no country could afford to entrust another with its nuclear security.  (His echo in Japan was Shintaro Ishihara, now governor of Tokyo.)

Thus for Australia signing the TAC is not a matter of signing on to mere "motherhood stuff". Australia needs to take a careful decision based on long-term national interests, and state the reasons in a measured way.  Japan apparently signed onto the TAC with some reservations in relation to its US alliance, though those have not been made public.  Presumably they are known to Canberra.

For Australia, the interests at stake, while usually presented in economic terms, are in fact bedrock issues of national security. That is something that Labor foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, does not appear to understand when he berates Mr. Howard for his reluctance to sign onto the TAC.

The writer is Professor of International Relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya and the author of The Geopolitics of East Asia. From 1988 to 1994 she worked in the Office of National Assessments, Australia's national foreign intelligence assessment agency.

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