The Interpreter - Weblog of the Lowy Institute for International Policy

The Interpreter - Recent Posts (for you. Click here to start your FREE subscription)

The Interpreter - 5 new articles

On Whitlam and the US alliance

by James Curran

The passing of Gough Whitlam was always going to be a seismic moment in Australian national life. As Paul Kelly writes in today's Australian, the former Labor leader lived 'long enough to see his life mythologised in the national story'. Debate has and will continue to rage about his legacy, both domestically and in Australia's relations with the world.

But in an age of remarkable and unprecedented bipartisan consensus on the US-Australia alliance, it is timely to reflect a little further on Whitlam's handling of the nation's relationship with America. 

In the period from December 1972 until November 1975, the US-Australia alliance faced its greatest ever crisis. In the hands of President Richard Nixon and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, a relationship that had endured the heights of the Cold War veered dangerously off course and seemed headed for destruction.

For Whitlam, the world emerging from the ashes of Vietnam offered an exciting opportunity to recast Australia's image in the eyes of the world and redefine the alliance. For Nixon, the ongoing difficulties in securing an end to the war and the mounting pressures of the Watergate scandal produced a visceral reaction to any criticism – but especially that from a once close and trusted ally. In his rage he threatened to rip apart the very fabric of the alliance, asking that options be explored for pulling out top secret US intelligence installations in Australia and ending all intelligence sharing. In Australia, although some saw Whitlam as the great moderniser of Australian foreign relations, others feared he was recklessly endangering the protective umbrella provided by the US.

In my forthcoming book, Unholy Fury: Whitlam and Nixon's Alliance Crisis (MUP, May 2015) I show for the first time just how close Australia came to losing the US alliance.

Drawing on new evidence from archives in both the US and Australia, the book will show that across a broad range of issues, all of which were central to how both nations saw their future role in the region, it became apparent that the harmony of aims and interests that characterised the alliance during the Cold War had come to an abrupt and acrimonious end.

Perhaps the most pungent manifestation of this crisis came when several senior ministers in Whitlam's government harshly and openly criticised Nixon's decision to carry out the so called 'Christmas bombings' of December 1972 on the major population centres of North Vietnam, Hanoi and Haiphong.

The Australians did not mince words. The President's move had come only days after the Labor Party, out of office for twenty-three years, had come to power. Having opposed the Vietnam War since the first Australian troops were committed to the conflict in 1965, some Labor spokesmen shed any pretence to diplomatic moderation, and went for the jugular. The White House was full of 'maniacs', said Clyde Cameron, Minister for Labour and Immigration, while the spokesman for Urban Affairs, Tom Uren, accused Nixon of committing 'mass murder' and 'acting with the mentality of thuggery'. Dr Jim Cairns, in the more senior portfolio of Trade, called it 'the most brutal, indiscriminate slaughter of women and children in living memory'.

Prime Minister Whitlam himself wrote to Nixon to express his grave concern at the resumption of the bombing, questioning whether it would achieve the objective of bringing the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table and advising that he would seek the cooperation of other political leaders in Asia, especially those of Indonesia and Japan, to join him in 'addressing a public appeal to both the United States and North Vietnam to return to serious negotiations'. 

Australian maritime unions placed a ban on all American shipping in Australian ports, a move reciprocated by the US International Longshoremen's Association. Australian beef rotted off the coast of Florida and American passengers arriving on cruise ships in Sydney Harbour had to be privately ferried ashore. The Australian censure was one of the most strident of any of America's friends. 

Nixon refused to reply to Whitlam's letter, and when Kissinger telephoned Australia's embassy in Washington to complain, his blunt words of warning sent shockwaves all the way back to Canberra. It was not, the national security adviser stressed to the Australian Charge D'Affaires, 'the way to start a relationship with us'. Speaking for the Administration, he said that 'we are not particularly amused (at) being put by an ally on the same level as our enemy'.

In a discussion with the President at Camp David a few days later, Kissinger unloaded, dismissing Whitlam's letter as an 'absolute outrage' and a 'cheap little manoeuvre'. From 'the minute the Vietnam war ends' he quipped, the Australians 'will need us one hell of a lot more than we need them'. Nixon could only concur: for Whitlam to 'imperil' his country's relations with the US, he replied, was 'one hell of a thing' to do.

The White House Tapes show that Nixon and Kissinger agreed to 'freeze' Whitlam 'for a few months' so that he would 'get the message'. Speaking to Nixon, Kissinger labelled Whitlam's proposed joint appeal to the US and North Vietnam a 'grandstand play', dismissing it as 'very stupid too'. It prompted a policy that amounted to unofficial – but pointed – diplomatic isolation. Whitlam, Nixon thundered, was 'one of the peaceniks...he is certainly putting the Australians on a very, very dangerous path'. The President only reluctantly agreed to give Whitlam a one-hour meeting in the Oval Office in late July 1973. No toasts, no speeches, no state dinner and no welcome on the White House lawn. But Whitlam was not seeking a coronation.

Over the life of the Whitlam Government, the two countries continued to disagree over regional architecture, the idea of a zone of peace in South East Asia, and Indian Ocean neutrality. Australia had become a thorn in America's Asian side. But the Americans had to adjust to these Australian winds of change.

For the first time in nearly a decade the US realised that it could not take the interests of its junior ally for granted. The great irony, as Whitlam freely conceded, is that the changes in American foreign policy — the Nixon Doctrine, Soviet détente, the '72 China visit — had made it possible for Australia to pursue a more independent line in world affairs. As Whitlam himself told an audience in Washington, his country was 'moving on the wave of great events, not swimming against the tide'.

But it was the speed and direction of the Australian moves which put Whitlam on a collision course with the Nixon Administration. At a time when Washington was trying to rebalance its regional policy following the subordination of other concerns to the fighting in Vietnam, Labor's policy prescription in Asia was bound to throw relations into a tailspin. Against Whitlam's impatience for Australia to be accepted in Asia in a new way and his eagerness to embrace a world less constrained by rigid bipolarity, American officials maintained the need for incremental change, with one eye on the fragility of détente and the other on the persistence of great-power politics.

But as American Ambassador Marshall Green observed around this time, the era of the Cold War in East Asia had passed, and with it the need for Australia and the US to 'march together, against the forces of darkness'.

Whitlam, then, essentially redefined the relationship with Washington to give the nation greater self-reliance both within and without the Alliance. It stands as one of the most significant aspects of his legacy in Australian foreign affairs. 

Photo courtesy of the Nixon Library.


'Rule by law'? The Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress

by Merriden Varrall

On Monday, the four-day Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress began in Beijing. Chinese state media says this year's meeting will deliberate on 'major issues concerning comprehensively advancing rule of law.' This is the first time the Central Committee has made this topic the focal point of discussions at a plenum, and there is great anticipation about how it might be addressed.

No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, Shanghai, China (Reuters/Aly Song)

However, outside observers should be careful not to get too carried away with what this might mean for changes to Chinese governance.

Every Chinese Party Congress lasts for five years, during which there are seven major plenums at which the Party's Central Committee meets. The Fourth Plenum is generally where implementation of policies decided at the previous year's plenum are discussed. The Third Plenum of the 18th Party Congress was held in November 2013, at which a raft of political and economic reform policies were announced.

These policies exceeded many expectations – both in China and internationally – in their depth and breadth, including reforms to state-owned enterprises and the one-child policy. It was also announced that markets will play a much greater role in allocating resources, an important shift away from the 'basic' role they had before. The communique at the close of the Third Plenum included few details around timelines or benchmarks, and these are what are being addressed currently at the Fourth Plenum, in addition to the tantalising topic of advancing the rule of law.

Many China watchers are asking what this focus on rule of law actually means in the Chinese political system. The concept needs to be understood for what it means in the Chinese context. As explained very well in the Wall Street Journal, semantics matter. In Chinese, the term 法治 (fazhi) is composed of characters meaning 'law' and 'to govern.' This is generally translated to 'rule of law' in English, but this creates (perhaps deliberately) a misperception about what can be expected. Some argue that 'rule by law' is a more accurate translation – that is, that the Party uses the law as it sees fit to govern and maintain its control.

Xi Jinping has emphasised the importance of respecting the law and the constitution. However, the Communist Party is not governed by the constitution. Rather, the constitution serves the Party.

Indeed, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was jailed for 11 years for his role in Charter 08 (2008), in which he and others suggested the Party should come under the constitution. The Chinese Government sees 'constitutionalism' (that is, the primacy of a constitution over all else) as a Western phenomenon inappropriate for China. Over the past year or so, constitutionalism as a concept has come under increasing attack. For example, articles have been published arguing that constitutionalism is a product of capitalism unsuited to a socialist system, and against the idea of 'the constitution and the law taking precedence' (宪法和法律至上).

So 'rule of law' in China always means rule of law under the leadership of the Party, and that will not change in this Plenum.

When thinking about China, even when the language may sound familiar (and in the case of 'rule of law', reassuring), the underlying concepts are often completely different. The ultimate implications are not going to be what we expect if we take the terminology at face value. While there will very likely be some important and positive developments at this Fourth Plenum, we should not expect to see Chinese judges' decision-making suddenly de-linked from Party considerations. 'Comprehensively advancing the rule of law' does not equate to a separation of powers and a rollback of the Party-state's role in legal affairs. Rather, it should be understood as a sophisticated development in how the Party manages governance and control.


Quick Comment: Jokowi should enjoy the party while he can

by Sam Roggeveen

As Catriona Croft-Cusworth’s commentary and photos showed, there is a celebratory mood in Jakarta this week with the inauguration of Jokowi as Indonesia’s new president. In the spirit of reconciliation, Jokowi’s defeated opponent Prabowo Subianto even showed up for the ceremony.

For this week’s Quick Comment, I spoke with the Lowy Institute’s Indonesia expert Aaron Connelly about how long this mood is likely to last in Indonesia’s halls of power. 

Not long, is the answer. As you will hear, Jokowi faces a hostile opposition (Aaron makes comparisons with American politics) that is unlikely to give an inch on Jokowi’s domestic agenda. Listen too for Aaron’s thoughts on Jokowi’s inaugural address, which, as Rory Medcalf noted yesterday, had a strikingly nautical theme.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Steven Fitzgerald Sipahutar.


The day Gough called me

by Anthony Bubalo

It’s a grim part of a think tankers life (or at least this think tanker’s life): you write your papers and they disappear into the ether. You often receive little or no feedback, nor even much indication of whether anybody has read your paper at all.

But occasionally there are moments that lift your morale. I had one such moment in 2007 when I got a phone call from Gough Whitlam.

I had a written a long Policy Brief entitled ‘Reinventing West Asia’ which was an effort to explain how the Middle East should be viewed as part of Asia, at least in strategic terms, and what this meant for Australia. Our then Executive Director, Allan Gyngell, mentioned that Gough had a habit of calling the Middle East ‘West Asia’ so I should send him a copy of the paper. 

I did and then forgot about it until my phone rang one day. It was our receptionist and she said she had Gough Whitlam on the line for me. Any sense that this was a practical joke was soon dispelled by his distinctive voice.

My memory is not great, but there were three parts of the phone call, which went on for about half an hour, that I will never forget.

The first thing was that he complimented the receptionist. ‘You have an outstanding receptionist’, he boomed.

Second, he complimented the paper, which is not, however, the point of this post.

Third, and the reason why I am recalling this story, was his probing of my heritage, which underlined both his curiosity and his rich historical knowledge. It went something like this:

‘Bubalo, what kind of a name is that?’


‘Jee-sus Christ!’

‘What part of the Croatia are you from, Venetian or Ottoman?’

‘I was born here. But one parent is from the Venetian part, one from the Ottoman.’

‘Jee-sus Christ! Well it’s a fine paper anyway.’


China links: Big Daddy Xi, collective leadership, rule of law, bullet trains and more

by Dirk van der Kley

I don’t care what they talk about; I don’t expect anything. For the past two years they’ve arrested more than three-hundred human rights defenders and intellectuals, such as Pu Zhiqiang, Tang Jingling, and Ilham Tohti. And they have destroyed many Christian churches, they cracked down on the Internet, and they published a series of articles against universal values...


More Recent Articles

Click here to safely unsubscribe from "The Interpreter." Click here to view mailing archives, here to change your preferences, or here to subscribePrivacy