On Monday 12 March The Age published a piece by Michelle Grattan (see here) which drew on a comments made by former Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Dick Woolcott in a submission to the white paper being prepared by former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry on Australia in the Asian Century.
Grattan quotes Woolcott as saying that the 60-year-old ANZUS Treaty is “somewhat out of date” and that Australia must not be seen to support policies that “contain” China.
Other comments attributed to Woolcott by Grattan caused my friend and colleague former diplomat and defence official Andrew Farran to submit a letter to the editor of The Age, commenting that Woolcott had overstated his case. The letter was never published, but it deserves an airing, and so I reproduce it below, as submitted:
Dick, you overstate your case!
In The Age newspaper recently veteran diplomat Richard (Dick) Woolcott asserted that the ANZUS Treaty was “somewhat out of date” and that Australia had been led into three unsuccessful wars - Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan - in support of policy decisions taken by US Administrations (“How a US ally can be friends with China”, The Age, 12/3).
He was stating this in the context that there was a need for “a more appropriate and up-to-date balance in our relations with the US and China”.
Far from being led into those interventions the record would show that they were actively sought by the Australian governments at the time, in their quest to stay on-side and keep America involved in and committed to this region. Moreover Afghanistan was a UN/internationally sanctioned response to the 9/11 atrocity (at least to the point of neutralising al-Qaeda's base there).
Mr Woolcott was not correct either in stating that “the only occasion on which we sought American support under ANZUS, during Indonesia’s confrontation with Malaysia in 1964, the US declined”. The fact was that the US did give Australia a guarantee of support if Australian troops got into trouble in Borneo with Sukarno's Indonesia. Australian politicians regarded it as significant given that the situation did not involve a communist power and the treaty refers only to an obligation to ‘consult’. The military wanted boots on the ground and were disappointed that this was excluded from President Kennedy's letter of commitment, but within a couple of years events in Vietnam showed that Kennedy was doing us a favour.
The US has also provided important cover to our forces (logistics and intelligence) for peacekeeping operations, such as in East Timor, and can be expected to do so in any future operations in the South Pacific.
Mr Woolcott also cautioned against offending regional sensitivities, but mistook the recent live cattle fiasco with Indonesia as indicative of Australian shortcomings rather than a consequence of a dysfunctional situation within the current government .