Former ministers have a lifelong responsibility not to spread falsehoods about their own country. These, once they take root, can easily become weapons in the hands of others.
Alexander Downer committed this offence here on Monday by claiming Australia unilaterally withdrew from the “quadrilateral strategic dialogue” – a proposed mutation of the US-Japan-Australia trilateral dialogue including India – under Labor after the November 2007 election. According to Downer, Labor’s radical move was announced in Beijing. India was so shaken that Australia was punished with exclusion from Indo-US naval exercises, this well-worn Liberal meme so often goes.
Unfortunately for Downer, none of this is true. The fact is his government, the Howard government, shut the door on the QSD – a fact he doesn’t want to acknowledge now that the Quad is back in fashion.
The documentary record is crystal clear, starting on July 2, 2007, when Australian officials informed Washington and Tokyo they would not accept quadrilateral defence and security arrangements. Instead, Australia would look to bilateral arrangements, according to a contemporaneous US diplomatic cable later released by WikiLeaks.
A week later, on July 9, Downer himself said India shouldn’t be admitted. “We’re looking in a more general sense at progressing the relationship with India, not collectively, each individually doing it,” he said, according to a transcript published by his own office.
Defence minister Brendan Nelson also publicly hammered this message in New Delhi and Beijing. He told the The Australian Financial Review’s John Kerin during that July 2007 tour: “I’ve explained the nature and basis of our trilateral dialogue with Japan and the US, but I have also reassured China that the so-called quadrilateral dialogue with India is not something we are pursuing.”
After the election, we said nothing about the Quad for months. It was only when foreign minister Stephen Smith was asked about it in Tokyo – not Beijing, Alexander – that he restated the Howard position. “We are not proposing to add to the trilateral by including India,” he said on February 1, and referred back to that answer a week later when questioned at a joint press conference with his Chinese counterpart in Canberra.
Howard was the first to dump the QSD, but he wasn’t the last. Japan’s Shinzo Abe was its driving force, and his sudden resignation in 2007 was a huge blow to its waning momentum. Abe’s successor, Yasuo Fukuda, was far more traditional in his foreign policy and much more accommodating of China – hence his later appointment to the Chinese-sponsored Boao Forum for Asia. Fukuda’s foreign minister, Masahiko Komura, reportedly wanted all mentions of Abe’s “fourth pillar of diplomacy”, including the Quad, purged from his department’s website.
The Americans were divided. Vice-president Dick Cheney favoured the Quad but, as the Financial Review reported at the time, George Bush was wary. Washington needed China’s support on North Korea and Iran. By the time Labor came in, the State Department was adamant that “meetings of the four countries would not take place at a ministerial or sub-ministerial level” to “avoid any impression of an effort to contain China”, another WikiLeaks cable records.
India’s Manmohan Singh was clearest. He repeatedly ruled out quadrilateral security arrangements, including during direct talks with Chinese president Hu Jintao in June 2007. He continued to reassure the Chinese and finally, on January 10, 2008, he pronounced the Quad dead. “[It] never got going,” Singh said, prioritising ties with China as an “imperative necessity”. That was three weeks before Smith spoke in Tokyo.
By the time Labor assumed power, the Quad hadn’t been formally advanced in six months. Our diplomats took the temperature of the three foreign capitals and found no interest in resurrecting it. We also worried at that time about tying Australia into an agreement that could become a mutual defence pact, given India and Japan both had toxic histories with Beijing and ongoing territorial disputes.
Was India offended by Smith’s comment? Hardly. Despite some overheated commentary from Indian think tanks, I recall no complaints from Singh or his officials. Indeed, as the US embassy in India summed it up: “New Delhi expects India-Australia relations to continue to flourish under Rudd … No Quad, no problem.”
Why then was Australia not invited to join the Malabar naval exercises after 2007? As usual, the Liberals forget that other countries have politics too. Australia’s one-off involvement in 2007 was vehemently protested by India’s influential left wing as an “imperialistic” display by Washington and its allies. Defence minister A.K. Antony subsequently announced that, as a matter of policy, the government would favour bilateral exercises in future.
Downer’s remaking of himself as a China hawk is a sight to behold. He’s come a long way since 2009, when he lashed our Defence White Paper and naval expansion plan as an “absurd” response to Chinese provocations at sea. Downer even suggested I might be too opposed to communism, and cast suspicion over a supposed Taiwanese twang in my Mandarin accent. That was before he joined the board of Huawei, excoriating Labor’s decision to ban the company from supplying the NBN.
The truth is the Quad was ahead of its time. It is more feasible in 2021 than it ever was in 2007. The Liberals in government played a central role in killing it back then. They should own that fact.
The real debate for the future of our own national security is: what role can, or should, the Quad play? Our national security challenges are not of themselves solved by the Quad, despite the emerging mantra. It is only part of a much broader and more complex equation concerning the future of American and Chinese power projection capabilities in Asia through to mid-century.
First published in The Australian Financial Review
Image: Brendan Nelson and Alexander Downer (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shawn P. Eklund)