THERE are too many who believe that if we support the United States and go to war when it wants us to, it will in turn support us on issues that we regard as fundamental to our own security. History strongly suggests that the real determinant of the actions of great powers is their own interests.
Too much reliance on great powers for one's security is not wise. Our own skill, our own strength, our own diplomacy, wisdom, our contribution to our region, our contribution to the overall security of that region - these are what will secure Australia's future. But this does not mean we cannot have alliances.
The United States' major interests are in the western hemisphere. Our major interests are in east and south-east Asia. We live in the western Pacific; our secure and peaceful future depends on our relationships with countries of the region. We do not have the luxury, as the US does, of being able to withdraw across the Pacific to the western hemisphere. We must rely more on ourselves.
There have been a number of occasions when the US has not supported an Australia view when we felt our particular interests were affected. During the period of the [Indonesian] confrontation, The Economist had this to say: "No Indonesian regime short of a blatantly communist one would earn active American hostility, no matter what harm it did to the national Australian interests."
To point this out is not an anti-American statement. It is a statement of fact. If we blind ourselves to these realities, we blind ourselves to the necessities for our own survival. The US remains enormously important. On some counts it remains the world's best hope for a peaceful and secure world.
This does not mean that Australia can buy security by supporting America unconditionally. Unconditional support diminishes our influence throughout east and south-east Asia. It limits our capacity to act as an independent and confident nation. It limits our influence on the US itself. The US would expect an ally to have views and to put those views and help form policy.
I believe that in dealing with countries in our own region, we need to show a greater element of independence and a greater strength of mind. We need to increase our sophistication in our approach to relationships throughout east and south-east Asia. For example, our government still tends to say that strategic considerations have no impact on our good economic and trade relations with China. That is plainly not true.
We cannot expect our trade relationship to be unaffected if on every occasion we follow America in strategic matters.
Independence of mind and recognition of Australia's national interests will become more important in the light of developments in the relationship between China and the US. The only solution that I can see of minimising the potential friction between these two major powers is by co-operation. It is, if you like, by a concert of nations. This should contribute greatly to peace, security and progress throughout our entire region. A major part of Australian policy should be to work for such a result.
If we continue on a path of unthinking compliance with American policy, we will very soon find that we have made ourselves irrelevant to east and south-east Asia, politically and strategically. Irrelevant, because Australia will have nothing to contribute.
The choice for Australia to make is not for China or for the US, but independence of mind to break with subservience to America. Subservience has not and will not serve Australia's interests. It is dangerous to our future. Australia should not do anything, for example, that suggests that we could be part of a policy of military containment of China, but marines in Darwin and spy planes in the Cocos Islands make us part of that policy. We should be trying to lead the US away from containment.
It is not always understood, as China understands very clearly, that the US is running a two-track policy, where there is mutual understanding and a desire to resolve difficulties through diplomacy and dialogue. We want to understand each other better. That seems to be the message coming both from China and the US.
If that is the true American attitude, why does the US talk of rebalancing military power to the Pacific? What is the need to enhance naval co-operation with the Philippines and Singapore? What useful purpose do marines based in Darwin fulfil? The US can say this is not containment, as does the Australian government, but nobody believes them. To continue to say that something that is obvious is not so, is to damage your own credibility. If the US is genuine in wanting dialogue and discussion with China, what is the need for this military rebalancing?
If the US believes the way to establish good relations with China is to have a military alliance of nations whose purpose is to limit China's influence, or to contain China, the US is mistaken. This is the wrong way to preserve peace and security. We should not be part of it. Such views demonstrate a significant failure to learn from the military mistakes of the past.
The great task for the US is to recognise that many of the things it wants for itself and for others cannot be achieved by military means. It needs to place much more emphasis on "soft power", on diplomacy. Australia should use every effort to persuade the US that its two-track approach to relationships with China is wrong. We should tell the US that we will not be part of it and not allow joint facilities on Australian soil to be used to support policies of containment.
If the consensus for military containment of some kind prevails, then there will be prospects of military conflict - and military conflict between China and the US is the one thing that would be most dangerous to Australia.
In 1956, when many feared that China might invade Taiwan, Eisenhower moved the 7th Fleet in or close to the Taiwan Straits. Many feared war between the US and China over Taiwan. Prime minister Menzies then advised Eisenhower that if there were such a conflict, Australia would not be part of it. Menzies had a keen understanding of Australia's own interests.
We need to articulate Australia's national interests as a country allied to but separate from the US. We need leadership that will tell Australians in plain terms that our security ultimately depends on ourselves and the relationships we build with the countries of the western Pacific and of east Asia. It is our relationship with these countries that will determine our security.
Malcolm Fraser was prime minister from 1975 to 1983. This is an edited version of The Whitlam Oration delivered in Sydney last night. Click here to read the full speech.