BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA;
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS: DIPLOMAT, ECONOMIST, JOURNALIST AND JAPANOLOGIST;
BETWEEN FOUR LANGUAGES: ENGLISH, CHINESE, RUSSIAN AND JAPANESE
DISCOVERING CHINA - via Hongkong, Taiwan and Sarawak, back to Canberra
The two years in Hong Kong (December 59-February 62) were to be crucial, and not just for improving my capacity to drink expensive French brandy at endless Chinese dinner parties. They taught me a lot about China and the Chinese, of course. They also made me rethink a lot of my conservative political beliefs.
Apart from anything else, I was forced to take a much closer look at such details as the Opium War, the looting of the Imperial Palace in Beijing by Western armies sent to suppress the Boxer uprising, Western support for the corrupt Chiang Kai-shek regime in a cruel civil war against the only Chinese who had had the guts to fight the Japanese, the sorry record of Western colonialism and cruelty in Asia….
The Hong Kong experience also put paid to a frayed Catholicism. If one quarter of the world’s population could get by quite happily without our God, then maybe that God was not so important after all. Maybe he did not even exist.
I had been the by-product of a typically bigoted, Brisbane Catholic upbringing, moulded by the Christian Brothers at school, and hardened by the intellectualism of my father’s Catholic conservatism. The Jesuits are said to boast how if given the mind of a 12 year-old child, they have his soul for life. With a little bit more luck they could easily have had my soul.
I also shared the crude conservatism and anti-foreigner prejudices of a 1950’s Queensland upbringing. The boat carrying me back to Australia from England in 1956 had been just two days from the Suez Canal when the October attack on Egypt by the UK, France, Israel cabal had broken out. Together with the British migrants on board I remember standing on the deck to cheer the broadcast of Anthony Eden’s speech justifying that criminal attack. The fact that the fighting and some bombed-out ships closed the canal immediately, which meant that our boat had to detour all the way round the Cape of Good Hope as a result, did little to shake our chauvinistic pride.
The first blow to prejudices had come while working in Canberra soon after. The main justification for the October 1956 attack had been the alleged inability of those backward Egyptians to run the canal they had nationalized away from us civilized Westerners. But on my desk before me were the reluctant reports admitting that Egyptian engineers had skillfully removed the sunken ships and brought the canal back into service much more quickly than anyone had imagined.
One report even suggested that the canal was being run better than back in the days of Western control.
Hong Kong hastened the collapse of those anti-foreign prejudices. Daily I was thrown into contact with Chinese a lot more civilized and often a lot smarter than the average Australian .
I remember a visit by Canberra’s then Defence Minister, Alan Fairhall. As I drove with him back from the airport we were caught in queues of cars filled with middle-class families returning from weekend outings. He was looking out at them with amazement: "But they look just like your ordinary Australians coming back from a weekend on the beach." …. Meanwhile I was also supposed to be continuing my language studies. Mornings would be spent with some British Foreign Office types taking the allegedly intensive course in Chinese language organised for them by Hong Kong University (one of my fellow students was a fairly dour and not so bright Scot called David Wilson who ended up years later as Governor of Hong Kong).
Our ‘teachers’ were mainly refugee intellectuals from the mainland. Their idea of teaching was to have us try to listen to them rambling on nostalgically about the life and culture of the nation they had left behind.
Afternoons or evenings I would work in the Australian Commission. That too was less than inspiring. The then Commissioner, totally non-Chinese speaking of course, had just discovered that Beijing spoke of only ten percent of the population being opposed to its revolutionary policies.
In an urgent memo to Canberra he revealed that even Beijing had admitted it had 60 million counter-revolutionaries in its midst.
Later he was to take me aside and warn me of the dangers of becoming a China-specialist. Early in his career he had been sent to learn Arabic. He had carefully avoided the Middle East, and the language, for the rest of his career. Largely as a result he was to end up as External Affairs Secretary!
I also began to mix with other Westerner officials and journalists involved with China. Most were also rigidly anti-Peking — the Alsop brothers especially, whose writings later were to play such a poisonous role in justifying US intervention in Vietnam. Quite a few were covert intelligence operatives.
Years later, while working as a correspondent in Tokyo, I was to run constantly into calls by fellow correspondents demanding freedom of the Press, and their wails about the fate of imprisoned journalistic colleagues. I often thought of suggesting that they should first devote a lot more of their activism into trying to expose the spies in their midst. Only after that should they then begin to worry about the fate of colleagues in trouble..
The Tokyo press corps was riddled with spy agency infilration, from both sides of the Iron Curtain. Several of the infiltrated, Karl Bachmayer for example, would even boast of their intelligence connections. But not only was their presence tolerated. With their ill-gotten gains they were easily able to establish themselves as honored members of the corps.
My own causal estimate says that almost all the British and Australian journalists working in Asia have their backgrounds screened for recruitment by UK and Australian spy agencies. Half are approached, sometimes without their knowing ( a favorite sounding-out technique is being invited by the spy representative in the local embassy to provide paid reports on local conditions and personalities). Half of those selected then collaborate, either actively or otherwise.
And not just for the money. Fed with information tidbits and contacts from their spy handlers, they can often score their scoops against less favored but more honest journalists trying hard to get established.. Before long they come to dominate the scene as alleged experts on their area of operation, despite their lack of language or any other conspicuous ability. Several of the first generation of postwar Australian journalists in Japan fell into that category.
One such operative in Hong Kong was the Australian journalist Richard Hughes. His favorite gambit was to label all Chinese leaders as ‘commie running dogs.’ The Western media loved it. Needless to say, he too did not speak a word of Chinese. When he died suddenly in 1983 he was found to be carrying a large sum of money.
Few tried hard to deny that for most his career he had been in the pay of UK and Australian intelligence services. But for most of that career he was regarded as the doyen of the Hong Kong press corps, an expert on China, and a ‘must’ for visiting Western journalists and others who wanted to be briefed about China.
I had some run-ins with him, years later, when I had come out against the Vietnam War and was trying to get established as a writer. It was not a nice feeling – my taxes going to pay the spy fees that allowed him to try to shoot me down.
For my own briefings on China all I had to do was listen to what most of my refugee friends and contacts in Hong Kong were saying - namely, that while they themselves would have suffered under communism, by 1949, the emergence of a communist regime to replace the corrupt, incompetent Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai- shek was inevitable. Many welcomed it.
My apartment maid was a typical story . She had been married to a Shanghai shop-keeper who had fled the country in 1949 fearing charges of bourgeois leanings. They had left their five children behind.
Under the Communist regime she had fled, all her children had all gone to university and were employed as doctors, engineers. etc. If they had come to Hong Kong they probably would have ended up assembling plastic flowers for a pittance by the side of a squalid street.
But the egalitarian enthusiasm and progress in the early years of the Communist revolution were soon to be ended by a piece of Maoist insanity called the Great Leap Forward. Reliable reports of thousands dying of hunger and even cannibalism began to trickle out to our Hong Kong office. Making sense of it all was not easy.
Only years later would I to begin to realise how the weak human brain succumbs to crackpot ideologies, and the ease with which unscrupulous leaders can use those ideologies to unseat rivals.
Coping with the Language
Meanwhile I was still trying to learn Chinese. After a year of Hong Kong University study, I still could not speak it properly. I was a typical victim of the textbook approach to language learning. Chinese, I was discovering, does not fall into the Teach Yourself variety of language.
Fortunately I fell in with two boozy British military intelligence types, Bill Nash and Ian Rae, who seemed to speak the language brilliantly. In fact their Chinese was far from perfect. But when one is struggling to learn a difficult language, even less than fluent speakers seem to have some super-human ability.
They let me join their weekly dinner parties with their Chinese friends and contacts. There I would strain to catch the tones and sounds of rapid dinner table conversation. Gradually I began to understand occasional sentences and stammer a few remarks. Finally I was embarked on the very long and distant journey that anyone who wants to learn to speak and understand a difficult foreign language properly must follow.
I was beginning to live the language. I was beginning to realise that language is sounds coming from the mouths of human beings, not printed words coming out of textbooks.
Chinese is not quite as difficult as many think. Certainly it is not as hard as say Japanese or Korean. The word order is fairly close to English — a big help, as I was to discover later with Japanese where the word order is not just reversed but often completely mashed up.
True, the tones are a problem (four in Mandarin Chinese). At first they seem to be a totally unnatural way to speak a language. But with practice they begin to make sense. They are simply an exaggerated version of the stresses and intonations that most other languages use much more subtly to differentiate meanings.
If anything the tones make the language easier to speak and understand because they come through much more clearly than subtle intonations. But for someone raised in monotonal Australia, having one’s ear attune to tonal differences takes time, a lot of it. ..
Another problem was simply finding people to talk to. I had come to realise the need to use the language in everyday situations, to live the language. But Mandarin speakers were rare those days in Hong Kong.
The local Hong Kong population, both then and now, preferred to speak Cantonese. Mandarin-speakers were almost entirely refugees from the mainland or visitors from Taiwan. Meeting and making friends with them was not easy.
On the Star Ferry crossing between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon one would occasionally catch the lilting voices of Mandarin speakers nearby. I was so desperate to hear the live that I would rapidly change seats simply to get closer and catch a few words of what they were saying.
Ironically, it was not till I got back to Canberra in 1962 that I finally began to live the language. I became closely involved with C. at the Taiwan Embassy there. Thanks to her I was speaking the language daily and in everyday situations. Finally I could begin to bury the language deep in the sub-conscious, where ultimately it has to go if one wants to learn any language.
Later C. went to the US and married a fellow Chinese working at the UN. I heard she had three children. I am glad her life developed fruitfully. For a while it seemed it might go otherwise. I will always be grateful to her, both as a friend and a teacher, even if she never learns of that gratitude.
My other Hong Kong problem was being unable to get to the country whose language I was supposed to be learning. In those Cold War days, Australian diplomats were not even allowed to set foot in China. Canberra feared it might imply recognition of the dreaded Communist regime there.
But my British colleagues could go in and out quite easily. Many ended up with two-three year postings to the British Embassy in Peking. I could only envy them.
At times I would go to the Kowloon station to look wistfully as the trains from Canton (Guangzhou) pulled in. Those very ordinary people disembarking — farmers, foreign businessmen, Hong Kong residents — had the right to travel in and out freely. I did not.
But I could go to Taiwan. There, far more than many realise even today, Mandarin had become not just the official but also the everyday language. Some visits there helped the language confidence somewhat. But the island was still mired in poverty, stagnation and corruption. The one thing that did flourish was anti- communist propaganda.
The regime liked to set up posters warning darkly how women in Communist China were forced to become common sexual property under alleged communist free love doctrines. The truth, of course, was the exact opposite. At the time China was passing through an intensely puritanical phase where even to touch a woman was seen as semi-rape. Meanwhile Taiwan had become a sea of female prostitution, where even the young ladies giving you haircuts in the barbers shops were expected to provide extra services.
The Taiwan visits also involved vague requests from Canberra to look into Taiwanese resistance to the Nationalist regime there (only a decade or so earlier, some tens of thousands of better- educated Taiwanese suspected of opposing the Nationalists had been massacred - something our Cold War propagandists were trying hard to ignore in those days when mainland communist atrocities were supposed to be the order of the day). I was able to track down one or two and listen to their story
For my pains, I was constantly monitored by Taiwanese government spooks. And Canberra never showed any reaction to my reports anyway. I should have saved my breath and joined the contingent of US pro-Taiwan journalistic hacks in Taipei on their eating and womanizing expeditions.
Year later, when working as a journalist, I found myself banned by the Nationalist government from making any further Taiwan visits. At the same time I was also being denied the visas to China, visas still reserved for ardent worshippers of the regime there.
Rejection by both sides was a fate suffered by quite a few other China-watchers at the time, especially those who had spent years learning the language and who tried to view both sides impartially.
Late in 1961, I had to accompany John Gorton, then External Affairs Minister, and his wife on an official visit to the island. Taiwan’s Nationalist officialdom went overboard to welcome and impress him.
In those days a favorite gambit with top Western visitors was to invite them to view some expensive display of Chinese artifacts. If they lingered for more than a few seconds to admire something in the display, they would find themselves presented with the same artifact or a copy soon after, carefully wrapped and with an inscription.
This kind of unctuous hospitality did wonders in persuading naïve Westerners that Taiwan really was the true China, deserving of full support. The Gorton’s received the same treatment, though I suspect that Gorton himself (whom later I came to respect as an honest politician despite his hard-line anti-communism) was less impressed.
One day we were sitting on top of a cliff with the Nationalist President, Chiang Kai-shek, watching airborne troops being parachuted into the Taiwan Straits with heavy packs. The troops were then supposed to swim ashore in a simulated version of the planned invasion against the Chinese mainland
(This was at a time when the Western propaganda machine was, as it is today, denouncing as intolerable the claim by Beijing to have the right to use similar force against Taiwan.
(Years later, at the height of the Vietnam War, I persuaded Bill Hayden to use the fact of such exercises, and photos released by the Nationalists of sabotage missions training for missions into the mainland, to ask a question of Parliamentary notice whether Australia would also protest this act ‘aggression’ against a divided neighbor.
(External Affairs came back blandly saying it had never seen the photos.Phew!)
The senior External Affairs official with us, Keith Brennan, tried to tell Gorton that it was not official Australian policy to approve of this phony belligerency. He went on to warn that Chiang’s regime was also not renowned for honesty or gentleness, Gorton’s memorable reply was: "I know they are gangsters. But these gangsters are on our side. The ones over there (pointing to China) are not."
Of the various justifications for insane Cold War confrontation at the time, this one made a bit more sense than most.
Gently Into Japan
Another by-product of those Hong Kong years was discovering Japan. I had been invited to Korea by a colleague, Richard Gates, then with UNCURK and the Australian Embassy in Seoul. From there I would go on to Japan.
If the poverty of Hong Kong and Taiwan had been bad, what I saw in Korea was just horrible - hordes of unemployed men wandering the streets of Seoul and Pusan desperate for work, any kind of work.. But a week travelling in an UNCURK jeep along the east coast to Pusan in the late autumn also taught me much the natural beauty of that harsh and uncompromising country.
From Pusan I took the tiny, once-a week ferry to Fukuoka, then the only form of transport to Japan (today large hydroplanes and jet seacraft make the trip several times a day). Landing at Hakata port I began to realise that I was completely alone in a totally foreign country, and that the Teach Yourself book could do little to help me.
But I had one thing going for me, and not just a liking for Japanese food. The Chinese ideographs used by the Japanese have much the same meaning as in Chinese. So I could read the kanji (literally Chinese letters) that the Japanese sprinkle throughout their literature and posters. That meant I could always know where I was.
A tape recording of useful words and expressions kindly prepared for me by a Japanese colleague in Hong Kong, Onoue Etsuzo of Ajia Keizai Kenkyusho (it now calls itself IDE in English), also gave me some help.
From Fukuoka I had planned to catch a train to Nagasaki and then go on to Tokyo. Somehow I got the platform announcements wrong and ended up on a train to Nagoya. An unplanned night stop en route in Hiroshima resulted.
That first impression of the real Japan is still burned into the memory. The dozens of small stalls around the Hiroshima railway station were a maze of bustle and excitement. Just 16 years earlier the town had been nuclear bombed. But there was no hint then of the massive wartime self-pity that Hiroshima was later to epitomise.
Because of the Nagasaki mix up I was well ahead of my schedule to arrive in Tokyo. So from Nagoya I decided to take the longer and more mountainous Chuo line to Tokyo. It was a good decision.
Like most Australians who had been through the war years, and like most Westerners mixing with Chinese in Hong Kong in those days, I had my share of anti-Japan prejudices. But the unbelievable beauty of the late autumn countryside lining the Chuo route — densely wooded slopes running for ever along the railway tracks, the neat stacks of timber waiting for delivery under the rain in the station yards, the charm of the villages, the kindness of the people on the trains, the shy girl preparing my room at the local inn -..all this combined to make me realise that these were not an evil people living in an evil nation.
Then there was the station master who found me an inn to stay overnight in a remote village. He came the next morning to make sure I could handle payments, which was unnecessary since the inn owners had decided to let this stray foreigner stay for free anyway. He also wanted to make sure that I caught the right train for the next leg of my journey. Where else in the world could one find that kind of service?
Arriving eventually in Tokyo the good impressions continued. One felt the raw energy of a nation struggling to emerge from defeat and destruction. Already I was beginning to feel that this was a country I would want to get to know better.
From Tokyo I decided to spend more time travelling around Japan by train. By this time I was busily learning the kana (phonetic script the Japanese also used). That plus the kanji let me handle the very detailed train time-tables. I was able to travel where I wanted and when I wanted with ease, something many Tokyo-bound foreigners still do not realise.
More impressions impacted — the deep green of the Tohoku (northern Honshu) countryside, the young Kyoto girl keen to practice her English while showing me around the temples (also without payment), a woman running a small yatai (eating stall) on the hill running up from Beppu Station and who generously took me in for the night, a random hike through the early winter frost along the Kirishima peaks of southern Kyushu, the boat trip through volcanic islands to Okinawa. I knew then that somehow, some time, I would want to come back to this unusual nation.
Back to Canberra, and blind Sinophobia
By the time I got back to Hong Kong my two year posting was running out. I headed back to Canberra, this time travelling via Northern Borneo and Sarawak.
Both territories were in dispute because of the plan to force them into an artificial state called Malaysia. I got to meet some Overseas Chinese in Sarawak. With an obvious sincerity, they told me about the discrimination they had suffered for years from the colonial regime, and their fears that they would suffer even more in a Malay dominated state.
Some of the more idealistic and younger Chinese had gone off into the mountains bordering Indonesian Borneo to join an armed resistance movement. Most were eventually wiped out in the uneven fight with better armed and well-paid British, and Australian, troops. Their deaths, and their motivations, will remain for ever unrecorded.
Back in Canberra I discovered that those resisters were not seen as people with a cause. Rather, they were seen as Beijing’s puppets, as clear proof of Beijing’s belligerence and determination to move south into Asia. Why? Well, they were mainly Chinese, and everyone knew that the Overseas Chinese were beholden to Beijing.
Nor was the fact that Beijing had done absolutely nothing to help the rebels with arms, funds or personnel seen as relevant. In the rock-filled minds of our Canberra ‘experts’, the rebels were members of an Overseas Chinese Third Column (their word, not mine) being prepared by Beijing for its planned South-east Asian takeover.
It was my first encounter with something that would puzzle me so much for the rest of my career. Here were intelligent, well- educated people put in charge of foreign policy, but who had absolutely no idea of the reality of the disputes they were supposed to be studying. Worse they were perfectly happy not to know that reality. They were quite content to remain in the warm embrace of their dogmatic one-sided judgements. How could they do it and still remain at ease with their consciences?
In Sarawak only a few hundred young Chinese were to die as a result of this bias. In Vietnam the numbers would be in the millions.
The China Desk
Back in Canberra, I was put into the Department’s East Asia section while waiting my next posting. There I discovered a lot more about Canberra’s anti-China phobias. The basic premise was simple: Peking (as it was called in those days) was the enemy. Any and every move it made had to be seen with suspicion. There could be no contact of any kind with such a source of deep evil...
Even a visit by an innocent dance troupe to Sydney had to handled with great caution. And this, I should add, was a China which by 1962 had shaken off its Great Leap Forward madness and was trying to consolidate under the leadership of moderates like Chou En-lai and Deng Hsiao-ping (as their names were then spelled).
I tried to suggest that Beijing’s hands-off policies towards the ugly Sarawak situation proved how China was an unusually inward- looking nation with little interest in what happened beyond its frontiers. I could not imagine, for example, Canberra or Washington showing such restraint in a similar situation.
That idea did not get very far. I then put forward a submission saying that we should encourage Taiwan-China contacts since the Taiwanese example would do much to steer Beijing away from some of its obsessive Marxist beliefs. That idea did not even get to court, let alone get laughed out of it.. (Researchers poring through old External Affairs files are invited to look for that submission, and the reaction to it)
I discovered some of the background to the 1959 ban on any contact with Lee Kwan Yew I had seen three years earlier in Singapore. .
It seems that in the 1959 election that brought Lee to power, Canberra. London and Washington had covertly poured large funds into the pockets of Lee’s main opponent — the ineffectual but pro-British Lim Yew Hock. Lee won anyway, and got his revenge several years later by sending Lim as ambassador to Canberra.
There Lim was to be even more ineffectual. He disappeared from his embassy for a week and after a frantic search was found in the care of a Sydney stripper called Sandra Nelson. And this was the man that the Western powers had chosen to stop the feared communist thrust into Southeast Asia!
During the Vietnam War years I tried time and time at conferences and debates on Asian affairs to use this story to prove the ignorance and folly of Western policies in Asia. After all, if the West could not realise the importance of a Lee Kwan Yew rather than a Lim Yew Hock in providing the leadership needed to steer Asia away from communism, the chances of success among the sundry collection of incompetent dictators it was backing in the rest of Asia, Vietnam especially, were slim.
As far as I know, Australia’s intellectual elite is still quite uninterested in this crucial detail. It fusses endlessly over the role of such trimmings as ANZUS or SEATO at the time. Yet it cannot focus in on the much more important fact that we saw Lee as a crypto-communist and tried undemocratically to prevent him from coming to power. I cannot think of a more damning indictment of Western, including Australian, policies in Asia.
But the only response I ever got (from Brian Johns of all people) was a rebuke for harming Lim Yew Hock’s personal privacy by mentioning the Sandra Nelson affair.
I once raised all this in a Singapore speech, with much attendant publicity and even a comment by Lee himself. At least the Singaporeans know what is important in Asia, and what is not.
This strange Australian ability to ignore facts and details that contradict current orthodoxies still puzzles me. Not once while working in the East Asia section did I see any mention of such important details as the fact that in 1949 the US had actually written Chiang Kai-shek off as a Chinese leader, and had admitted that the China-Taiwan confrontation was an extension of the pre- 1949 civil war in which the US had no intention to intervene (Washington only changed its mind after the outbreak of the Korean War, despite the fact that the North Korean attack on the South has been backed by Moscow and Beijing, if anything, had opposed the attack).
By the time I arrived in Canberra, not just naïve politicians but allegedly informed foreign policy bureaucrats were quite convinced of the rightness of support for Taiwan and Chiang Kai- shek as the true representatives of the Chinese people in the UN and elsewhere. Progressives like Keith Brennan, who had tried to warn Gorton about Chiang’s deviousness, were seen as a soft- headed, small-L liberal quite unaware of Asia’s realities. .
My immediate superior, and mentor, in the East Asia section was Hugh Dunn. Sensitive and serious, and with some background in Chinese studies — something very rare in the Department (though he too could not speak the language) - I assumed that he at least was someone with some idea of what was going on around China.. Here too I was wrong. He too was caught up in the myths of Chinese aggressiveness. Years later, with the disclosure of some secret Vietnam War cables, his name turned up in various strange places suggesting that he was even more hawkish and more involved in hammering out Canberra’s ugly policies than I had realised.
The Korean War Factor
Dunn had previously served in Korea, and his hawkishness, like that of James Plimsoll, Department head for much of the sixties, and several other senior diplomats at the time, seemed to have been forged very much in experience and memories of the 1950-53 Korean War (Dunn, like Plimsoll, had served in Seoul. His wife was Korean). For them, the only thing that seemed to matter was the Korean War sufferings for many of the people they had got to know in Seoul . From this it followed that the North Korea communists who had caused that suffering had to be evil, and by extension all other Asian communists or pro-communists.
It was a strangely personalist approach to foreign affairs. My External Affairs colleagues could identify closely with the sufferings and motivations of the people they knew. But they could not extrapolate, to grasp the sufferings and motivations of the people they did not know.
As for the reality of the Korean War — that it was a civil war aimed to end the arbitrary and illegitimate division of the Korean peninsula, in which the North had just as much right to attack its murderous rival in the South as the South had to attack the North and which the South was threatening to do anyway – such thoughts never even crossed their minds, at least not on the papers that I saw.
Without massive US intervention, the North could easily have won that civil war. Normally in the absence of elections, victory in a civil war without foreign intervention is usually seen as an expression of national will ( certainly that was the case in with the US civil war almost a century earlier). Yet for some reason that principle was not supposed to apply in Korea.
Nor could the parochial Canberra minds even begin to cope with such details as the reason why the North might have had the balance of national support – namely that pro-communists had been the only effective anti-Japanese force in pre-1945 years. Or the fact that the dreadful pre-1950 roundups and executions of progressive elements in the South, the 1948 Cheju Island massacre especially, gave North Korea’s attack on the South a moral legitimacy also .
Even more relevant and undeniable was the US statement to the UN in August 1950 when it believed it could unite Korea on its own anti-communist terms. In June 1950 the US and Canberra had claimed as the basis for their intervention the fact that North Korea had committed ‘aggression’ across an internationally recognised boundary. But in August 1950, just two months later and as its troops were moving northwards to the Chinese border, the US was quite happy formally to deny that there was ‘any historical or legal basis for the division of the peninsula.’
Inconsistency is not a recent addition to the foreign policies of our US friends.
Needless to say, not once did I find any mention of this statement, let alone its implications, in the all the time that I was in External Affairs — I only discovered it by accident years after I had left the Department. For our policy makers, the North Korean attack and the later Chinese intervention to prevent the US advance north to the Chinese border were all proof of an aggressive Asian communism threatening Australia. Millions were to die in Indochina as a result.
I was to run into exactly the same personalist phenomenon a few years later over Vietnam, where once again the cruel sufferings imposed on the other side and its right to wage civil war were quite beyond the grasp of my Canberra colleagues. Once again, the only thing that mattered were the views and sufferings of our anti- communist friends in Saigon.
The fact that the Geneva Agreements of 1954 specifically denied any legal division of Vietnam, and had called for unification elections, was never allowed to trouble the minds of our Canberra and other hawks.
This personalist approach to foreign affairs is curious. Even well educated Australians find it hand to stand back and view events objectively. They rely mainly on personal experience. And since the only direct personal experience they have is, by definition, with the side that Australian foreign policy happens to support (as in Singapore in 1959, few ever bother to talk to the other side), then that becomes the side to which they are emotionally committed . .
One finds the same particularistic and emotional one-sidedness also in Japan — a nation that has quite a few other value system similarities with Australia. The inability of even educated Japanese to grasp the reality of the horrors their nation imposed on China, Korea and much of Southeast Asian during the war years was long an unforgivable blot on the reputation of a people I later came to like and even to admire in some ways.
The Sino-Indian Dispute
But it was the Sino-Indian frontier war of October 1962 that more than anything else sent me into despair. It convinced me finally of the rigidity of Canberra’s anti-China and anti-communist hatreds, and hopelessness of forcing any change.
As China desk officer I had been following closely the buildup of frontier disputes throughout that year. It was obvious that India was in the wrong, with Nehru pushing a dangerously forward policy. China was on the defensive, trying desperately to warn New Delhi of the dangers of escalation, and to appeal to world opinion to stop the Indian push.
When the fighting broke out one needed only to look at the maps to realise that Indian troops had moved north of even the most ambitious Indian claim line, and that this had sparked a Chinese retaliatory attack. Beijing had finally decided on firm action to put an end to constant harassment by Indian forces along the disputed border..
But few were interested in such details. It was much easier to brand China as the aggressor and peaceful, democratic India as the innocent victim. I have posted the full story in two of my website articles. They are "Remembering the War – the 1962 India-China Conflict" and "Book Review: India’s China War, by Neville Maxwell." Readers are invited to look at them and reach their own conclusions.
For years after I left the Department in 1965 I tried vainly to get the correct version of events into circulation. Later, when I discovered how the biased Western view of that Sino-Indian dispute had provided legitimacy for the dreadful interventions in Indochina, my frustration turned into anger.
Even people as astute and informed as Henry Kissinger took it for granted that the 1962 events had proved conclusively the fact of Chinese aggressiveness and determination to move south. The very significant fact that China, after teaching India a well-deserved lesson, had subsequently moved its troops back to above not just the Chinese claimed frontier but even the Indian claimed frontier was never recognised as the proof of Chinese border restraint that it was..
If anything, it was seen as a retreat in the face of Western determined support for India! Wow.
Later I was to see time and time again the childish ease with which the West could convince itself that conciliatory moves by the other side were in fact concessions and withdrawals forced by Western anti-communist firmness. This in turn was to lead inexorably to the arrogance and aggressiveness of Western policies in the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East today. But that discovery trip is another story, which for me began soon after with two years in the bosom of the real ‘enemy’ in those paranoiac days - the USSR .