TRADE conflicts are threatening to do even more damage to the fragile Australia-New Zealand-United States (ANZUS) defense alliance than the region's long-standing antinuclear sentiments. This was one of the conclusions drawn at a conference last week attended by diplomats, academics, and economists on economic trends affecting ANZUS relations. The conference was sponsored by the US-funded East-West Center in Hawaii.
``There's a real risk that the defense relationship has become more brittle now due to tension over trade,'' notes Australia's former secretary of foreign affairs, Stuart Harris.
Indeed, Australia is upset with the US for its failure to revise quotas on sugar imports. Last month, US sugar quotas were found to be in violation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), a global system of trading rules. But the US is slow to comply.
The US is a vocal advocate of free trade - especially when it is trying to push the European Community into lowering farm subsidies or to remove Japan's trade barriers. But when it comes to competing with nations such as Australia and New Zealand (which have very low farm subsidies and are lowering manufacturing trade barriers), the US doesn't practice what it preaches, Australian officials say.
Along with sugar, Australia's beef and New Zealand's lamb sales to the US are limited by import restrictions.
One solution suggested at the conference was that Australia might form an alliance with US consumer groups to tell Americans how much government farm subsidies and protectionist barriers cost.
Richard Baker, former US diplomat and conference organizer, says more regular meetings between officials might help head off conflicts and make US policymakers more aware of how US trade skirmishes with Europe and Japan can hurt US relations with small- to medium-sized nations.
``There aren't all that many countries which, as a matter of practice as well as rhetoric, actually pursue the free-trade philosophies we pursue. In the international debates about where economic policy should go, we need all the friends we can get,'' Baker says.
As a matter of policy, Australian officials don't link trade problems to the defense relationship.
But Baker says that if the US continues to step on Australia's toes on trade matters, this will tend to sour the general public's perceptions of the defense relationship between the two countries.
The US jointly manages a submarine communications base and two facilities here which monitor spy satellites poised over China and the Soviet Union.
An Australian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee issued a report last week recommending nuclear-powered warships be temporarily banned from five major Australian ports. The report said safety and emergency evacuation plans were inadequate.
Defense Minister Kim Beazley quickly rejected the recommendation as incompatible with Australia's obligations to its allies.