Southeast Asian Perceptions of Australia's Foreign Policy

By Snyder, Craig A. | Contemporary Southeast Asia, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Southeast Asian Perceptions of Australia's Foreign Policy


Snyder, Craig A., Contemporary Southeast Asia


Australia's Asia-Pacific regional security policy has traditionally seen a balancing between two competing policy approaches, one of seeking protection from threats in the region by "great and powerful friends" and the other of greater engagement with the region. Since coming to office in 1996, the Howard Coalition government has sought to redress what it saw as a dangerous swing towards the later approach by the previous Hawke-Keating Labor governments and sought to reinvigorate its relationship with the United States. This policy of closer ties with the United States began with a renewal of the Australia-US alliance in 1996 and strong diplomatic support for US actions vis-a-vis China over Taiwan in that year. Following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001, Australia has even further intensified its positioning alongside of the United States in global strategic affairs. Australia, for the first time, invoked the ANZUS Treaty (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) in response to the attacks. It sent troops to Afghanistan as part of the "war on terror". It sent into battle its largest military force since the Vietnam war as part of the coalition in the war in Iraq. In addition, it was an early and active participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative, hosting the second plenary meeting in Brisbane in July 2003 and hosting a major exercise in April 2006.

Alongside of this reinvigoration of the alliance with the United States, the Howard government has also shifted away from a more passive cooperative regional security policy towards a more aggressive globalist policy. In late November and early December 2002, in the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Bali, which killed 202 people including 88 Australians, the Australian government expressed its support for a policy of pre-emptive self-defence following the release of the US National Security Strategy (NSS). (1) In addition, Australia began to advocate for a revision in the United Nations Charter that would weaken the norm of non-interference in the domestic affairs of states. On 1 December 2002, Howard was asked by Laurie Oakes on the Channel 9 Sunday news and current affairs TV programme, "you've been arguing for a new approach to pre-emptive defence ... [d]oes that mean that ... if you knew that ... people in another neighbouring country were planning an attack on Australia that you would be prepared to act?" He replied

   ... it stands to reason that if you believed that somebody was
   going to launch an attack against your country, either of a
   conventional kind or of a terrorist kind, and you had a capacity to
   stop it and there was no alternative other than to use that
   capacity then of course you would have to use it. (Australia
   Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet 2002)

While Howard's answer to this question may sound reasonable in regard to self-defence when no other options are available, this statement caused a great deal of controversy among the Southeast Asian states as it was popularly cast as an Australian declaration of a pre-emptive strike doctrine. Many official statements and media commentaries from the region expressed their condemnation of the perceived Australian challenge to their sovereignty. Malaysia's then Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir (cited in Bhatia 2002), an ardent critic of the tendency of Australian and other Western states to impose their views on the Malaysian government and society, stated that the policy demonstrates Howard's "belligerence and recalcitrance and his anti-Asian hide". Official spokesmen for Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines all criticized the policy as flouting international law (Burton 2002; Straits Times 2002; ABC Radio National 2005). Even Singapore, a traditional supporter of Australia's role in the region, criticized the Australian statement. Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Tony Tan (cited in Baguioro 2002) stated that while self-defence is the right of all states, "the use of force must be subject to the principles of international law".

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