Australia and Asia-Pacific Security Regionalism: From Hawke and Keating to Howard

By Mcdougall, Derek | Contemporary Southeast Asia, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Australia and Asia-Pacific Security Regionalism: From Hawke and Keating to Howard


Mcdougall, Derek, Contemporary Southeast Asia


Both the Hawke and Keating Labor governments (1983-96) gave some attention to the development of Asia-Pacific "security regionalism" as a means of strengthening the regional focus in Australia's security policies. While the rhetoric has changed, in terms of substance the Howard coalition government has continued many of the policies of its predecessor. At the same time, this government has had to adjust to the changed circumstances in Indonesia, and particularly the crisis in East Timor. Papua New Guinea, especially Bougainville, has been a concern for both governments; new problems have also arisen in Fiji and the Solomon Islands. The emphasis on security regionalism complements the continuing importance of Australia's security relationships with both the United States and New Zealand.

Introduction

Since Australia's intervention in East Timor at the head of INTERFET (International Force East Timor) in September 1999, the relationship between Australia and Indonesia has been a difficult one. Previous assumptions of close co-operation between the two countries are no longer relevant. Australia receives criticism from many quarters in Indonesia for attempting to project itself too much into Indonesian affairs. Given Indonesia's size, this setback in Australian-Indonesian relations is even more significant than the criticisms Australia has faced from Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia over several years. Mahathir has argued that Australia is not "Asian" in any sense and therefore its attempts to become more involved in Asian affairs should be resisted by Asian countries.

The situation since 1999 raises questions about the future of Australia's attempts to engage with the Asia-Pacific region. In this article, the emphasis is on the security aspects of engagement. From the late 1980s, Australia put considerable emphasis on engaging with the region through the means of "security regionalism", that is, various schemes for developing co-operative security relations with the Asia-Pacific countries. Following the East Timor commitment, a major question is the extent to which security regionalism remains central to Australia's regional security policies. The focus here is on the policies pursued by the conservative coalition government led by John Howard (in office since 1996), compared with the previous Labor governments under Bob Hawke (1983-91) and Paul Keating (1991-96). The argument is that while the Howard government has had to face some different issues (including the changed situation in Indonesia and East Timor), in terms of substance, there has been a large measure of cont inuity with the policies of its predecessor. The differences have been largely at the level of rhetoric. The two governments have seen themselves as having different emphases in terms of the way in which they protect Australia's security interests in the region. In practice, the scope those governments have had for implementing distinctive emphases has been limited by the type of external developments that they have had to respond to.

Against this background, both the Labor government of 1983-96 and the post-1996 coalition government have put some emphasis on security regionalism as a component of their regional security policies. However, this approach featured much more in the rhetoric of the Labor government (particularly under Keating) than it has done under the Howard government. At the same time, both governments have often been preoccupied with developments in Australia's most immediate security environment, that is, maritime Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. Indonesia has been a major concern in this respect, but the situation in Papua New Guinea (particularly Bougainville) and other parts of the Southwest Pacific has also been relevant. The problems in these areas adjacent to Australia have intensified during the period of the Howard government. The apparent decline in emphasis on security regionalism can be related to the greater preoccupation with various regional security situations that demand immediate attention.

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