Australia-Asia Relations in Historical Context

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Australia-Asia Relations in Historical Context


Historically, a number of recurring themes have shaped the actions of generations of policy-makers. As a creation of imperial Britain, Australia has always been a long way from "home" and often painfully conscious of its isolation and potential vulnerability. The sense of being strangers in a strange land, surrounded by peoples of whom they knew little other than that they were different, alien, and possibly hostile, shaped much of Australia's early international relations. Indeed, it is still possible to trace the continuing influence of such insecurities and uncertainties in contemporary policies.

This sense of isolationism and vulnerability when combined with a striking lack of desire for autonomy, inaugurated policies that were characterized chiefly by their dependence on "great and powerful friends" --- in Australia's case, Britain and then the United States. Remarkably, although nominally an independent nation since 1901, Australia did not even move to establish independent diplomatic relations before World War II, preferring instead to rely on Britain to mediate its external affairs. It required the unambiguous confirmation of Britain's decline, evidenced by its expulsion from Southeast Asia at the hands of the Japanese during World War II, to break the colonial mindset that had prevailed hitherto in Australia. Even then, the net effect of the changing geopolitical balance in the Asia-Pacific was simply to exchange one strategic dependence for another, as the United States replaced Britain in the minds, if not the hearts, of Australia's strategic planners.

Yet, the changing realities of Australia's regional position were apparent even before World War II. Not only had Japan's growing imperial ambitions demonstrated that there was now a major military power in East Asia, but its rapid rise to become Australia's second largest trading partner during the 1930s also revealed the extent of its growing economic importance to Australia. The contradictory nature of Australia's relations with Asia --- partly economic opportunity, partly strategic threat --- was encapsulated in this increasingly important relationship, and continues to characterize relations with the region to this day. What has differed is the success with which this fundamental paradox has been reconciled by policy-makers in different eras.

At its most egregious, this tension led to abominations like the "White Australia" policy, which was a defining orientation towards the region for much of the twentieth century. Dedicated to preserving not only Australia's strategic integrity, but also its distinctive Anglo-Celtic culture, the enduring effect of the "White Australia" policy has been to provide an excruciatingly embarrassing legacy for subsequent generations of policy-makers keen to embrace "Asia", rather than keep it at arms length. The principal motivating force behind this belated change of attitude towards the region on the part of Australia's political élites was largely a pragmatism borne of economic expediency: the direction of Australia's trade changed profoundly in the post-war period, to a point where its major trading partners and export growth were overwhelmingly concentrated in the Asian region.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Australia-Asia Relations in Historical Context
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?