The Strategic Dimension of Australia's Asia Relations

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

The Strategic Dimension of Australia's Asia Relations


If economic engagement with Asia has been the great potential opportunity that forced a major reorientation of Australian policy during the last couple of decades, the possible strategic threat posed by the region has been its dark flip-side. From Australia's inception, the threat posed by "Asia" has often been poorly understood. In the post World War II period, as Australia gradually took more responsibility for its own foreign policies, as it developed national expertise in defence and international relations, and as it built up a greater capacity for independent judgement, a more sophisticated view of the region and Australia's place in it has emerged. Despite this greater understanding on the part of Australia's policy-making élites, however, a number of enduring tensions continue to characterize security policy in particular.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, successive Labor governments made a determined effort to deepen and institutionalize Australia's relations with the region. The strategic counterpart to the economically-oriented APEC initiative culminated in the establishment of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in 1994 --- a development that Australia's activist regional diplomacy played a large part in realizing. The rapid economic development of both North and latterly Southeast Asia meant that not only was the region increasingly important to Australia economically, but its very economic success also transformed the strategic outlook. In the minds of Australia's strategic planners, this evoked a new set of possible threats as Southeast Asia suddenly acquired the ability to finance military modernization. The ARF offered the prospect of reducing uncertainty, increasing transparency, and generally developing confidence-building measures in a historically volatile region. …

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