Australia-Asia Relations in Historical Context

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

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. …

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