09 December 2018
Allan Gyngell

Australia's journey towards an Asian Century

Allan Gyngell’s “Fear of Abandonment” is a veritable tour de force, which is essential reading for anyone interested in Australia’s past, present or future, writes John West.

No one review could do justice to Allan Gyngell's "Fear of Abandonment". This masterpiece on the history of Australia's foreign policy contains several narratives and sub-plots for readers. For me, the most important storyline is Australia's journey from being a mere dominion of mother Britain to increasingly shaping its own new destiny in the burgeoning Asian Century.

But first of all, it is surely surprisingly for many readers to learn that Australia only reluctantly assumed responsibility for its foreign policy in 1942, more than 40 years after federation (national independence), when the Australian parliament ratified the British Statute of Westminster of 1931, long after other dominions like Canada and South Africa were brave enough to do so.

According to Gyngell, “Australians thought of themselves as much a part of the British Empire as residents of London or Manchester. They were children of the mother country.” They were thus more comfortable to defer to London. There was however more than a hint of Australia’s future destiny when in 1939 Prime Minister Robert Menzies said "In the Pacific we have primary responsibilities and primary risks. What Great Britain calls the Far East is to us the near north”.

It is also shocking to learn that Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ key objectives at the Versailles Peace Conference at the end of World War 1 included vigorous opposition to Japanese efforts to include a commitment to racial equality in the covenant of the new League of Nations for fear that it might lead to criticism of the White Australia policy.

Australia’s pivot to the US

After World War 2, the UK was a greatly diminished power, and with the progressive loss of its Asian colonies, the US became the predominant power in the Pacific. As Australia's external affairs minister, Percy Spender, noted in 1950 that there had been "a shift in the gravity of world affairs ... from the Atlantic to the Pacific." In light of Australia’s ongoing “fear of abandonment”, a constant preoccupation for Australian policy makers was how to keep the US engaged in the Pacific, writes Gyngell.

The Australian government was very keen to enter into a security pact with the US, and eventually did so in the form of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty. This involved some costs, or “insurance premiums” to pay, according to Gyngell. The US held Australia back from recognising communist China after Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War. And Australia’s involvement in the Korean, Vietnam and future wars were in order to pay the insurance premium on the ANZUS alliance.

Reorienting international economic relations

International economic relations were a major postwar issue. “Coming out of [World War 2], the Australian economy was characterised by preferential trade with Britain, which took around half the country's exports, import quotas, high tariffs, and a currency tied to the British pound and managed by the government”, according to Gyngell.

Australia’s international economic relations would soon been transformed through a switch to non-discriminatory and multilateral trade through the GATT/WTO. The Hawke/Keating governments (1983-96) unilaterally further opened the economy by abolishing import quotas, slashing tariffs, privatising state-owned enterprises, floating the exchange rate, and deregulating the financial sector.

And in more recent years, as the multilateral trading system seems to have ground to a halt, Australia has been very active in securing bilateral free trade agreements with China, Japan, and Korea, and keeping the Trans Pacific Partnership alive in cooperation with Japan. This facilitated the development of Australia’s dense trade and investment relationships with Asia -- first with Japan, then Korea and now China.

A major postwar achievement was building a substantial economic relationship with Japan argues Gyngell. In 1957, Australia signed a Commerce Agreement with Japan which charted a new direction in relations, and then by 1966, Japan had surpassed Britain as Australia's largest export market. In 1976, Australia and Japan signed a Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. It had become an important international partner for Australia, as it still is today, even though it has been eclipsed by China.

Australia was also an early leader in development cooperation in Asia, notably through its initiative to create the Colombo Plan, a collective intergovernmental effort to strengthen economic and social development of member countries in the Asia-Pacific region. This was “Important as the first multilateral Asian aid scheme engaging the Asian countries themselves”.

Forging closer links with Asia

Despite Australia’s numerous foreign policy successes, the new Labor government (left-wing) of Gough Whitlam inherited much unfinished business when it came to power in 1972, according to Gyngell. It established diplomatic relations with communist China, abolished the last remnants of the White Australia policy, and disengaged from the Vietnam war. In 1974, Australia became the first non-member state to establish formal relations with ASEAN.

Although it would be successive Labor governments which demonstrated the greatest leadership for Australia’s engagement with Asia, between April 1975 and October 1980 Australia accepted nearly 42,000 Indochinese refugees, the highest number per capita of any country of asylum except Hong Kong, under the right-wing Liberal Government of Malcolm Fraser (1975-83). The Liberal Party would however be tainted by its association with the election of Pauline Hanson in 1996 on an anti-Asian migration platform. Although her stay in parliament was short, she would be re-elected as a senator in 2016, once again with a strong anti-migration stance.

It was only with the arrival of the Labor Governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-96), and Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard (2007-13) that Australia firmly hitched its wings to the Asian Century.

Hitching wings to Asian Century

Gyngell recounts that Hawke was the driving force behind the creation of the APEC forum, with the first (Ministerial) meeting being held in Canberra in November 1989. Keating convinced US President Clinton to hold the first APEC leaders’ meeting in 1993, and then convinced Indonesian President Suharto to do so in 1994, thereby regularising this annual summit. The ASEAN Regional Forum, an important forum for security dialogue in Asia, established in 1994, was also an Australian initiative.

Kevin Rudd played a key role in the development of the East Asia Summit. And Rudd was also the driving force behind the transformation of the G20 into annual summit. While global in focus, the G20 does include all of Asia’s major economies, namely China, India, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea, along with Australia.

The Hawke government led arguably one of the greatest transformations in the Australian economy and society when in 1985 it permitted foreign students to be enrolled without numerical limits in Australian educational institutions. Today, education is Australia’s third largest export, worth $28 billion in 2017, with a record 685,000 foreign students enrolled in courses in the first half of 2017.

Labor governments have also been the most active in thought leadership regarding Australia’s relationship with Asia, starting with reports like "Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy" (1989) through to the 2012 White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century.

Keeping the US interested

As Australia navigates its way towards an Asian Century, it faces arguably the most complex point in the history of its foreign relations. In particular, three relationships stand out in Gyngell’s narrative as being at least as problematic as they have ever been.

Since the fading of Britain as an Asian power, Australia has always worked to maintain America’s interest in the region. And today, with the rise of China and the unpredictability of Trump’s America, this is still a major worry for Australia. Gyngell reminds us that there may be nothing new in this when he writes “In 1992, following the end of the Cold War, the government was already concerned that the US military presence in the region will decline”.

Ups and downs with Indonesia

Paul Keating once said that there is "no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia”. And with this country being the world’s fourth most populous country, having the world’s largest Muslim population, and being Australia’s closest large neighbour, Keating’s assessment may well be true.

But Australia’s relationship with Indonesia has had many ups and downs. Australia was an early supporter of its independence from the Netherlands. But Whitlam blundered in sending mixed signals to Indonesia's President Suharto regarding Australia's position on East Timor, as it seemingly gave Suharto a green light for its bloody invasion.

For his part, Keating forged a close relationship with Suharto, and secured the 1995 “Agreement on Maintaining Security 1995”. And John Howard’s Liberal government provided generous assistance following the tragic 2004 tsunami, and agreed a “Framework for Security Cooperation” in 2006.

But there have been a litany of problems disturbing the relationship like: Australia’s role in East Timor’s independence; refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan travelling through Indonesia to seek asylum in Australia; death sentences and imprisonment for Australian drug smugglers; disputes over live cattle exports; and revelations that the personal mobile phones of former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife were wiretapped by Australian intelligence.

Since the publication of Gyngell’s book, Australia’s relations with Indonesia have tripped up yet again. The recent statement by Scott Morrison, Australia’s new prime minister, that he was “open to” moving Australia’s Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem only gives the impression that Australia tone deaf to its neighbourhood. The Indonesian government predictably reacted with great concern, and has put on ice the signing Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, a very important initiative for moving forward the troublesome relationship between the two countries.

Responding to Chinese power

Australia’s relationship with China has also had its share of ups and downs. During the 1950s, well before Australia recognised Mao’s communist regime, China was the biggest customer for Australia’s wheat exports. As a precursor to formal diplomatic relations, Federal Opposition leader Gough Whitlam led a mission to communist China in 1971, where he met with Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai in the Great Hall of the People.

The 1989 Tiananmen Square incident resulted in a temporary freeze in relations, as it did with most advanced countries. In response to the tragedy, an emotional Bob Hawke gave a speech in Parliament House in Canberra paying tribute to the "acts of indescribable bravery" and declared that to "crush the spirit and body of youth is to crush the very future of China itself". He also offered a one-year extension to student visas, which triggered applications from about 10,000 Chinese students.

Economic relations between Australia would boom, especially following China’s membership of the World Trade Organisation in 2001, such that China is now Australia’s most important trading partner, and source of international students and tourists. It has been estimated that Australia is now the most China-dependent G20 country.

John Howard’s Liberal Government experienced tensions with China in 1996. But during the 2000s political and defence links steadily grew with the first joint military exercise in 2004 and the establishment of an annual strategic dialogue between the two foreign ministers in 2007, Beijing’s first such arrangement with a Western country. And in 2013, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced the establishment of a “Strategic Partnership” between Australia and China

In recent years, during the presidency of Xi Jinping there has been a substantial renewal of tensions in light of concerns about Chinese investments and business interests in Australia, and in view of evidence of Chinese government interference in Australian politics and society.

In an interview earlier this year, Gyngell was quoted as saying "... China is big and wants to have influence and is finding its voice in the world." But on Chinese influence he says Australia has the tools to protect its democratic institutions. "Essentially it's our problem and the solution lies in our own hands."

In the same interview, Gyngell concluded "I can't think of a more challenging time to be a policymaker in Australia." And there may be no better preparation for a maker of foreign policy than the history outlined in “Fear of Abandonment”, which is a veritable tour de force. For as George Kenan wrote over sixty years ago -- “If we plod along … unaided by history, … none can be sure of direction or of pace or of the trueness of action”.


John West is author of the recent book "Asian Century … on a Knife-Edge" ( https://www.palgrave.com/br/book/9789811071812 ), and adjunct professor at Tokyo's Sophia University.
Tags: asia, allan gyngell

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