The relationship between Asia and Australia

No two world events have reshaped the relationship between Asia and Australia, and Australia’s perception of Asia more than World War Two (1939 – 1942) and the Vietnam War (1962 – 1972). As a result, today Australia’s highest foreign policy is Asia and we have developed a relationship in many sectors – political, economic, social, cultural, military and security. However, the recent rejection of Australia into the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has demonstrated Australia still has a long way to go to achieve a positive relationship with its closest neighbours.

Unlike any other country in the world, Australia has a unique combination of geography and culture. European born and geographically Asian, Australia is inexplicably tied to both regions. Consequently, the dialectic between these two regions is extremely complicated. Whilst English is still the first language, Australia is deeply integrated with Asia. As Keating argues “hundreds of thousands of jobs continue to depend of Asian markets, Australia’s security is shaped there” (Keating 2000 p27), Australia’s Asian population is constantly growing. Consequently, as Alexander Downer stated “”We have substantial and abiding interest at stake in the region and we would neglect those interests at our very great peril” (Downer 1999 p22)

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Australia’s relationship with Asia is perpetually changing. Factors such as globalization, immigration and world events has resulted in an Australia, which is as Keating argues “constantly redefining itself, shifting its image of what it means to be Australian in response to the changing world” (Keating 2000 p27). Over the past year, events such as the Sars virus, Australia’s decision to join the US in its attack on Iraq, the “fight against terrorism” and the Bali bombings have all dramatically impacted and shaped Australia’s relations with Asia.

World War 2

World War Two played a major role in changing Australia’s perceptions of Asia, Britain and the United States. The momentous event alerted Australians to the fact that they could no longer look to their mother country Britain for security, that the US was the new super power and that “what happens in our neighbourhood will affect us more deeply and more quickly than events that occur in most other parts of the world”. (Downer 1999 p22)

As John Ingleson argues, pre World War two there was little or no need for Australians to concern themselves with Asian issues or culture, as they felt safe living under the belief that Europe and particularly Britain would offer them protection and security. Consequently, “there was little or no attempt to understand the cultural adaptions Australia might need to undergo if the world of European dominance passed away”. (John Ingleson 1999 p177)

Japan’s strength upon entering the war in December 1941 shattered Australia’s perception of Asia. Japan’s occupation of South East Asia and large areas of the Pacific, the fall of Singapore, the bombing of Darwin and the entry by Japanese submarines into Sydney Harbour not only “riveted national attention on the security of our (the Australian) region” (Downer 1999 p22) but “demonstrated that the British neither could nor would defend Australia” (Greg Sheridan 2001). Consequently, Australia was forced to look to the United States for protection which was confirmed by the ANZUS treaty in 1951 which aligned Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

The Second World War was a major contributor in decreasing global insularity and the interaction that followed demonstrates the developing steps in Australia’s relationship with Asia and Australia’s changing perception of Asia. The White Australia policy which “arose from a Commonwealth government objective of creating and maintaining a monoracial Australia” (Cathgart M 2003 and prejudiced against Asian immigrants was abolished, whilst the Colombo Plan and the signing of the 1957 Australia – Japan trade agreement acknowledged Asia as a valuable trading partner. However, it is Foreign Minister Richard Casey’s comment during the 1950’s that “our special role lies in South East Asia and consequently our foreign policy is largely but not exclusively concerned with that region” (Casey as sited by Downer (1999)) , which confirms the significant transformation of Australia’s attitude to Asia, during this period.

Vietnam War 1962 – 1972

Whilst World War Two was a confirmation that Australia’s security could be determined by it’s relations with Asia, the Vietnam War established Australia’s need for an independent foreign policy – one that was defined it in terms other than as the loyal ally of the United States.

Australia’s military involvement in the Vietnam War was the longest in duration of any war in Australia’s history, and was in accordance with the policies of the United States, to stop the spread of Communism in Europe and Asia. That involvement lasted over eleven years, between August 1962 and June 1973. However, it was the failure of the US to gain victory which “dented the confidence Australians once had in the Western invincibility” (Rizvi F 1996 p177) and determined that Australia’s long term interests were not always in keeping with its closest allies.

It was not only Australia’s attitude to the US which changed as a result of the Vietnam war – the ‘Asians’ which had been constructed as ‘inferior’ had “shown themselves to be surprisingly enterprising” (Rizvi F1996 p177) This brought about a change not only economically, but also in Australia’s attitude towards Asians and particularly China. Consequently, the Foreign policy which followed attempted to develop trading links and growth within the region as well as develop deeper relations with Asian countries.

Australia as an Asian country

Despite the dramatic changes which occurred as a result of the Second World War and the Vietnam War in Australia’s relationship with Asia, today the relationship is even more complex, ambiguous and contradictory (1996 Rizvi F p177) Constantly throughout the media and politics, arguments exist relating to whether Australia is part of Asia, and it has been a significant element in shaping Australia’s relations with Asia. As Gerald Henderson argued “Australia’s lack of a clear identity, or our apparent inability to project a clearly focused image of ourselves as a nation, is a hindrance to our wish to be “accepted” in Asia” (Henderson (2002))

Whilst Australian politicians such as Peter Beattie have argued that it is “only realistic to recognise that Australia is geographically part of Asia”, Broinowski and Rawdon Dalrymply have argued that this is an oversimplified statement which invites criticism from Asian nations. By attempting to affiliate Australia with the Asian countries, Dalrymply suggests that Australia is humiliating itself by “giving a free kick to One Nation” (Dalrymply 1898 p.13) and Australian’s such as Pauline Hanson, whom encourage racial and cultural intolerance.

Dalrymply and David Li also suggest that Australia’s oversimplification of the term “Asian countries” can be offensive to countries which are defined as Asian because there is no single “Asian” culture (David Li 1997), and “countries as diverse as India, Japan, The Philippines, and Malaysia have little more in common with one another than they do with Australia ” (Li D 1997).

Li maintains that Australia is never likely to be culturally Asian despite the continuous increase in Asian immigration. He asserts that Australia will remain a Western country to the rest of the region, and to the rest of the western world because English is the first language and Australia has continues to rely on an English style legal system. Li argues that in order to develop a better relationship with Asia

Australia will need to more accurately define its presence in this region, especially in terms of what it offers and what role it wish’s to play – these matters are still unresolved.

Australia and Asia today

Australia’s wish to be accepted as Asian country was clearly evident in its recent bid for a seat at the ASEAN’s annual leader summit, which has “become central to Australia’s closer engagement with the region” (Cotton J 1997 p3). The rejection of the Howard Governement’s request has displayed that Australia still has a long way to go if it is to achieve a successful relationship with its closest northern neighbours and as Baker argues it “also points to a deeper and more disturbing malaise in Australia’s relationship with South East Asia”.

Baker along with Alan Dupont suggest that the reason for Australia’s rejection and negative relationship with Asia is Australia’s handling of the Bali bombings and its growing alliance with the US. Baker argues that Australian politicians are “exacerbating the devastating economic impact of the bombings” (Baker) which is subsequently straining their relationship with Asian leaders, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. This is supported by Indonesia’s president Megawati Soekarnoputri comment that Australia should show restraint in its anti-terrorist campaign (sited by Riley 2002), and the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad statement that Australia is no longer a safe place to live (sited by Riley 2002).

Dupont believes that it is America’s war against terrorism that has exacerbated the Australia’s relations with Asia. Dupont suggests that the US’s foreign policy which casts South East Asia as a problem area, could jeopardise Australia’s relations with Asia, because of Australia’s growing allegiance with the US (Dupont A 2002 p47).

Australia – United States relations

Australia’s support for the US’s foreign policies has also been evident in the war against Iraq, in which Australia was one of three countries participating. . As Parkinson suggests unlike the politicians of the eighties and nineties whom pushed for deeper engagement with Asia, Australia’s current Prime Minister, John Howard has maintained that Australia should not “over invest” in any one set of relationships. Parkinson along with Tom Skotnicki and Richard Woolcott, argue that this could raise a potential threat to Australia’s diplomatic standing in Asia and to future trade links.

Despite the fact that Asia is Australia’s “highest foreign policy”, Australia’s support for the US undermines this fact. Skotnicki suggests that Howard has “skewed the country’s foreign policy into a reflexive mirror of the George Bush world view” which has subsequently “downgraded the importance of relations in South East Asia” (Skotnicki 2003 p50). This is supported by Indonesian and Malaysian Prime Ministers as well as Abdul Razak Baginda, director of the Malaysian Strategic research centre, who claims that “Australia’s future may well be in Asia but its present is clearly tied up with the United States”

Evidently, the Bali bombings and subsequent “war against terrorism” and Australia’s support for the war against Iraq have had a marked effect on Australia’s relationship with Asia. Woolcott suggests that in order to improve relations the Australian “Government needs to strike a more appropriate balance between its alliance with the US and its foreign policies” (Woolcott as sited by Riley 2002)

Australia must ensure that we make an independent assessment of where our national interests lie and should not appear to reflexively support US policy stances on all matters of regional importance. If Australia is pursuing a serious engagement policy with Asia, it si likely to have some policy views that differ from those prevailing in Washington”

Simon Crean (


Australia’s relationship with Asia is constantly evolving and changing. Clearly, there is still an abundance of work to be achieved and maintained in order to keep improving relations with Asia. It can never stop. With so many different cultures held under the one term “Asia” it is, something that needs constant attention. Australia’s relationship with Asia has come along way since the Second World War, however the path to success is forever changing. Therefore it is important that Australia acts responsively to world events that impact on their relationship with Asia.

Asia has a lot to offer Australia and Australia has a lot to offer Australia has a lot to offer Australia. As Greg Sheriden suggested, we should use our cultural links with the west as a positive and sell these links to our Asian counterparts.

In the global economy, Australia may find that it’s combination of geographic location, cultural links and exceptional people represents the ultimate natural resource. One that is uniquely useful to businesses in both Asia and the West.