The Brisbane Institute Lecture

Australia's Contemporary Relationship with the Asian and Pacific Nations - 3 October 2001

In the early post-war years, Australia's natural inclination was still to look to Britain . The reality of the war and of Britain's pre-occupation with North Africa, the Middle East and with Europe, was not fully understood by the Australian leadership. It was believed that, because of Britain's interest in the Far East and South-East Asia, Malaysia and Singapore, her interest and her concerns would continue and that therefore a close defence and strategic association with the United Kingdom offered a viable option for Australia's future.

There were others, perhaps, led by Percy Spender, who were sceptical about the re-establishment of British power and who believed that we should look to the United States.

Australia was suddenly given leverage. While she had been unable to gain America's attention for a Defence Treaty, America wanted to settle and to sign the Peace Treaty with Japan. That could not be done without Australia. In these circumstances, the Australian Government was determined we would not sign unless we had a defence relationship with the United States. Without that leverage, ANZUS would not have existed.

It is also worth noting that the terms of the ANZUS Treaty contained a much lesser commitment than the commitment under NATO and a much lesser commitment than the United States gave to its former enemy, Japan .

Soviet Communism had caused major difficulties. Subversion and discord were rife. The containment of Communism was the main concern of the Australian government of the day. In these circumstances, the government believed it absolutely critical to consolidate America's interest in the Western Pacific. ANZUS was a significant step in that direction.

Affairs were stirring in East and South East Asia. Initially, Australia had been reluctant to commit troops to the Korean War but the decision was announced by Acting Prime Minister Fadden, on the urging of Spender, because to act early and decisively would catch the notice of the United States. We should note that the United States was not involved and has not been involved in relation to Malaya and South-East Asia generally. Australia had been reluctant to commit ground troops to combat the Communist insurgency in Malaya but, in the end Australia participated fully.

From the beginning, Spender and Casey in particular, believed that opposition to Communism should not merely be negative and reactive, that there should be a battle for the hearts and minds of people and that involved exposing Australia to regional influences. It also involved an aid programme, designed to lift living standards, especially through countries of East and South-East Asia .

At the time the Colombo Plan was a beacon of hope and enlightenment for many people. Our aid programme steadily developed over the years. You may be surprised to know that the year of greatest generosity of Australian aid for the disadvantaged of this world, was the last year of the Menzies government, when foreign aid reached .56% of Australian GNP. When the education component was added, it became .65% of GNP. Since the eighties, the aid and education components have been combined, therefore the fall over the last 20-25 years is greater than appears in the figures.

Our aid programme was designed to demonstrate the reality of Australia as a cooperative and helpful neighbour. It was important to supplement the considerable military efforts that we had made through numerous conflicts. It rounded out a balanced policy in practical ways.

From the outset there were also difficulties over East Timor . I am reminded at this point of an earlier submission of Casey's in which he had wanted Australia to give primacy to long-term relationships with Indonesia rather than primacy of support either for a continuing Dutch occupation of Dutch New Guinea or for some third solution never properly defined.

Perhaps from that point there had been a strong departmental view that primacy of relations with Indonesia was the over-riding concern. Despite a publication of very substantial documents on the relationship with East Timor there are, as I believe, continued unanswered questions. There is more of a suggestion in the documents that Suharto himself was very much concerned at Australia's attitude and that he did not want to incorporate East Timor into Indonesia if Australia were to be outspoken and active in opposition. Official Australian policy was that we favoured incorporation but only after an act of self-determination. That of course may well have been a contradiction in terms.

The memories of Communist aggression against Malaya, the abortive coup in Indonesia, which was most publicly attributed to the PKI and to perceived Chinese support, had significant implications in the region. Those concerns were shared in Australia . Nobody at the time wanted the reality of an independent East Timor that might become a Communist enclave in the under-belly of Indonesia . But how much of policy was distorted as a consequence? The option of a United Nations intervention was never seriously pursued. It would have had to be in place before the invasion. It is highly doubtful that it would have had the support of major states, support that would have been essential for its success but it was never tested.

The extent of Indonesia's concern at Australia's opinion never seemed to have been adequately considered. Realpolitik, in the harshest sense of the term, governed the day. At one point there was a suggestion that Australia had information on which Australia could not act because it would give away a source. In reading the documents and such information as is therein contained, it seems to me that the source was always a senior and respected official of the Indonesian Government. It seemed to confirm that at the highest level there was concern that Australia should be informed so that when Indonesia acted, Australia would be pre-committed.

In other words I believe that whatever so-called 'classified information' might have come our way was by the deliberate decision of the Indonesian Government and of Suharto himself.

In common with Harold Holt, I had sought to emphasize Australia's relationship with East and South-East Asia. My first visit overseas as Prime Minister was to Japan and to China. I thought it important particularly to make it plain to China that, on a change of government, our policy to them would not be altered. It was not a matter that should become subject to party politics.

In my meetings with Hua Kuo-feng in 1976, in response to questioning about future policy, the Premier advised me that in China's relationships throughout East and South-East Asia, primacy would be given to relationships between governments and relationships with parties would be secondary. When this was reported to heads of government in other parts of the region, it was accepted as important, indeed as good news. Subsequent Chinese actions demonstrated the validity of Hua Kuo-feng's comments. One of the problems through the region had been a fear that China would support overseas communist parties.

When President Carter was elected in 1977, we had some immediate concerns. The President was new to Washington and new to foreign policy, he was an idealist who wished to test the Russians. He sought to negotiate his own arms limitation in the Indian Ocean. Our concerns were that, if such an arrangement were made, it might preclude assistance for Australia under ANZUS. It was important that these aspects be made known to the President before his officials made commitments at their levels, which would have down-played the relevance of ANZUS.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States led efforts to marshal world opposition. Initially President Carter had given assurances, certainly to Chancellor Schmidt, who relayed them to me, that a boycott of the Olympic Games would not be part of the West's response. Schmidt was dismayed to find Carter announcing such a boycott on world television and also appealing to other countries to support America's lead.

I had come to have doubts about the reliability of the United States as a long-term strategic partner. I had come to believe that we needed to work ever more closely with countries of our own region, to seek to build a sense of security between countries. I believed then and I believe now that our best security will derive from secure relationships with countries in and of this region, including of course China and Japan. We are the ones who live in this region.

While there were military and security concerns throughout most of this period, successive governments worked steadily to improve bilateral relations to cooperate with countries of our region and to strengthen basic infrastructure.

I can remember when Mr Ohira, Prime Minister of Japan, came to Australia in 1980. We talked about future structural developments in the region. We were both conscious that relationships between the nations of East and South-East Asia were less structured and less formalised than in almost any other part of the world. This made it more difficult to discuss matters of common and general interest, to determine whether or not there were common policies that we ought to pursue.

At that time, in 1980 Indonesia and ASEAN would have opposed any suggestions that could be construed as diminishing the importance of ASEAN. Thus, for a while at least, formal arrangements between the nations of East and South-East Asia would not be possible.

We sought a way through this problem and agreed to sponsor a series of seminars involving academia, government and the private sector.

These discussions did much to strengthen confidence, to diffuse latent suspicions and concerns that any formal arrangement proposed might cut across other existing arrangements, more specifically ASEAN. Indonesia moved from opposition to support of a general approach. The informal seminars had played their part.

And so by 1989 it was possible for Bob Hawke to propose APEC. The first proposal involved East and South-East Asian nations. The United States objected so it ended up being a proposal involving all the nations of the Pacific Basin. I still believe the original proposal for East and South-East Asian countries alone would have been better. There are conflicting interests with the Western hemisphere – North American Free Trade Agreement presents some obvious contradictions. These will grow as NAFTA moves to accommodate more and more countries in Central and South America. There is still no formal body where heads of government from East and South East Asia may meet to consult about regional problems. Nevertheless, APEC has played a constructive role.

There had been a continuous deepening of relationships with East and South-East Asia. Spender, under the Menzies government, took certain steps, especially in relation to the Columbo Plan. Dick Casey's tireless diplomacy throughout the region advanced Australian interests. Harold Holt's gesture, one which I copied, travelling first to Asian countries, rather than to Britain or to the United States, was well received and well accepted. The slow erosion of the White Australia Policy, from the rigidity of the immediate post-War years to the more flexible administration of the later fifties and early sixties, until, in practical terms it was abolished under the Holt government. The Whitlam government advanced relations with China . My Government demonstrated bipartisan support for that relationship and for moving matters forward. The development of APEC was not a sudden move.

The main reasons for this was the logic of Australia's geography and the importance of the countries of the East and South-East Asian region. Fast growing economies obviously assisted. Over 60% of our trade came to be concentrated in the region itself. Exclusion from the European markets as Britain joined the Economic Community would have had disastrous consequences for Australia, were it not for our regional relationships and for the Trade Treaty with Japan .

It is important that people understand that there has been a continuum. Some governments or Prime Ministers have emphasized more than others the role that they believe they have played but most have advanced the cause in sensible ways.

There are some unhappy circumstances at the present time. We used to have the closest possible relationship with Malaysia . In the early years this derived from support in their fight against Communist insurgency and continued cooperation thereafter. We sought in specific ways to help the newly industrialising Malaysia, nearly thirty years ago now, to understand and to access our market, an experience which I am sure has stood by Malaysia as her exports were directed to markets around the world. Why has it gone wrong?

When Prime Minister Mahatir came to power, I was still in office. I had an official visit to Malaysia during his stewardship. It wasn't on all counts easy. But in private discussions I believe a rapport was established.

That the bilateral relationship has been damaged, has had consequences for Australia. Malaysia has also demonstrated an independence of mind which has attracted admiration. After the economic meltdown, they objected to the terms of the IMF assistance and did it their own way. By and large they have done it successfully. They have demonstrated that the one-track solution proposed by the IMF is not necessarily the only way out of economic difficulty and crisis.

More than one Australian government has found it difficult to maintain the warmth of the relationship that once existed. This, however, has not been the only problem throughout the region.

During the Cold War, the rationale for the relationship with the United States was better understood. There were indeed a number of countries that did not want a direct strategic relationship with the United States but were pleased that Australia had such a relationship. They thought indirectly that ties the United States to East and South East Asia and, for a variety of reasons, they wanted America's interest to be sustained.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, different elements have emerged. There is a perception, certainly until the time of the tragedies in the United States that Australia was too close to the United States and that we had moved to give priority to the American relationship, over and above relationships with Asia. This is not necessarily a fair assessment because Australia has wanted to be further involved in the structural development of relations between East and South-East Asian countries and has not always been accepted.

In particular, the discussions involving ASEAN, China , North Korea and Japan are of particular significance to the region. They have accepted and largely put in place a Japanese proposal for currency swaps, to strengthen their economies at times of emergency. It is my belief that they will move later to establish an Asian Monetary Fund. That such discussions are taking place and such relationships are being forged without Australian participation is, I believe, a significant setback to our regional ambitions.

The perceived desire for closer relationship with the United States may also be coming at a time when that may work more to America's advantage than to ours. I know there is a view that if there is only one super-power in the world, it is important for a country to be very close to that power and so it is, so long as other important interests are not prejudiced.

The ANZUS relationship was critical and would have effectively protected Australia in the event of an ideological communist attack on Australia . That possibility, remote as it might appear from today's perspective, justified in my mind the priorities given to ANZUS and to the American relationship. But during the Cold War we were still able to accommodate that, without prejudicing an ever-closer development of relationships between East and South East Asia and Australia . Acceptance of the Hawke proposal which led to APEC is evidence of that.

I have been at meetings in Japan and in Korea in fairly recent times and there is an unfortunate perception that Australia's desire for a close relationship with Asia has diminished, that the American relationship must be supreme. This is, in part, unfair because from Australia's point of view, it derives partly from rejection of Australian participation in East and South-East Asian arrangements. This in itself has led to a lessening of Australia's efforts to work with and to cooperate with the region. We need to ask ourselves how these perceptions and realities can be put back on track.

There is more to it than an attitude of Prime Minister Mahatir. In Malaysia itself, there are views that question the ultimate Australian commitment. Whether these views are true or false is not relevant. They exist and the perception therefore has to be handled appropriately. So far that has not happened.

There is no need for me to itemise elements which have led to this perception of Australia, most of you would be able to recall statements, incidents, circumstances. Some of it indeed is domestic, the way we have handled racial problems within Australia. I can remember three years ago in Beijing . In discussions with Zhu Ronghi I was asked about Pauline Hanson. It was indeed the first question. The Premier was bemused as to how Hansonism had been allowed to grow without earlier condemnation.

I have no doubt that our treatment of asylum seekers in recent times has contributed to a perverse view of Australia . There are alternate ways of pursuing that problem, as I have indicated in other places. That we have not attempted to do so in any realistic way speaks for itself. The perception given in some quarters that more recent events have justified our attitude to asylum seekers is itself racist and false.

Asylum seekers coming to Australia have been heavily criticised and the Department of Immigration's own literature, distributed under cover of a Ministerial letter, has given a harsh but I believe, quite inaccurate view of Australia's reaction to people in distress.

It has been demonstrated in recent times that the numbers of Afghan refugees coming to Australia have fallen from 760 in 1997/98 to 400 in the past financial year. In other words, the official front door has been closing. Australia's recent attitude to asylum seekers could only be justified if the front door were in fact open. It has not been. It is ridiculous therefore for asylum seeker to be told to join some queue when there is no queue; when the option of getting on a boat to Europe or to Australia might be five or six years in a camp in Pakistan.

The government's own figures demonstrate that over 85% of people who come in those boats are in fact refugees. That they are turned away, that we pay for accommodation in Nauru , is not regarded as the most humane of approaches. There is certainly a problem but we have not yet sought to tackle it appropriately.

We could do so through the United Nations, through UNHCR, we could seek to make UNHCR responsible in each case for the assessment of refugees. It would then be uniform. The appeal system could also be handled by UNHCR, a uniform system for all countries, making places available for refugees. We could seek to persuade more countries worldwide to take more refugees so that the large number of people waiting for a home in a safer country, from places like Afghanistan or Iraq, will not be so long or so difficult. It is concerted action of that kind, coupled with effective long-term policies designed to assist the Third World, that will diminish the market for people smugglers and then make it possible effectively to outlaw the trade.

Unfortunately recent events make it difficult for governments to reassess policies and attitudes to global problems.

Let me return to an assessment of ANZUS in today's world. We have seen ANZUS invoked by Australia to support the United States at an hour of peril for the United States and for free people everywhere. There was no problem with that but in what circumstances might ANZUS be invoked in our own region?

The United States has never been particularly concerned in the region around Australia's periphery, in the Pacific or in relation to Papua New Guinea. The United States was not interested in our views, leading up to the incorporation of Dutch New Guinea into Indonesia .

During Confrontation, Barwick publicly suggested that our troops in Borneo would be covered by ANZUS. Hasluck, as the next Australian Foreign Minster to visit Washington, had to eat large quantities of humble pie and apologise profusely for something which the Americans regarded as quite inaccurate.

Problems in south East Asia in earlier times were regarded as regional problems or as Commonwealth problems, they were not matters for the United States . I have mentioned President Carter's abortive attempt to negotiate an agreement with the Soviet Union in relation to the Indian Ocean which could have impacted on ANZUS. We have no direct obligations in relation to Korea. Today it is difficult to imagine Japan posing a military threat to Australia .

One area of real concern today involves Taiwan. While normal business and commercial relationships across the Straits continue to grow and Taiwan investment is now approaching $50 billion, political developments are not so stable. The current government has made moves which can only be construed as pointing towards independence.

We need to remember the history of this matter. We have all accepted, since Nixon's first visit to China, that Taiwan is part of China . The United States in particular has asserted that reunification must take place peacefully. We would all support that.

The reunification of Hong Kong with China should give Taiwan confidence that practical, sensible arrangements can be negotiated, which would protect matters important to Taiwan .

There are people who say the current situation has existed for many decades, why become concerned about it? Because the situation has endured for several decades is not in itself a reason why that situation can continue. As time passes the Taiwan issue becomes more sensitive.

Any move for independence will be fraught with the greatest danger and the probability of serious conflict between China and the United States.

I have been advised that there may no longer be a majority in Congress for a One-China policy. If that is so, the future looks uncertain. At any point there could be calls for independence on the part of Taiwan . That is likely to be supported by the religious right of the Republican Party and also by the Human Rights Democratic Left of the Democratic Party. That would form a significant coalition which may carry the numbers in Congress.

The idea of independence could be strengthened at any point and from a number of different sources. There is a view in the east coast policy-making establishment of the United States that, while America does not want war with China over Taiwan, it does not presently know how to escape it. America only has to stick by current agreements to escape it.

If the United States makes it plain that they will never support a declaration for independence, then Taiwan must, in good faith, negotiate with Beijing to resolve the issue. In these circumstances there would be no prospect of war. It is entirely therefore in the hands of the United States.

In recent times we have seen United States officials coming to Australia and telling us when, or if, the United States goes to war with China over Taiwan, Australians will have to do a good deal of the dirty work. This has been said on a number of occasions over two or three years, most recently by Richard Armitage, publicly in Australia itself.

The fact that there is no outcry against such a statement by a middle-ranking American official shows how far matters have slipped. If it had happened in Menzies' day, at the very least the Ambassador of the United States to Australia would have been required to secure the silence of that and every other official. That no such thing happened indicates a degree of subservience which is quite unhelpful.

The important point is that war over Taiwan will not and cannot occur so long as the United States sticks to previously stated policy. So if it comes, it comes because of a shift in American policy. The implication from American officials is that, because of ANZUS, we must support the United States in such a war.

We have been warned by Sandy Berger, President Clinton's National Security Adviser, that there is a danger Australia will get caught in an argument between China and the United States . Sandy Berger has said that hard-line elements in the Bush Administration view China as the new enemy. He continued: 'If we treat China like an enemy, we will make China an enemy. America's presence in Asia should be a stabilising factor, not a provocative factor'. He spoke of Missile Defence. He said: 'It is unwise to put your allies, whether it is Japan or Australia , in a spot where they are caught in the middle'. He made it clear that it is not necessary for Australia to be in the cross-fire between China and the United States .

While Sandy Berger was speaking principally about Missile Defence, the implications are clear. Australia should avoid being caught in the middle of a conflict between China and the United States . It is easy enough to see how we could be caught.

Our Collins Class submarines are to be equipped with American command and control systems to maximise cooperation with the United States . These submarines can operate in the Taiwan Straits which American nuclear submarines cannot do. If there is a conflict, America will want those submarines. We can be certain that joint planning between the Navies has already been undertaken. There is joint planning and cooperation in the patrolling of our Orion aircraft. Arrangements made in the Cold War and continued after its demise, run the risk of embroiling us in a conflict of quite a different kind.

It is not difficult to imagine the pressure that the United States would put some future government under to enable our forces to cooperate in areas where strategic plans had already been made and between the services agreed. Even though such planning is undertaken without commitment, it would be a strong government that rejected American pressures. If they were not rejected, we would be directly involved in a conflict when America was in the wrong and when America would have no friends throughout the entire region in which we live.

A significant point in all of this is that the Australian Government of the day signed and endorsed the ANZUS Treaty as a means of securing the territorial integrity of Australia. We certainly undertook certain obligations as a consequence. During the Cold War, the Treaty was necessary, it was a comfort to know that it existed. With the Cold War over, the sources of threat or danger to Australia are diminished and vastly different. It is unlikely that the United States would be interested in potential threats to this country in current circumstances.

But what is happening as American officials have made plain, is that a Treaty designed to achieve Australian security is now being distorted potentially to embroil us in a conflict of America's choosing with another potential super power. It would be madness for Australia to be so involved. This is not a matter that can be allowed to rest. It is a matter that must be considered and properly handled by an Australian government.

The Australian Government has moved closer and closer to the United States at a time when prudence and national interest would have suggested greater independence and self-reliance. While the ANZUS Treaty needs to be maintained, we need to develop more vigorously a second track to our own security and that track has to be dependent upon our relationships with countries in and of the region of which we are a part. Matters have been allowed to slip and that must be redressed.

There is one final point that I would like to make. Through the literature and through the writing, there is constant referral to the fact that it is important to keep the United States involved in the Western Pacific and in East and South-East Asia. I really believe we have deceived or kidded ourselves. The United States, after the War, had had a taste of world power and did not want to set it aside. As a world power, she had to be involved. Russia had boundaries in East Asia . China had emerged as a major Communist power with enormous potential. In her own interests the United States was going to be there and whatever we did to help keep her involved was of no account.

So when Australian governments say it is critical to keep America involved, they need to qualify it in certain ways. It is critical to keep America involved in balanced and constructive ways. It is critical to make sure that American policies support the general aspirations of most of the people and most of the countries of the region. It is important that the United States does not introduce the ideology of her own politics into this part of the world. So let's stop thinking that we have to do certain things to keep America involved. They are and they will be, for as long as we can see into the future, the imperatives of her power will drive her to involvement, even if sometimes there is a wish for withdrawal.

In these circumstances it is all the more important, as I have tried to do, to define Australia's interests and we and Japan in particular, as two defence partners of the United States, should exercise our minds in an effort significantly to influence American policies in productive ways.

We need to learn how to deal with this Super Power with an equality of mind and spirit and with a determination that will not be put aside. At all times we need to identify Australia's national interest. We must argue that interest forcefully with the United States . We need to have the capacity to define those circumstances when our interests and the United States interests diverge. While we should maintain the ANZUS alliance, over time we should work to a situation where there is an unchallenged primacy given to relations with countries in and of the region. We need to work to make sure that relationships between these countries are so advanced that their security is guaranteed and there is no further need for external participation.