Location, location, location - Page 3
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Michael Wesley
KEATING AND EVANS STRUGGLED WITH the question of Australia's belonging in the region. Belonging has been a perennial theme in Australian foreign policy. Ever since European settlement, membership of the British Empire had been a source of both comfort and anxiety for Australians. The nation's founding came amidst a European – and particularly a British – colonisation of the world. One of the justifying ideologies underpinning this imperialism was the concept of a hierarchy of races. A society's greater apparent potency in world affairs was taken to indicate a superior position on such a hierarchy, while a self-conception of such superiority justified – and indeed obligated – a society's colonisation of others deemed to be inferior. Such beliefs gained impetus with the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species, and writers such as the Comte de Gobineau produced systematic theories of racial hierarchy and destiny. The extent and glory of the British Empire demonstrated for many, as Cecil Rhodes that, ‘to be born British is to win first prize in the lottery of life'.
But membership in a changing Empire brought anxieties too. Australia's birth as a state came about as an Act of the British Parliament, and there was a remarkable reluctance to assume the prerogatives of sovereignty for almost half a century afterwards. Australia's first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, stated: ‘There could be no foreign policy for the Commonwealth [of Australia] ... foreign policy belong[s] to the Empire.'[xiii] The Australian government did not ratify the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which established foreign policy independence for the Dominions, until 1943. Its only permanent overseas representative until the 1930s was posted in London. There was an almost pathological need to refute any suggestion that such moves were attenuating Empire links. As John Curtin, a prime minister primarily remembered for speaking of Australia's ‘turn to America' during the depths of the Second World War, put it, ‘I do not consider Australia a segment of the British Empire. It is an organic part of the whole structure.' Curtin, like most of his compatriots, saw himself as a representative and custodian of Britishness: ‘In the southern hemisphere, seven million Australians carry on a British community as trustees for the British way of life in a part of the world where it is of the utmost significance to the British-speaking race that such a vast continent should have as its population a people and a form of government corresponding in outlook and in purpose to Britain.'[xiv]
Australians' sense of their place in the world was strongly imbued with conceptions of racial hierarchy, and the implementation of the White Australia Policy was intended to preserve the society as racially pure from the burgeoning non-white populations in nearby countries. It was such self-perceptions, and consequent beliefs about the outside world, that led Prime Minister Billy Hughes vociferously to oppose a Japanese proposal to the Versailles Peace Conference that racial equality should be a basic principle of international relations. Australians often reacted with alarm at relaxations of racial hierarchy and barriers in other parts of the British Empire, and began to see themselves as the custodians of an authentic Britishness.[xv] Curtin's successor, Ben Chifley, spoke of the empire as consisting of three tiers of members, as determined by their proportions of pure British stock: ‘The reality behind changing forms is the willingness of purely British units like Britain, Australia and New Zealand; units like Canada and South Africa, which have large French or Dutch sections; and units like India, Pakistan and Ceylon, proud of old civilisations pre-dating any British link, to work closely and effectively for common ideals and concrete objectives.'[xvi]
Australians' anxieties were heightened by Britain's eclipse as a great power of the first rank following the world wars, but at the same time soothed by the progressive assumption of Britain's global role by the United States. Curtin's ‘turn to America' during the Second World War was a move that Australians had psychologically been prepared for since at least the visit of the Great White Fleet. As an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald put it during that visit in August 1908: ‘We welcome the American officers and men as in the main kinsmen, as representatives of a nation whose institutions are identical in spirit and almost identical in form to our own ... if it ever has to come to seeking the protection of another power our people could probably turn instinctively to Uncle Sam.'[xvii]
Britain's eclipse and America's rise were underpinned by the steady undermining of the notions of racial hierarchy that had justified the British Empire and informed Australia's sense of its place in the world. A sense of distinctiveness and belonging began to be expressed not in terms of bloodstock but of institutional legacies; in Menzies' words, ‘You and I are Australians. We are also British. We do not and cannot think of the other British nations as foreign people. They are all within the great British tradition – a tradition which has given to the world the spirit and machinery of self-government, free institutions, justice within the law ...'[xviii]
So an Empire nation redefined itself as a Western nation, deeply committed to the common struggle against communist barbarism. Even at the depths of the Cold War, Australia's anxieties about belonging persisted. The formation of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1949 as an expression of Western solidarity against Communism led to worries in Canberra about its non-membership. As he negotiated the ANZUS alliance with the United States, Foreign Minister Percy Spender hoped it would provide Australia with an entrée into the great councils of Western powers, particularly NATO.[xix] At the base of such concerns about belonging was a conviction that a country as small and isolated as Australia could not afford to be excluded. In Menzies' memorable formulation: ‘Situated as we are in the world, washed on our western and northern shores by potentially hostile seas, and numerically incapable – despite intense defence preparations – of defending ourselves for long against all-out attack by a great power ... if ... a war comes, the business of foreign policy is to see that we enter with great and powerful friends.'[xx]
ANXIETIES ABOUT BELONGING HAVE DRIVEN an obsessive clubbishness in Australian foreign policy. Membership and standing in international organisations are major concerns, and a frenetic activism in proposing, shaping and driving forward institutions is one of the distinguishing attributes of Australian diplomacy. Problems or issues in Australia's international relations are often met with institutional solutions. There is also an anxiety to fill institutional ‘gaps' where they are seen to exist. In the 1950s, the South East Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO) became an expression of the need for an American-led collective security arrangement in South-East Asia as a counterpart to the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) in West Asia and NATO in Europe. In the 1990s, APEC was driven forward by Keating's concern that there was no mechanism that regularly brought together the leaders of the world's most economically dynamic region.
Its settlement heritage gave Australia the scope to be imaginative. The British Empire had spanned all continents and oceans and included numerous races, religions and languages, but this did not stop Australian leaders asserting its ‘organic wholeness' or supporting the inclusion of the British Commonwealth in the United Nations' Charter as a ‘regional organisation'. Trade and people flows were important indicators of belonging, and for most of Australia's history Britain supplied the majority of Australia's immigrants, markets and investment. But as the old Imperial Preferences system collapsed in the 1950s, and Britain's attention focussed on Europe, Australian trade began to flow north. By the 1960s, Japan had become Australia's most important trading partner. In 1961, China displaced Britain as the principal market for Australian wheat, and in the ensuing decade bought between 30 and 40 per cent of the annual harvest. In 1967, Australia became the third largest supplier of goods to China, behind Japan and West Germany.
In the early 1950s, Coalition foreign ministers Percy Spender and Richard Casey had believed that Australian foreign policy should work to build a regional association that included Australia, its great power allies and the newly independent non-communist Asian states. But the new states had begun to espouse principles highly critical of the international order and its bipolar competition between the USA and the USSR. Australia voted at the United Nations to condemn China's aggression in the Korean War in February 1951, at once setting it apart from Commonwealth states such as India that were sympathetic to China. Instead the former colonies in Asia and Africa found a new solidarity that gained its ultimate expression at Bandung in 1955. The often self-righteous bombast of statesmen such as Nehru irritated Australian leaders, and because China was one of the leading protagonists in the burgeoning Non-Aligned Movement, Australia declined early invitations to join pan-Asian conferences, gravitating instead towards a rigid, hub-and-spokes security architecture in the Pacific, centred on the United States and firmly committed to containing communism. Cabinet rejected Casey's plan to broaden ANZUS into a regional framework including Asian states and Britain, and Australia's drift away from pan-Asianism continued when Australia's military contributions to containing communism in Malaya were denounced by Indian Foreign Minister Krishna Menon as patronising and neo-colonial.
The tension between the lure of pan-Asianism and Australia's Pacific commitments has nagged at Australian foreign policy for over half a century. By the 1980s, a hybrid formula, ‘Asia-Pacific' emerged that allowed Australia to reconcile its bifurcating loyalties. Fortunately, it was backed up by trade: Japanese investment and industry relied on cheap South-East Asian labour and Australian resources to produce consumer items for the voracious American market. This virtuous trading cycle between the countries of Asia's Pacific rim and North America was reinforced by the United States' defence commitments to a string of littoral countries: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand and Australia. Predictably, Australian diplomats worked frenetically to give institutional expression to the new regional formula; the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation forum came into being to express the trade dimension, and the ASEAN Regional Forum to embody the security aspects.
But the idea of Asianism has always been opposed to non-Asian great powers playing a major role in the region, and was not placated by Canberra's imaginative formulas. Asianism draws variously on post-colonial prickliness and regional success to assert that Asian countries do not need Western models or advice about how to develop or organise their politics or economies. It focuses on the belief that the era of Western ascendancy is coming to an end, that the future belongs to Asia. It organises around convictions that a lack of solidarity among Asian states allows outside powers to dominate the region, that as long as Asian countries' ties to external states are stronger than their ties with each other this will continue, and that only through coming together in genuine solidarity can Asia play a role in global politics commensurate with its size and significance.
These themes resonate powerfully among many in Asian countries, and the incentive to draw on them has been a constant in regional politics. Asian-ism has been a crucial component of the region's longest-enduring institutions: for example, a major motivation for ASEAN was the need to reduce intramural tensions and build regional resilience in order to remove the incentives for external powers to intervene in South-East Asia. Asianism has been absent from the region's failed institutions, such as SEATO and the Asia Pacific Council, both conceived as institutional expressions of America's preeminent regional security role.
So it was inevitable that the end of the Cold War and the revival of regionalism in Europe and North America would call forth Asianist hopes in South-East Asia. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir emerged as the most enthusiastic advocate of Asianist regionalism at the end of the 1980s. As Japanese investment promised to make Malaysia the next Asian economic tiger, Mahathir began enjoining Tokyo to move away from its relationship with Washington and assume a leadership role in Asia. Mahathir and other regional leaders pointedly refused to join Western countries' condemnation of China following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, instead demonstrating their solidarity with Beijing in carefully chosen ways. In December 1990, Mahathir proposed the formation of an East Asian Economic Group (EAEG), encompassing the ASEAN states and Japan, China and South Korea. Supporters greeted Mahathir's proposal by advocating ‘Asia for the Asians'; critics dubbed it ‘the caucus without Caucasians'.
Canberra reacted with alarm, all of its belonging viscera bristling. An exclusive Asianist economic bloc could not only raise costly barriers between Australia and its North Asian trading partners, but also between the economies of Pacific Asia and North America, possibly further fracturing the global economy into exclusive economic blocs. The Asianist vision threatened to confirm Australia as a liminal state, belonging nowhere except perhaps alongside the micro-states of the Pacific. Institutional exclusion from the region could also call into question Australia's status as Washington's close ally with access into and expertise on South-East Asia. Australia vigorously opposed Mahathir's plan, loudly spruiking APEC as the more appropriate expression of regionalism, and conspired with Washington to ensure that Japan, a crucial player in the EAEG, responded coolly to the EAEG proposal. It was seen as a singular success of Australian diplomacy that the proposal was watered down into an East Asian Economic Caucus, an informal grouping within the broader APEC forum.
Mahathir was livid. He found the subsuming of his grand vision within the competing APEC forum deeply humiliating, and made the resurrection of his Asianist proposal a defining cause of his premiership. The Canberra– Washington campaign against the EAEG was for him a clear illustration of Western divide-and-rule policies in Asia, and a resounding demonstration of why Asianist regionalism was needed. Canberra's response to his proposal meant he would inevitably react competitively to Australia's regionalist aspirations. Mahathir took the lead in casting doubt over the coherence of the Asia-Pacific idea, a ‘region' that nominally included the littoral states of the largest ocean on earth, and ridiculing Australia's pretensions to Asian regional membership. He joined voices in Singapore and Japan arguing that a common commitment to ‘Asian values' united the societies of the East Asian region, and ultimately divided them from the hectoring, overbearing West. He refused to attend the inaugural APEC Leaders' Summit in 1993, and ratcheted up the ensuing diplomatic stand-off after Paul Keating described him as ‘recalcitrant' as a result.
A master politician to his fingertips, Mahathir realised he had found Australia's glass jaw. The Australian press took a narcissistic delight in the subject of Australia's ‘acceptance' by ‘Asia' serving up a constant stream of articles with headlines such as ‘Can we be part of Asia?' and ‘Why we don't rate in Asia', and ‘What do Indonesians think of us?'. The Malaysian Prime Minister took great relish in bluntly telling Australian journalists that Australia was not an Asian nation, but could qualify as one when ‘perhaps 70 per cent' of its population was of Asian descent.
Australia's residual belonging anxiety meant that the government was obliged to respond. Evans finally resorted to creative cartography. Pointing out that Australia shared broadly the same time zones as the states of Pacific Asia, he defined Australia in March 1995 as:
... an ‘East Asian Hemisphere' nation – using that expression in an essentially geographical way, but so as to imply some other layers of connection as well. We are all familiar with the expression ‘American Hemisphere' or ‘Western Hemisphere' to describe North and South America together ... the segment of the earth's sphere stretching from longitudes west of China to east of Australia, particularly if one includes New Zealand, is not much smaller, so there is nothing incongruous about the geographical (or geometrical) reference. Thinking of ourselves occasionally, as circumstances arise, as an East Asian Hemisphere nation, and having others in the region able to comfortably think of us in this way, can do nothing to harm, and much to advance, Australia's longer term efforts to engage and integrate with this part of the world on which our future so much depends. It would add value both to our perception of ourselves and our role in the region, and to others' perception of us.[xxi]
Mahathir's masterstroke came in 1995 when he persuaded the members of the East Asian Economic Caucus to inaugurate a biennial dialogue with the European Union – to be called the Asia-Europe Meeting, or ASEM. In a single move he elevated his economic group from the status of a caucus within APEC, and by arguing that ASEM was the equivalent of APEC, sent strong signals that APEC should be seen not as a regional organisation but as a regular dialogue between the East Asian economic group and the North American Free Trade Agreement. With the arrival of ASEM Canberra realised it had made a terrible mistake in so strongly opposing EAEG. Mahathir gleefully blocked all Australian approaches to join the dialogue, and savoured the fact that although countries like Singapore and Japan publicly supported Australia's inclusion, none was prepared to go head-to-head with Kuala Lumpur on the issue. Exclusion from ASEM and ongoing prickliness in Australian-Malaysian relations meant the Keating government entered the 1996 election campaign with a substantial question mark over its regional engagement credentials.