Commonwealth Responsibility and Cold War Solidarity (ANU Press, 2019) challenges the orthodoxy that genuine Australian engagement with Asia began only in the 1980s. In this orthodox view, Australia remained fearful of, or blind to Asia, until the election of the Whitlam ALP government in December 1972. The conditions for sustained Australian engagement with Asia from the 1980s were made possible by Whitlam’s diplomatic recognition of communist China in 1972, and by the formal ending of the last vestiges of the White Australia policy and withdrawal of the last Australian military personnel from South Vietnam in 1973. The acceptance in the late-1970s of large numbers of Indochinese refugees by the Fraser Coalition government is considered another important precursor. Australia’s engagement with Asia then came to fruition with the Hawke ALP government’s agenda from 1983 to re-balance Canberra’s relationships with its traditional ‘great and powerful friends’, Britain and the United States, toward the Asia-Pacific region. Emblematic of this new era in Australian foreign policy was Australia’s role in establishing the Asia Pacific Cooperation (APEC) Forum in partnership with Japan in 1989, and the establishment of formal leaders’ meetings from 1993 by the Keating ALP government.

This narrative tends to criticise the Howard Coalition government’s (1996–2007) tenure that followed as being marked by ambivalence and insensitivity toward Asia. Subsequent ALP governments from Rudd (2007–10, 2013) to Gillard (2010–13) have continued to emphasise the pursuit of deeper and broader engagement with Asia. The October 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper described this as engagement across the economic, socio-political and security spheres. There is no doubt that Australia’s strategies of engagement since 1972 have resulted in successful economic outcomes. Trade with the Asian region as a percentage of Australia’s total trade increased from 38.5 per cent in 1973 after the opening of relations with the People’s Republic of China, to 65.9 per cent in 2018. But despite this ostensible success, Australian governments, business and opinion leaders continue to emphasise the pursuit of deeper engagement with Asia. The catalyst for this book is the observation that this persistent rhetoric of Asian engagement actually reveals Canberra’s political distancing from the region during and since the 1970s, rather than its progressively deeper integration.

Counter to the dominant narrative, I argue that the circumstances of post-war decolonisation intertwined with the Cold War drew Australia deeply into its geographical region of Southeast Asia, despite its historical fears and barrier of the White Australia policy. In this book I argue that the deepest points of Australia’s engagement with Asia are to be found in the immediate post-war decades, with the most intense phase being between 1966 and 1968. During this time, Australia was a core member of all specifically Asian security arrangements, meetings and regional organisations. Australian policy elites viewed the country as an important part of Southeast Asia. Australia’s Cold War ‘forward defence’ strategy placed it directly in the region. Forward defence meant that Australia’s security outlook was from a postcolonial Southeast Asian perspective not an isolated continental one. The Malayan Emergency, Indonesian Confrontation and Vietnam War were not a case of Australia being involved in ‘other people’s wars’. They were Australia’s wars in its own region, in support of regional neighbours who were also allied with Western great powers. The book shows that Australia was not isolated from its region during the Cold War—quite the opposite.

From 1967 into the early 1970s, the framework for this deep Australian engagement with its region was progressively eroded by a series of compounding and mainly external factors: the formation in 1967 of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its consolidation by the mid-1970s as the premier regional organisation; Britain’s withdrawal from ‘East of Suez’; US de-escalation and gradual withdrawal from Vietnam after March 1968; the 1969 Nixon doctrine that America’s Asian allies must take up more of the burden of providing for their own security; and US rapprochement with China in 1972. The book shows that these profound changes marked the start of Australia’s political distancing from the region during the 1970s despite the intentions and policies of governments from Whitlam to the present to foster deeper engagement.

The book features two main themes that support this argument. The first is that Australia’s post-war engagement with Asia, under both Labor and Coalition governments from 1944 until the late-1960s, was based on a sense of responsibility to the United Kingdom and its Southeast Asian colonies as they navigated a turbulent independence into the British Commonwealth, which retained a high level of significance to Australian policy-makers of both political persuasions. The responsibility felt by Australian political elites to assist in the orderly decolonisation of the Straits Settlements, Malayan Peninsula, and British Borneo territories, cannot be fully understood within a Cold War ideological framework of anti-communism. Nor can it be explained adequately by the instrumental logic of forward defence. However paternalistic the views of policy elites may have been, the evidence suggests that in its approach to Southeast Asian decolonisation, the Australian government was driven as much by normative sentiments of responsibility to the British Commonwealth as it was by calculations of Cold War strategic interest. 

The second is that the circumstances of the Cold War provided for a mutual sense of solidarity with the non-communist states of East Asia, with which Australia mostly enjoyed close relationships. In this, the book marks an important shift in focus from previous work in seeking to emphasise the agency that the smaller Asian states exercised in their relationships with Australia during the Cold War. Halvorson argues that these relationships transcended the narrow security interest of forward defence; being grounded also in shared values and non-communist identity. These relationships were institutionalised through the South Korean-instigated Asian and Pacific Council (ASPAC) (1966–75). In the study of Australia’s regional relations, ASPAC is either totally omitted or quickly dismissed as an instrument of Cold War policy. This is inadequate when the documentary record indicates that in the mid to late-1960s, it was considered by Australia as the premier vehicle for East Asian regionalism. Noteworthy also, is that ASPAC was a fully Asian initiative that did not involve extra-regional great powers and remains the only Asian regional organisation in which Australia and New Zealand have ever been included as core members. This alone was considered of great importance by the Australian government. The book shows that Australia’s engagement during this period was not based on Cold War strategic interests alone, but also in part on strong normative concerns shared with a range of Asian states.

In contrast to this earlier era, Australia’s current mode of engagement has been described as transactional. It is broad but shallow, involves a range of societal actors, and is centred mainly on the functional issues of economics and business, education, sport and tourism, and transnational security. Engagement during the early Cold War decades was narrower and elite-driven, but deeper and political. Cold War engagement was deeper because it impinged on foundational issues of state sovereignty, territorial integrity and national security, whereas transactional engagement does not. The historical trajectory advanced in the book accounts for the increase in recent decades of Australia’s economic and transnational security relationships, and people-to-people contacts in Asia, at the same time that Canberra has been distanced in political terms. The book concludes, however, that recent trends including a more assertive and nationalistic China, India’s emergence as a great power, overt Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry and competing maritime claims among a number of states in the South China Sea, indicate that conditions may again be developing to support deeper Australian political and security engagement in Asia.

You can read Commonwealth Responsibility and Cold War Solidarity: Australia in Asia 1944-74 in full here.


Dr Dan Halvorson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations and member of the Griffith Asia Institute.