Australia and its neighbours

December 17, 2008


With the Rudd Labor government now in power for just over a year, it’s worth looking what at has changed in the country’s foreign policy and its security implications for the region. Is the region, particularly Southeast Asia, ready for Australia’s new advances?


Howard’s pragmatism and ‘forward defence’ doctrine over the previous dozen years was unashamedly aimed at garnering an image of being a “considerable power and significant country” (Downer, 2006). Howard’s loyalty to the United States, no-matter-what, was also aimed at banking up some credit with Washington on the security front. Given the concerns of the time over terrorism (in particular the attack on Bali which killed dozens of Australians), one could argue his staunchly pro-American policy was well founded. Moreover, Downer was quite dismissive of past Labor policy on developing a closer relationship with its immediate neighbours. In 2006, he said of Labor: “In effect, they argue for a retreat to regionalism.”


Last week, Rudd spoke of Australia returning to this regionalism. He spoke of the “dawn of the Asia-Pacific century”, “regional engagement” and Australia’s interests in being pro-active about shaping the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific. At the same time, the Sinologist Rudd is aware he must keep the China and India plates spinning, conscious of their strategic and financial importance to his commodity-driven economy.   


But for over a decade before Rudd’s election, Australia’s relations with its immediate neighbours were frosty. Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad railed at Howard, and argued Australia was not “Asian” in any sense and therefore his attempts to become more involved in Asian affairs should be resisted by Asian countries. Ties with Indonesia were frayed over East Timor. There was friction with Singapore over human rights. And then there was Pauline Hanson, who shot to popularity on a populist policy of curbing Asian immigration to Australia.


So, is Southeast Asia ready for Australia’s renewed overtures? Or does their history prevent reconciliation?     


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