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Advantage and Responsibility in Asia

Fall 2010 Tête À Tête

Advantage and Responsibility in Asia

As Australia settles into a new Prime Minister and government, GB speaks with Australia’s winningest recent Prime Minister about strategy, ‘winning’ and responsibility in Asia

GB: How has Australian identity evolved from the early post-WW2 period to this early 21st century?

JH: It has been a very natural evolution – especially over the last 30 or 40 years. I still see Australia as part of Western civilization, in the Asia-Pacific region. Australia has always had, and will continue to have, close links with Europe and North America. When I was Prime Minister, I frequently talked about never having to choose between our history and our geography. We are a country of Western roots and, in my view, always will be. However, we are also living cheek-by-jowl with the fastest-growing power in the world, which is so economically important to us. There is no reason for which we cannot retain our identity as part of Western civilization, but continue to operate in a very comfortable and harmonious way in our part of the world. Increased globalization and change mean that some of these historical differences diminish over time, and indeed the generality of the English language worldwide helps us enormously. English is the lingua franca of Asia. And so these different backgrounds and identities mean less and less as each year goes by.

GB: How has Australia arrived at its current strategic posture vis-à-vis Asia?

JH: It would be fair to say that engagement – close economic and political engagement with Asia – did not only start with Prime Minister Keating. Fraser and Hawke were quite heavily involved in Asia. Each Prime Minister has done it a little differently. Keating tended to confront our country from time to time with an ‘either-or’ proposition (that is, we are either Western or Asian), which is something to which I was very opposed. I never thought that there was any difficulty in remaining a Western country while interacting with Asia. Asia is just so important to us in every way – economically, strategically. I often have to remind North American and European audiences that our nearest neighbour is the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia. And one of the biggest things to have happened in the last decade is that Indonesia has become a functioning democracy – the third largest democracy in the world. That is a pretty remarkable achievement – one for which the country has received far too little credit.

Economically, of course, Japan has been a mainstay of the Australian economy for many years. China has just surpassed Japan as our major export destination, but Japan has been a faithful customer for close to 40 years. Indeed, a lot of Australia’s post-WW2 economic crisis was due to the trade and larger economic relationship with Japan. I think, therefore, that it is very critical that we do not make the mistake of ignoring the historical character of the Japanese relationship as we build a relationship with China. We can have both, and we can do both. But China has been tremendously significant because of the enormous volume of resource purchases that they have made recently: they import Australian minerals, and resources are clearly critical to China’s economic rise. This dynamic is part of the reason for which Australia has come through the recent economic downturn better than most countries.

GB: How do you see immigration policy evolving in Australia in this early new century?

JH: When I was Prime Minister, when we saw an increase in migration, we did some things in relation to illegal immigration that were correct, but controversial. One of the consequences was that public support for orthodox migration rose because the Australian community thought that the government was taking control of immigration flows; therefore, they were relaxed about increases. The population always gets nervous about immigration when it feels that it is not being controlled. That is the psychological reality, whether we are speaking about Australia, Britain, America, Canada, Europe, whatever. Australia is in a unique position because we are our own continent; so it is rather easy to control these things. Still, I favour continuing high immigration for Australia. We have a non-discriminatory immigration policy. We take people irrespective of their race or national background. We are a long way from the White Australian policy that was removed in the 1960s by one of my predecessors, Harold Holt. And it is a different world today: for one thing, there is more Mandarin and Cantonese spoken in Sydney than any other foreign language.

GB: How do you assess the state of Australia’s most complex bilateral relationship – the relationship with Indonesia?

JH: As I said, it is a very important relationship. Not an important one economically, but a very important one politically. And it has been a difficult relationship. We had difficulties over East Timor. However, it really is in the last few years that the relationship has been better than it had been for a long time. Part of this has to do with the fact that we are now both democracies, and Indonesia’s current President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is a very progressive man. He is well-disposed toward Australia and the US; he is a modern, progressive Muslim who understands the importance of fighting terrorism; and he is a man whom I got to know very well when I was Prime Minister. We were able to do a number of things together, particularly in the context of the assistance package that we gave to Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami.

GB: Was the Timor Leste intervention in 1999 a turning point for Australia’s strategic posture in Asia?

JH: Timor was a defining moment in the relationship with Indonesia because we effectively altered a quarter of a century of bipartisan accommodation of Jakarta. That accommodation was a classic example of realpolitik – of good relations with Indonesia being more important than the details of East Timor’s situation. The change in Australia’s position on Timor and Indonesia was, in the end, in no small measure due to the different attitude of Dr. Habibie, who succeeded General Suharto. He never had the attachment to East Timor that Suharto had. Because of that, the East started to ease away, and we quite famously changed our policy. I wrote to Habibie, suggesting that they adopt a different attitude on Timor. The upshot of that was that Habibie went further than we had thought that he would, and there was an independence ballot. Of course, as everyone knows, we led the UN-sanctioned intervention. It was a very effective multilateral force led by an Australian, General Peter Cosgrove. Miraculously, there were not many casualties. And the intervention caused a lot of difficulty with the relationship for a while, because there was an element of international humiliation involved for Indonesia. However, in the long run, it was the right thing to have done, both from our point of view and that of the Indonesians, and most importantly for the East Timorese.

GB: Timor changed the Australian (domestic) psyche, did it not?

JH: I think that what Timor gave Australia is a capacity, and a belief in a capacity, to do things in the region. Australia has been looked at more seriously and with greater respect because we pulled off something very effectively. Everything had hung together during the intervention, and people suddenly realized that we did have a capacity – not to just throw our weight around, but to act in a very positive, constructive fashion. Timor was a very important moment in Australia’s diplomatic and foreign policy experience, and we threw off this idea that everything was subservient to good relations with Jakarta – because, in the end, of course, good relations with Jakarta did necessarily mean maintaining the previous policy on East Timor. We worked it out, and there were new people in charge in Jakarta, and they have different views than the old people.

GB: What about Australia’s relations with the rest of Southeast Asia or the South Pacific Islands?

JH: In the early part of the decade, we changed our policy in relation to the Pacific Island states. We adopted a more assertive policy regarding attaching conditions to aid and any requested intervention. We said, yes, we will continue to give aid, but it will be strictly conditional on less corruption and also improved economic governance among countries in the region. The 2003 intervention in the Solomon Islands – Regional Assistance Mission in the Solomon Islands – was very successful. It was a multilateral intervention that was warmly welcomed by the Solomon Islanders. The Australian public felt that we had a particular responsibility in that part of the world. Some of this was conditioned by memories of WW2, where, for example, in East Timor, a lot of the East Timorese sheltered Australians and Japanese. And, of course, there has always been in Australia a warm affection for the people of Papua New Guinea, because many of them worked with the Australian soldiers in the beginning of WW2. So there was a sense in the Australian community that we should be more involved – that this was our patch – but they wanted their money wisely spent; so they supported the conditionality attached to aid.

GB: How do you see Australia’s strategic identity manifesting itself in the region in the next decade or two?

JH: Obviously, there will be variations on this, depending on who is in charge of our foreign and defence policy. Still, I think that we should continue to be a country that is very heavily involved in our region, but also a country that sees itself as a citizen of the world. We should not involve ourselves in the region to the detriment of our relationship with the US, the UK, Canada and many other countries with which we have a historical and cultural affinity, as well as a values affinity. I always thought that one could do that, and that one could combine the two – that one did not have to choose. In the time that I was Prime Minister, we were quite successful in doing it, because we certainly built an even closer relationship with the Americans, while also building a very close relationship with the Chinese – all the while maintaining our historical role with the Japanese and, I would argue, also improving our relations with India. I believe that we have an opportunity to lift our game with the Indians. Indeed, there is enormous potential in this relationship – one built on history and cricket, with cricket perhaps being even more important than history. We also have quite a large Indian population in Australia, and this population will only grow. The common language between the two countries means that the exchanges are very easy, and that people are learning more and discovering more about India. The future can only be better and better in our relations with our region – and so it should be, because this is our first and most important area in any direction. But, as I say, we can do this without shedding ties with other parts of the world, or with other countries with which we have had a historical association.

GB: What are the key pressures or challenges in Asia for Australia over this period?

JH: The key pressures are to understand and anticipate some of the ways in which countries like China and Japan might continue to brush up against each other. I thought that one of the more intelligent things that was done on the foreign policy front in Asia a few years ago was the development of the trilateral security dialogue between Japan, Australia and the US. There was talk about extending it to India. The point of that exercise was to emphasize in a completely non-provocative fashion that certain countries had values in common. To my mind, it was a very effective – not counter, because counter is the wrong word – point of balance. Nobody can possibly object to countries that have similar democratic traditions banding together. I thought that Bush’s foreign policy on that front was very astute. He kept the temperature down, just as we in Australia endeavoured to do over Taiwan. I think that everyone wants to keep the temperature down over Taiwan. I think that the future will see some kind of rapprochement between the Taiwanese and the mainland Chinese, and that maybe some kind of Hong Kong-type arrangement will be brought to fruition. I certainly get that impression.

One of the good things is that Asia is coming out of the economic downturn with less damage than many might have expected. Indeed, there is some truth to the argument that this has been an Atlantic recession, rather than a world recession. Indonesia, for example, has been far less damaged by this recession than it was by the Asian downturn 10 years ago. Asia has done quite well, relatively speaking.


John Howard was Prime Minister of Australia between 1996 and 2007.

(Photograph: The Canadian Press/Mark Graham)

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