Foreign relations of Australia

From Academic Kids

Australia has been active as an independent nation in international affairs since World War II.


World War II

Relations with Britain

At the beginning of World War II, Australia's allegiance with the United Kingdom was still strong. It had survived the Federation of Australia. Due to the numerous trade agreements, the British subjects of Australia who considered themselves British, and their defence agreements, Australia and the United Kingdom were strong allies.

On September 3, 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced, "Great Britain has declared war on Germany, and as a result, Australia is also at war... There can be no doubt that where Great Britain stands, there stands the people of the entire British world."

Australia was the first nation to come to Great Britain's aid, sending numerous men to fight in the Middle East and North Africa.

After the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, direct danger was coming closer to Australia. Japanese attacks continued through Burma, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Malaya. The island of Singapore was strategically crucial for the Allied forces. When Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942, Australia realised they were alone and defenceless. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had given priority to the European war and had not provided support. Prime Minister Menzies appealed to the US instead, "Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links of kinship with Great Britain."

Relations with the United States

In March of 1942, after the 59 attacks on Darwin, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered his Commander in the Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, to move the American base from the Philippines to Sydney, Australia. By September of 1943, more than 120,000 American soldiers were in Australia. The Americans were warmly welcomed at first but tensions were then in evidence.

Fighting continued throughout Southeast Asia for the next two years. When the European war was declared over, Australia and the US still had a war to win against Japan. MacArthur promoted a policy of "island hopping" for his American troops while he suggested that the Australian troops should continure clearing and rounding up the Japanese from New Guinea, New Britain, Borneo and Bougainville. This led to some resentment.


Australian society changed greatly between 1945 and 1972, against the ideas of some. Migration acted as a catalyst. After the war, the Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell, introduced an assisted immigration sheme with the slogan "populate or perish." The government was still trying to increase Australia's population, especially with people who have skills in the secondary industry sector. As the world was transforming into a more industrial and technological world, Australia needed to keep up.

Australia looked first to Britain for migrants. In the beginning the assisted immigration scheme was popular among young married couples and single people. It was inexpensive, an adventure and an opportunity. After only a year however, there was a shortage of ships and numbers dropped. The immigration targets were not being met. For the first time, in a revolutionary step for both Australian society and international relations, Australia looked outside Britain for migrants. In 1947, Arthur Calwell agreed to bring 12,000 people every year from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Many of these people were refugees who were being cared for by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). They were accepted on humanitarian grounds with the condition that they would remain in Australia for two years and work in government selected jobs.

Over the next twenty years, patterns of immigration continued to change. The government encouraged more people to come to Australia and many more assisted agreements were made with countries. In the late 1950s, more immigrants began to be accepted from the Middle East. In 1958, under the Migration Act, the dictation test was removed and a new scheme of entry permits was introduced. This allowed many non-Europeans to emigrate. Their entry was now based on what they could contribute to Australia and if it could be shown that they could integrate into Australian society. This attracted many professionals and highly qualifed people who added to Australia's relatively small tertiary industry.

Australia began to accept non-European immigrants because the still needed to increase the population, but also as a reaction to world criticism of Australia's policy of restricting non-European immigrants, especially Asians. Australia had also signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Australia had finally realised the racism in their previous immigration laws. Australia was now viewed as a more hospitable and friendly country. They developed their own sense of nationality, eventually incorporating the customs, languages, food and traditions of our migrants, creating a unique multicultural society.

Communism and the Cold War era

There had always been a tension between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States. They had been forced to co-operate during WWII, but their conflict dominated the politics of the world in the 1950s to 1980s. These two countries became the new superpowers with the communist USSR heading the Eastern Block and the capitalist USA heading the Western Block. Australia, France, and England were the USA's main companions whereas China and North Vietnam supported the USSR. The Asian nations were commonly regarded with suspicion. Memories from WWII reinforced the fear and want for security from Asia. After the Communist Revolution of China in 1949 and the North Korean infiltration of South Korea in 1950, Australia's foreign policy was influenced by growing concern over communist aggression. Australia increasingly looked to the US, as its new "great and powerful friend" for help to contain and fight communism. The Menzies government made a great effort of linking Australia to US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Two major alliance agreements were made between members of the Western Bloc in the 1950s: ANZUS, an agreement for aid in the event of an attack between Australia, New Zealand and the US and SEATO, an agreement guaranteeing defensive action in the event of an attack against the US, Australia, Great Britain, France, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

When communist North Vietnam infiltrated South Vietnam, the Western Bloc viewed it as a fundamental step in what could result in the communist subjugation of the democratic world. In a country gripped by this fear, the government's defence policy was dominated by the idea of "forward defence", in which Australia would seek to prevent the Communist "thrust into South-East Asia". The committal of troops to the Vietnam War is viewed as an attempt by the Menzies Government to strenghten the alliance with the USA following Great Britain's withdrawal "east of Suez". With his arrival in October 1966, Lyndon Baines Johnson became the first US President to visit Australia. The visit came in the light of increasing international criticism over the war in Vietnam. The majority of Australians seemed to support the war, obvious from the return of the Liberal/Country Party in late 1966. Many Australians were however protesting against the war. They wondered why we had followed the United States into a war that they thought had nothing to do with them and were concerned at our apt readiness to fall in line with American foreign policy. The slogan used by Harold Holt - "All the way with L.B.J." - clearly demonstrates this partnership which perhaps could be considered rather inequitable and profitable for the US. They were tired of military solutions and "power politics", and as one Labor politician said, "tired of anti-communism as a substitute for common sense." By 1970, the anti-war sentiment in the society had exploded into huge rallies, church services and candlelight processions. The moratorium movement represented a great range of people's opinions, from young political radicals to people who would not normally challenge government decisions and fron mothers of conscripted men to prominent politicians, writers, academics, artists and church leaders.

The intensity of conflict in Australia over this issue contributed to the 1972 election of the first Labor government in 23 years. The new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam immediately abolished conscription and withdrew troops from Vietnam hence beginning the deterioation of our partnership with the USA. The US did not begin to reduce its support in Vietnam until two years later. The Whitlam government, a new type of Labor governement, developed a general opposition to the US and especially President Nixon who they viewed as especially conservative and paranoid. Whitlam announced that Australia was not automatically going to follow US defence policy anymore and this annoyed the United States Government. In 1973, when Nixon bombed North Vietnam, the controversial Tom Uren and two other left-wing politicians publicly attacked Nixon, resulting in an immediate halt in Australian/American cooperation. Instead Whitlam reached out to our geographically nearer neighbours, Asia. He eliminated the last remaining remnants of the White Australia Policy and introduced a new quota/permit system. With race no longer a barrier, substantial immigration from Asia began, especially from Vietnam. This immigration provided impetous for the swing in our foreign policy from the USA to Asia and increased our trade relations with Asia. In 1973, the People's Republic of China was officially recognised as the "real" China and it was realised that the move towards a more open political and trading relationship with China was a priority. Dr Stephen Fitzgerald was appointed as the first Australian ambassador to the People's Republic of China and Australian understanding and appreciation of China's history and culture was encouraged. The Whitlam government was leaving behind the racist "yellow peril" past and was poised for the move towards a multicultural Australia.

This focus of multiculturalism and a focus of Asia in our foreign policy was not lost with the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975; contact and understanding continued to grow during the following decade. Relationships with China continued to develop until The Tinanmen Square Massacre where over 100,000 students were attacked with automatic weapons by the Chinese army while they were protesting for democracy. The whole world was shocked at the Chinese government's ruthlessness. Along with many other nations, Australia ceased diplomatic and trade relations for the next two years. Another nation with which Australia had a developing relationship was Indonesia. Whitlam did not object to the invasion of Timor by Indonesian troops in 1975 because maintaining good diplomatic relations with Indonesia was considered the highest priority at the time. The government could only express regret for the Timorese people as they were not prepared to go to war. Hawke and especially Keating also supported Indonesia despite their continuing maltreatment of the East Timorese people. When John Howard was elected in 1996, he saw the opportunity to distinguish himself from the previous Labor approach to the East Timor conflict. Immediately he sent peacekeeping forces into East Timor and advocated Australia's support for their independence. The role of this support of an essentially Catholic country against a Muslim nation was detrimental to Australia's reputation with other Muslim countries.

This occurred at a time when Muslim extremists were escalating their attacks on Western communities, especially the USA. Howard's foreign poilicy initiatives in the 90s were essentially directed towards renforcing allegiances with the USA. The combination of supporting the US and the Timorese against the Muslim World has had detrimental effects on our relationship with Middle Eastern countries and some Asian countries. This has culminated in Australia's active engagement in the Afgahnistan and Iraq wars. The recent change of government in Indonesia and Australia's generous response to the Tsunami have however, helped to improve relationships with Indonesia and therefore with Asia.

Current views

Because Australia had always thought of itself as a part of the British Empire more so than an independent country relying on its own strength, when Britain left Australia to its own means in the Pacific War of World War Two, Australia felt the need to turn immediately to the protection of the US. When the Whitlam government was seen to be moving away from American alliance and developing our own policies, there were concerns, both internally and in the US. Our allegiances with the US over the last half century have inhibited our development of relationships with the more strategically placed Asia.

Foreign policy actions

Its first major independent foreign policy action was to conclude an agreement in 1944 with New Zealand dealing with the security, welfare, and advancement of the people of the independent territories of the Pacific (the ANZAC pact). After the war, Australia played a role in the Far Eastern Commission in Japan and supported Indonesian independence during that country's revolt against the Dutch (1945-49). Australia was one of the founders of both the United Nations and the South Pacific Commission (1947), and in 1950, it proposed the Colombo Plan to assist developing countries in Asia. In addition to contributing to UN forces in Korea--it was the first country to announce it would do so after the United States--Australia sent troops to assist in putting down the communist revolt in Malaya in 1948-60 and later to combat the Indonesian-supported invasion of Sarawak in 1963-65. Australia also sent troops to assist South Vietnamese and U.S. forces in Vietnam and joined coalition forces in the Persian Gulf conflict in 1991. Australia has been active in the Australia-New Zealand- U.K. agreement and the Five-Power Defense Arrangement--successive arrangements with Britain and New Zealand to ensure the security of Singapore and Malaysia.

International agencies, treaties and agreements

One of the drafters of the UN Charter, Australia has given firm support to the United Nations and its specialized agencies. It was a member of the Security Council in 1986-87, a member of the Economic and Social Council for 1986-89, and a member of the UN Human Rights Commission for 1994-96. Australia takes a prominent part in many other UN activities, including peacekeeping, disarmament negotiations, and narcotics control. Australia also is active in meetings of the Commonwealth Heads of Government and the South Pacific Forum, and has been a leader in the Cairns Group--countries pressing for agricultural trade reform in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations--and in the APEC forum.

Australia has devoted particular attention to relations between developed and developing nations, with emphasis on the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)--Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Brunei--and the island states of the South Pacific. Australia is an active participant in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which promotes regional cooperation on security issues. In September 1999, acting under a UN Security Council mandate, Australia led an international coalition to restore order in East Timor upon Indonesia's withdrawal from that territory.

Australia has a large bilateral aid program (about $1.3 billion for 1997-98, mostly in the form of grants) under which some 60 countries receive assistance. Papua New Guinea (PNG), a former Australian trust territory, is the largest recipient of Australian assistance. In 1997, Australia contributed to the IMF program for Thailand and assisted Indonesia and PNG with regional environmental crises. From 1997-99 Australia contributed to IMF program for Thailand and assisted Indonesia and PNG with regional environmental crisis and drought relief efforts.

Australia is party to the Australia, New Zealand, United States security treaty (ANZUS).

Foreign missions

Australia has diplomatic representatives in most countries. Australia has official relations with a number of countries, with these counties it maintains an embassy or in the case of Commonwealth countries, a high commission. Australia has consulates in many countries where there are no official government ties, these serve primarily to assist Australian travellers and business people. A number of Canadian missions provide consular assistance to Australians in countries in Africa where Australia does not maintian an office. Australian also maintains a Representative Office in the Palestinian Authority.

International disputes

International disputes include:

Illicit drugs

Several very large drug intecepts worth many millions of dollars have been intercepted in coastal ambushes of drug shipping. Tasmania is one of the world's suppliers of legal hemp products; government maintains strict controls over areas of opium poppy cultivation and output of poppy straw concentrate.


See also

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