The Division in Australian Identity

by SC

This is going to be one of two essays that I will publish about Australian history and diplomacy in the years after British colonisation. This essay will not be as detailed as the following post, since it was a practice draft written by me for tomorrow’s one hour examination. Regardless, I will publish this because I want to memorise, which typing will allow, but also because I think it touches on enough topics which are different from my massive 3000 word essay on Australia, that it deserves a separate post.

Note, this is written completely in AUSTRALIAN English, so expect a very spelling differences, plus there are no references at all, since this was drafted for examination conditions.

Thank you for reading,
Down Under

“To what extent has the history of Australia’s defensive foreign policy since World War II reflected its European values in contrast to its Asian geography. Discuss this in the time period from 1970s to the present day.”

As a colonised nation located in the Asian sphere, Australia has long struggled with its identity. It has and still simultaneously looks at Great Britain as its cultural home whilst acknowledging Asia as its geographical home. Australia’s stance after the withdraw of Britain’s military and economic presence has been one of lukewarm friendship with Asia. This is reflected in its foreign policies towards Vietnam and Indonesia from the 1970s onward.

Australia’s entrance into the Vietnam War in 1962 was an obvious case of the nation’s apprehension towards the communist country. For the government, this was more than just a war of two hostile nations but rather a clash of identity and ideology. It was important to understand that Australia was spurred towards this armed conflict because of the decades of fear it had promoted and consumed in regards to the ‘near north’. The yellow fear had simply been transformed from the swarm of Chinese gold miners to the militaristic Japanese to the ‘red peril’. In many ways Australia’s decision to halt the domino effect could be seen as a further continuation of White Australia Policy.

Australia’s decision to fight in Vietnam also highlights another pivotal pillar of the Australian psyche; the need to find a paternal figure. Menzies’ act of courting and supporting American’s intervention in Vietnam was also reflected in Deakin’s attempts to woo the Great White Fleet in 1908. This act was similarly replicated by Gillard’s decision to establish a permanent American military base in Darwin due to continued military escalation in the South China sea. The constant reliance on western displays of power and solidarity to counter the rising might of Asian strength is indicative of Australia’s loyalties and inherent bias. It is telling that The Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) is seen as the pillar of Australia foreign policy, despite America continually shunning such their obligations in this relationship.Tellingly, both Keating and Whitlam, two of Australia’s more ‘pro-Asian’ prime ministers were unwilling to criticise or downplay the significance of ANZUS. Even if it could have potentially lead to a better relationship with some Asian states who were uncomfortable with the reach of America on Australia’s decision making.

Since the 1970s, there has been an attempt through politics, to alter Australia’s psyche to that of the ‘good neighbour’. This is reflected inWhitlam’s recognition of China, the exponential increase in Japanese trade and their softer foreign policies against Indonesia. Whilst Australia is unquestionably a western nation with western values, it has attempted to distance itself from its colonial past. This is reflected in Australia’s support for Papua New Guinea’s independence in 1975. Awkwardly this hand of independence was also extended to the Karkar Islands by Whitlam, to which they formally declined. This highlights how this topic of Asian independence has been turned into a political statement to benefit Australia’s image. Australian leaders have generally issued public comments of support for Asian independence in the post colonial era as a sign that they have moved away from their imperial roots. Historian Curran points out that Whitlam used this symbol of New Guinea casting off its imperial chains to galvanise Australia to do the same.

Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is a great example of Australia’s tension with its western values and Asian geography. Despite significant differences between Australia and Indonesia, politically, socially and religiously: Australia’s approach to Indonesia has generally being one of appeasement and anxiety. This relationship stems from the fear of Indonesian aggression, particularly since it is located so close to Australia’s borders. In order to maintain the status of the good neighbour, Whitlam turned a blind eye to Indonesia’s annexation of West Papua New Guinea and East Timor. This position of political pragmatism was adopted despite the abundance of human rights violations and condemnations from the United Nations. Interestingly, Whitlam was in favour of establishing economic sanctions of South Africa because of its Apartheid laws, highlighting the hypocrisy of his ‘progressive ideals’. Awkwardly however, it was the Fraser government which was left to deal with Whitlam’s approach to Indonesian hostility. Under intense scrutiny of the public and other western nations, Fraser came out and denounced Indonesia’s blatant violation of human rights in West Papua New Guinea; eventually falling inline with a lot of other western countries.

Despite these attempts at appeasement, Australia has yet to be fully acknowledged as an Asian nation. Keating’s comments of transforming Australia from the “odd man looking out to the odd man looking in” subconsciously highlights Australia’s sense of cultural displacement. Likewise Suharto’s rejection of Australia’s entrance into the East Asian Economic Caucus (EAEC) is very telling of Australia’s image in the eyes of other ethnically Asian nations. This is especially symbolic as the EAEC was created specifically to counter the inclusion of western powers into the Asian-Pacific Economics Cooperation (APEC). Suharto denied Australia this opportunity since he believed that Australia’s values were just too western. This ironically resulted in Keating publicly attacking Suharto, actions which were deemed unprofessional and problematic through the lens of Confucian values.

The Vietnam War combined with Australia’s treatment of Indonesia reflects the uneasy transition of a proud British nation to one with ‘Asian history’. Ultimately when given a chance to stand with the west or embrace the role of the good neighbour. Australia, under Howard’s leadership, choose to intervene and lead a United Nations expedition force into East Timor after Indonesia’s tactical withdraw. Likewise Australia’s western allegiance was also repeated when it choose to join America and the United Kingdoms in the invasion of Iraq, evoking ANZUS after 9/11. These two actions were performed despite fully understanding the repercussions it could possibly hold for Australia. Unsurprisingly, Indonesia’s frustrations at American and the Portuguese were now transferred onto Australia and the two nations have entered a period of a lukewarm relationship.

Howard’s slogan of ‘Asia first, but not Asia only’ is indicative of Australia’s split identity. There has been a real attempt to forge a sense of Asian identity after the collapse of the British Empire, this move has been inspired by economic necessity but it also touches back on Australia’s reliance upon greater powers. However, at the heart of Australian identity there lingers a powerful tension between its allegiance to its colonial and western past and a desire to fully immerse itself into the Asian community.

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