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Australia in Asia: Echoes of Whitlam

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COMMENTS

6 January 2011 11:20

On Tuesday I added Kevin Rudd to the honour roll of Australian leaders whose proposals for Asia Pacific organisations have sunk. Looking down the roll of the fallen ideas, a couple of entries are worth examining for what they tell us about Australian diplomatic experience and how their echoes are still relevant.

Consider Canberra's first effort, by Gough Whitlam, to establish an Asia Pacific forum/conference/community. You may not be surprised to know that ASEAN killed the idea. This established a recurring tradition of ASEAN sword thrusts at Australian versions of regionalism.

The Whitlam Government's enthusiastic embrace of the region meant that Australia became ASEAN's first formal dialogue partner in 1974. But Whitlam's 1973 attempt to create an Asia Pacific forum was smothered by ASEAN's objection that the body would be a threat to the Association's own importance. Only half way into its first decade of existence, ASEAN was already demonstrating its ability to wield the veto.

Whitlam said he did not want to change and enlarge ASEAN, but create a broader regional association for Asia and the Pacific, to develop 'a truly representative regional community'. Ah, that word 'community' again. How often it seems to cause problems for Australia when it talks about belonging in Asia.

In a speech in January 1973, Whitlam said his proposed grouping should include all of ASEAN. In line with ASEAN language, Whitlam said it would 'insulate the region against ideological interference from the great powers'. (Kevin Rudd came at the issue from a different direction: his community was about the middle powers getting a better handle on the great powers.)

Within a month of Whitlam's speech, Indonesia conveyed the veto personally. At a meeting on 25 February 1973, President Suharto told Whitlam there were not enough common interests within Asia for such a grouping to be practicable. Suharto said 'he doubted the usefulness of a formal conference or organisation. This would only aggravate conflicting interests. ASEAN also needed to be consolidated beforehand'.

Indonesia's President also said he would not want India as a member of an Asia Pacific grouping and that there would be questions about Chinese participation. At that point, Indonesia did not have diplomatic relations with China (they were not restored until 1990). The lack of non-aligned solidarity with India is a reminder of the Jakarta perspective, pungently expressed by Sukarno when he said the Indian Ocean should be renamed the Indonesian Ocean.

Rudd, like Whitlam before him, did not get full credit for his good intentions in Southeast Asia, because of the failure to acknowledge ASEAN forms and sensitivities – and, crucially, ASEAN's view of its own prerogatives. As Whitlam could tell Rudd, community-building initiatives have to get by the gatekeepers in Southeast Asia and then step nimbly among the all the big Asian beasts.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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