AUSTRALIA'S decision to keep forces in Malaysia and Singapore after Britain leaves in 1971 was taken in an election year, after the most searching public debate on defense and foreign policy in Australia's history and after a substantial official review. It represents, therefore, one country's practical assessment of Southeast Asia "after Viet Nam." In this sense, the decision may have significance outside Australia, for the light it throws on the development of Australian thinking, for the contribution it is intended to make to the security of the immediate subregional neighborhood and for the assumptions it appears to make about the broader question of stability in Asia, especially the role of the United States.

The reason for the public debate on defense was not only the imminent loss of the British connection in Southeast Asia, a symbolic moment which had been anticipated by Australian strategists and thinkers, if not by many Australian politicians. There was also uncertainty over the outcome in Viet Nam and American reaction to that outcome-a general suspicion that, just as the old policy covering relations with Britain had run out, so had the old policy covering relations with the United States. For the crude but central core of this Australian policy was to keep the United States engaged in Asia, especially Southeast Asia, at all costs, even if it meant military engagement-which the more ardent Australian supporters of the alliance with the United States in any case favored. This view was clearly put by Mr. B. A. Santamaria, a Catholic publicist, in an address to the National Press Club in Canberra on July 27, 1964. The alliance with the United States, he said, "should be regarded as so fundamental to Australian security that no Australian Government would ever equivocate about the alliance or the obligations which flow from it. Furthermore, it should be an incontrovertible end of Australian policy to do everything practical to keep the Americans actually engaged in Southeast Asia. Operations in hand are a better alternative than promises for the future." This kind of thinking about relations with America had been contested in Australia, especially but not solely on the political Left. It was not contested until recently, however, by the governing Liberal-Country Party coalition which has been in power since 1949.

The Viet Nam conflict has made an increasing number of Australians aware that in trying to keep America militarily involved in Southeast Asia, they may contribute to the opposite result, unless the commitments are more carefully related to U.S. resources-moral and psychological as well as material. Although the late Mr. Harold Holt easily won the election of 1966 on a policy of military commitment in Viet Nam, stressing "loyalty" to the alliance with the United States, the Viet Nam war has become a doubtful electoral asset. After Mr. Johnson's March 31 speech last year, the Opposition (the Australian Labor Party), which had long advocated a halt to the bombing of the North and talks with Hanoi, could claim that its policy was basically in harmony with Washington's.

So the review of Australia's defense policy was undertaken against a background of uncertainty about the continued presence in Southeast Asia of Britain and America, which a former Australian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, liked to call "our great and powerful friends." Australians were reminded of their dependence on these two nations, especially the United States, not only for ultimate territorial protection, but also for the defense policies which Australia had pursued in Southeast Asia since the end of World War II and which had coalesced into what was known as a posture of "forward defense." The objective of forward defense, although expressed in a variety of ways including collective security, was to keep conflict as far as possible from Australia. To this end Australia has been prepared since 1950 to commit forces to Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam, not to mention the U.N. Mandate of Papua-New Guinea. But it could not maintain this forward defense with its own military resources; each commitment was predicated on the prior commitment of either or both Britain and America. Now one prop was about to be removed and the other seemed to be loosening. The thought crossed many Australian minds that in these circumstances the best solution would be to abandon forward defense and withdraw Australian forces to the mainland.

Isolationism, which had had its most eloquent and humanitarian tradition in the Labor Party, now found a following among those who had supported the Viet Nam intervention and who felt that the first of the Southeast Asian dominoes was about to fall. Their prescription was to pull up the drawbridge and man the battlements, preferably with nuclear weapons. On the other hand, many who had opposed the Viet Nam commitment argued that its lesson was not no more commitments but no more Viet Nams. The Leader of the Opposition, Mr. E. G. Whitlam, put himself on the side of involvement in Asia with the pronouncement that "an isolationist Australia would be rich, selfish, greedy, racialist and reactionary. Beyond doubt we would be supporting this sort of society with the nuclear bomb." In addition, a new and relatively unknown Prime Minister, John Gorton, came to power, proclaiming that the premises of Australian policies in Southeast Asia had to be reëxamined and presenting publicly a more critical and pessimistic mind than his predecessors. The debate thus opened up the full range of Australian hopes and fears about Asia.

It showed that despite uncertainty about great and powerful friends, Australians overwhelmingly favored retaining their obligations in Southeast Asia, including military commitments. No doubt there were many reasons for this: the fact that withdrawing the forces already in Malaysia would have been a more conclusive act than leaving them there; the hope that an Australian readiness to remain in Southeast Asia would strengthen Washington's resolve to do the same; the knowledge that significant Asian nations, such as India and Indonesia, were not opposed to an Australian presence. But a strong emotional element was the feeling that, if Australia was to function as a nation and not as an Anglo-American dependency, it must be prepared to stand on its own feet in Southeast Asia. Australians had come to realize that unlike Britons and Americans, they really had no choice between remaining in the region or withdrawing. In making the announcement of the post-1971 commitment, Mr. Gorton said: "Our own starting point was and is that we are part of and situated in the region." Labor showed its appreciation by contesting the form of the commitment but not the principle of regional responsibility.

The significance of the debate and the decision can be overstated.[i] The debate was muted and complicated by uncertainty and self-serving prophecy on the Viet Nam issue. The decision was delayed to a point of hesitancy and the impression remains that Mr. Gorton was persuaded, rather than persuasive, in reaching it. The fact remains that a commitment has been made by Australia in Southeast Asia, not as a complement to a commitment by a major foreign power but as a substitute for it, that the obligation can be met only by maintaining national service and that the decision, pending the result of the election which must be held by November this year, appears to have the approval of the vast majority of the Australian people.

Walter Lippmann's proposal, published early in the debate, for a withdrawal of American bases to Australia and New Zealand presumably appealed to isolationists in the conservative ranks, but on this occasion, I found myself among those who opposed Mr. Lippmann, on the ground that his proposal would turn Australia into a vast American base and would render it politically impotent in Asia. Since Mr. Nixon became President, it is reported that the Lippmann proposal has acquired a new respectability.


The assumptions about the region on which the Australian Government based its decision are also interesting. The recommendations of the official review have not been disclosed, but it can be inferred from a range of evidence that the viewpoint before the Australian Cabinet was that Southeast Asia was a region of opportunity and potential for Australia rather than a place of threats and dangers. A more optimistic and complex picture was sketched for the policy-makers than was possible twenty years ago when Australia's forward-defense strategy began to be formulated. Then- and this was reflected in Australian agitation for the ANZUS (1951) and SEATO (1954) treaties-the situation in Asia fitted naturally into Australian folklore, which judged the island continent to be threatened by unspecified "Asiatic hordes," who were hostile toward and envious of Australia with its small population, long coastline and high living standard. Japan had just shown its colors; the cold-war structure of power was established; China had become a communist state, joining the Soviet Union in a global threat to that part of the world which Australians had always seen as the center of civilization. This civilized world had retreated from Asia as the European colonialists were ejected; India had become a republic and neutralist, Indonesia was nationalist and troublesome. In those circumstances, Australia's regional environment was reasonably assessed to be hostile. Although it was a Liberal-Country Party alliance (Australia's conservative parties) which evolved the policy of "great and powerful friends," a Labor government would almost certainly have done the same. Australia's interests in this strange and unpredictable environment were obviously served by alliances with Britain and America. For many Australians in the post-World War II period, the double dependence was like that of a child on its parents-with Britain as the forgiving and understanding mother, the United States as the demanding and authoritative father. Thus forward defense was undertaken in Asia in the process of growing up, of emulation.

Without this adolescence, and as a white enclave in Asia, Australia would probably have reacted to the rise of nationalism and communism in Asia by retreating as South Africa did. Instead, Australia became involved in Asia at all levels, and although the engagement often seemed peripheral and proxy, the experience was a most significant factor in developing the assurance necessary to make the post-1971 decision. Asians were no longer undifferentiated "hordes," but nations, peoples and leaders with whom Australians had become familiar.

Also before the Government were some of the facts of development and growth in Asia of which Mr. Nixon made so much in his now celebrated article in Foreign Affairs (October 1967). Indonesia's change of course, the slow awakening of an Indian national interest in Southeast Asia, Japan's economic strength increasingly demanding political responsibility, the economic growth of Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand- all these lent credence to the view that in making what was virtually a new commitment, Australia was not plunging into a morass of alternating stagnation and revolution.

On the whole, however, Canberra was-and remains-cautious and even skeptical about the ability of Asian nations to achieve collective security as recommended by Mr. Nixon. The decision about Malaysia and Singapore was a practical response to circumstances brought about by the British Government's determination to step up the pace of its withdrawal, completing it by 1971 instead of 1975. It was hardly an intellectual conversion to "regionalism." It is true that it establishes the nucleus of a regional security arrangement. Whatever Britain does, four nations- Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and Australia, all former British possessions-will collaborate on defensive measures for Malaysia and Singapore. In addition, it carries regional political responsibilities, for clearly the success of this essentially Commonwealth arrangement will depend on the attitude of neighbors, especially Indonesia and the Philippines. But it is seen from Canberra as a very small piece in the jigsaw of Southeast Asian stability, not to mention an Asian security system. Mr. Gorton expressly excluded the arrangement from a general strategic assessment of future SEATO and ANZUS obligations. He did not attempt to tie it in with the Asian and Pacific Council (ASPAC) or the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), although Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand are members of the first, and Malaysia and Singapore are members of the second.

My impression is that while many foreign policy professionals see regionalism as an opportunity for an Australian role in Asia and the Labor Party particularly sees it as a release from excessive dependence on the United States, the present Government, probably supported by most Australians, would prefer that the United States maintain military power in Asia in direct contact with the border areas of Communist China. What is sometimes now called the Nixon-Kissinger strategy, which it is believed would interpose a collectivity of Asian states as a buffer between China and the United States, is not popular with Australian conservatives.

The arguments against it are principally two. The first is that the Asian states are not within hailing distance of a comprehensive and coherent regional security system. ASPAC is entirely dependent on Japan's intentions and Japan is not yet ready to move. Japan seems to be torn between a unique model of pacifist neutrality and a role as an independent great power which would enable it to enter the balance with the United States, the U.S.S.R. and China. In addition, its emergence in Asia under a regional umbrella revives memories of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. For both these internal and external reasons, Japan's progress toward accepting a regional identity is judged likely to be slow. India has neither the economic nor the military capacity, and as yet has not expressed the desire, to undertake a security role outside its borders. Indonesia has shown a tentative interest, but its first priority is economic revival. It is at present the largest nation in ASEAN and would probably resist attempts to enlarge that organization or link it with another association, for this would reduce Indonesian influence.

In short, the three largest nations of non-communist Asia show varying degrees of unreadiness to assume regional security commitments on a sufficient scale. Without them the buffer zone would be little more than a strategic tripwire for American intervention, little change from what SEATO already provides. If the intention of the buffer is to avoid another Viet Nam, where the United States would be forced to honor obligations to a small client-state rather than to collective security, the regional system must include the major Asian states.

The second objection is that, as a global power, the United States cannot, or should not, retreat to what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called an "apocalyptic nuclear" position. It is said on behalf of the strategy of a regional buffer that it would reduce the danger of the United States, a nuclear power, becoming involved militarily in low-grade counterinsurgency wars which could escalate into conventional and perhaps nuclear conflict. But on the other hand, if the United States were invited to intervene after a conflict had gotten beyond the control of the local nations, it might have to intervene close to the threshold of war, whereas its earlier entry could have prevented an escalation to this point. In fact, its capacity to act preventively would be lessened. Once its threatened involvement had manifestly failed to deter, its entry would signal a determination which was not related to regional objectives but to the objectives of a nuclear power. In other words, the United States would be loath to act, and any action it undertook would imply the possibility of an unlimited war. Critics see the buffer-strategy, therefore, as a form of U.S. isolationism.

For these reasons, Asian regionalism is seen at present in Canberra as a profusion of bilateral and multilateral arrangements which are encouraging constructive and creative thinking about self-reliance but should not be forced to take on the burden of collective defense or try to replace American power. But the question may be asked, of course, whether this is merely an argument for the status quo, which fails to take account of the lessons of Viet Nam. Australian Government leaders place great hopes on American policy in Asia remaining unchanged; little thought seems to be given to the advantages of a change. The curious and interesting prospect has arisen in Australian politics that a Labor government would be more inclined to encourage Washington to adjust its accumulated commitments in Asia, at a time when such encouragement might be most welcome in Washington.


The crux of the problem is China. The history of the containment of China by an anti-communist military strategy in Asia is well known. This strategy has been the political centerpiece of Australia's foreign policy in Asia for nearly twenty years, although the embroidery has included some intricate petitpoint on good relations with neutral nations like Indonesia and Cambodia. It has been an election winner and despite its fading appeal- not only because of Viet Nam and the Second Vatican Council, but also because Australia conducts a substantial trade with China-it is hard to discard.

Yet it must be discarded, in both Canberra and Washington, if the search for an equilibrium of power in Asia is to be fruitful. There is at present in Asia no combination of nations prepared to relieve the United States of the policeman's role, if that means enforcing order on China's non-Russian borders. If the United States wishes to be relieved of this role, it can follow one of two courses. It can retreat to a new strategic frontier, while proclaiming its old objectives, or it can remain and redefine its objectives.

The first course contains obvious dangers. How can the old policy be made to seem credible from a new strategic frontier, which would probably no longer be drawn through Thailand? A misreading would be invited, as Mr. Acheson's 1950 "defense perimeter" excluding Korea was misread. A more fundamental objection is that, as a global power, the United States cannot set arbitrary limits to its responsibilities in Asia. In fact, it can be argued that for a global power the notion of commitments extending protection to one country and not to another is unreal. The United States does not need a treaty relationship with a particular state to respond to its calls for help, and the existence of a treaty relationship with another will not guarantee that protection. It is hard to believe, for example, that the United States has any less interest in the independence of India than it has in the independence of Thailand.

The advantage in the second course-remaining but redefining objectives-is that it gives priority to a political initiative which can be undertaken without an immediate change in the disposition of American military forces in Asia. Military pacts are easier to run down than to disband and although it is true that SEATO is little more now than the institution of an American commitment in Southeast Asia, some of its members will be keen to retain it for precisely that reason. But SEATO as a reassurance that the United States will not withdraw from Southeast Asia and SEATO as the instrument of a policy to contain and isolate China are different things. The real question has never been whether China should be permitted to regard Asia as its "sphere of influence." India, Japan and several other Asian states, not to mention the U.S.S.R., have long answered that question in the negative. The question is rather whether military containment based on American power is more effective than a neutral, independent Asia would be in controlling China. Once the policy has shifted from containment to a diplomatic and political balancing of China, the regional tissues formed in the last few years should develop some muscle.

Unless I am mistaken, a neutral Southeast Asia has been an American objective since President Kennedy. At the height of the Viet Nam war it was affirmed by officials of the Johnson Administration, such as Robert McNamara and William Bundy. In retrospect, it is notable how little anti- communist propaganda was used by Mr. Johnson and his officials to justify the Viet Nam intervention. The impression remains of a reasonable, if bewildered, government, hoping for a signal of reasonableness from the other side. It is perhaps too early to be sure how Mr. Nixon will undertake what is the central task of a leader in a democracy: creating understanding and eliciting public support for the nation's pursuit of its interests and responsibilities. But the need for a settlement in Viet Nam, and Washington's complex relations with Moscow and Peking, make anti-communism an improbable rationale, even for a conservative government in Washington.

In Australian politics, a small but strategically placed anti-communist constituency makes the task of adjusting to new objectives in Asia difficult for the present Government. The heavily Catholic and strongly anti-communist Democratic Labor Party has become an influential minority party since it split from the Labor Party in 1955. Under Australia's preferential voting system, a voter's second choice can be more important than his first if his own candidate has only a small following, and the DLP has consistently told its supporters to give their second-preference vote to the Government parties. In other words, the DLP has effectively kept the Labor Party out of office, on the grounds that it is under leftist influence and if it came to power would endanger the "American alliance" by recognizing Peking, declaring Southeast Asia a neutral and nuclear-free zone, demanding control over American strategic installations in Australia and generally taking a "soft" line on ideological issues in foreign policy. The question is being increasingly asked in Australia whether the price the DLP demands and can exact from Liberal governments for "loyalty" to the alliance is not too high for the nation's self-respect. The DLP has now set its sights on self-reliance for Australian defense, including a nuclear capacity. Experts have estimated that the DLP program would raise Australian defense spending from the present figure of 5 percent of gross national product to between 7 and 10 percent.

Mr. Gorton has not responded to the DLP's call to arms and is being threatened with a withholding of preferences in selected electorates this year, which would return him to office with a painfully reduced majority. Whether the DLP can manage such a demonstration of its power over the Government parties without letting the Labor Opposition in has yet to be shown. While the DLP has this reserve power, however, Government spokesmen are going to be cautious about unnecessarily antagonizing it. The Government is at present caught between the obvious need for new security policies in Asia and the need not to disturb the conventional wisdom on Asia.

The Malaysia-Singapore commitment assumes additional importance against this uncertain political background. It represents the closest to a foreign policy consensus that can be expected. It does not prevent Australia from pursuing close relations with Japan, India and Indonesia, the necessary pillars of an independent, neutral Asia. At the same time it maintains the essentials of forward defense and political anti-communism. It can develop toward regionalism-or it can manifest the ANZUS treaty in action in Southeast Asia. The commitment is an unmistakable statement, which no future Australian Government will be able to ignore, of Australia's determination to play a role in Southeast Asia. Whether this role will be written in Canberra, Washington, Tokyo or Peking, no one here can be sure.

[i] The Australian forces will consist of two squadrons of Mirages, totaling 42 aircraft, 1200 ground troops and one fighting ship. It is a token force which might need to be supported from the Australian mainland or, as the Prime Minister publicly said, from "allies outside the region." (The Labor Party favored a commitment only of air squadrons.)

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