THE devolution of the British Empire into an association of sovereign states has left the periodic Commonwealth Prime Ministers' conference as the most important organ of coordination among the members of the association. These conferences are meetings for consultation and exchange of views; they are not summoned to meet particular emergencies and they have no formal agenda. They are not meant to produce binding agreements or to commit the participating governments to a definitely formulated joint policy in any field of world affairs. They nevertheless do involve a degree of mutual influence and adjustment in policy-making which goes far beyond the normal interactions of states in friendly diplomatic relations, or even relations of alliance, with one another. A cynical observer may say that the Commonwealth conferences are an ingenious device by which Britain continues to impose her own policies on ex-British territories in spite of their nominal independence. But although British views, supported by the prestige of long experience and savoir faire in world politics, undoubtedly continue to carry great weight at the conferences, their more striking feature in comparison to the past is the influence which the other members now exert upon Britain. A Castlereagh, a Palmerston or a Salisbury in formulating British foreign policy did not have to take account of the opinions of British overseas colonies and dependencies, but a Bevin or an Eden must continually be seeking the approval, or at least the understanding, of Ottawa, Canberra and Delhi for any important step in Britain's international relations.

Eight separate nations distributed over five continents cannot be expected to have a single uniform policy in relation to the rest of the world or to see eye to eye with one another on all current issues of world affairs. The differences of geographical location would alone be sufficient to produce profound differences of outlook, even without the great diversity of ethnic origins and history. Nevertheless, the fact that all the countries concerned have in the past formed part of the British Empire and have emerged as independent states through peaceful constitutional processes has left them all with a certain common heritage of political and legal ideas which is of the highest significance in the face of a world infested with totalitarian tendencies. British settlers carried the institutions of their homeland to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, just as they did to those North American colonies which subsequently became the United States; except in South Africa, where the British element is outnumbered by the Dutch, these institutions have remained the foundation of national life.

In India, Pakistan and Ceylon, historic traditions are, of course, entirely alien to the British way of life, and nationalism in recent years has tended to reassert indigenous values against all kinds of Western influence; yet the pre-independence apprenticeship of the educated classes in British law and politics has deeply affected their entire approach to the problems of the modern world. When power was handed over to leaders of Asian peoples formerly under British rule, there were many who took it for granted that Commonwealth ties with them could not be more than nominal and would probably be terminated as soon as the new states gained full confidence in themselves. But up to now the Asian members of the Commonwealth have shown no inclination to break away from it, and it is a striking fact that none of the issues which involve serious conflict within the Commonwealth ranges the British-origin and Asian members in groups on opposite sides. The Kashmir question nearly led to war between two members and is still a most difficult and dangerous dispute, but it divides the Asians among themselves, not as a bloc from the rest of the Commonwealth. The policies of racial discrimination pursued by South Africa against Asian immigrants as well as the indigenous Africans inevitably arouse deep resentment in India, Pakistan and Ceylon; but the sharpest conflict is raised by the South African challenge to British colonial policy in Africa, and particularly the demand to take over the British-administered Protectorates within South Africa, so that here again the antagonism, serious though it is, does not split the Commonwealth along racial lines.

The reference to South Africa affords a convenient starting-point for a survey of the foreign policies of the members of the Commonwealth because South Africa comes nearest to having no foreign policy at all. It is also today the most aloof from the Commonwealth family circle. Alone among the members it was not represented at the recent conference in London in February by its Prime Minister, but only by its Minister of Justice who left for Capetown before the conference was over. Absorbed in its local and internal affairs, remote from any area of serious international disturbance, and conscious of the disapproval with which the world at large regards its racial policies, the ruling party in South Africa tends more and more to withdraw into a defiant isolationism, claiming that South Africa will mind its own business and that other nations should mind theirs. As the only one of the members of the Commonwealth whose interests are not involved in some strategic area fronting the Communist power bloc, South Africa is curiously detached even from the "cold war," though by apartheid it is busily creating wonderful opportunities for the penetration of Communism into the African continent. The only consoling feature from the point of view of the Free World in an otherwise deplorable situation is that "Malanism" at least appears to ensure that in any world conflict South Africa cannot be ranged on the side of Moscow, and this is potentially of the greatest strategic importance because, with the possible destruction of the Suez Canal in an atomic war, Capetown would become the pivot of maritime communications between Britain and the United States on the one hand and the countries of the Indian Ocean on the other.

Apart from South Africa, all the Commonwealth countries are concerned in the affairs of regions which are more or less directly threatened by the advance of Communist power. Britain, as an island off the coast of Europe to which 20 miles of sea no longer afford protection against devastating attack from the Continent, is vitally concerned in the defense of Western Europe, including the German Federal Republic, against the Soviet Union and its European satellites, and is further committed by its long-established Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian interests to participation in the defense of those regions. On the other side of the Atlantic, Canada has not only a stake, shared with the United States, in the preservation of Britain and Western Europe from Soviet domination, but has also during the last few years become conscious of her own exposed position as the most northerly country of the Americas in an age when war could be waged across the Bering Strait or over the North Pole. At the other end of the Commonwealth, Australia and New Zealand have been aware, ever since the entry of a Japanese fleet into the Coral Sea in 1942, of the potential danger to their security from a domination of the Far East by a single aggressive Power, and are linked in regional defense agreements both with Britain and with the United States. Finally, of the Asian Commonwealth countries, India has a long land frontier with Communist China, while Pakistan touches China at one point, and is also exposed to possible approaches of Communist expansion through Afghanistan on one side and Burma on the other; Ceylon, though remote from either Russian or Chinese frontiers, cannot fail to recollect the time, only a few years ago, when Kandy was the headquarters of the "Southeast Asia Command."

Of all the members of the Commonwealth, Canada, as a partner in NATO, is the most closely associated with Britain's own defense. As one of the three countries which led the way in the development of atomic power, Canada also has special links with both Britain and the United States which constitute an international grouping of the greatest importance in the present period of world history. In some respects, nevertheless, Canada tends to draw apart from the rest of the Commonwealth. She is outside the sterling area and thus has no share in the financial cooperation which is one of the most effective bonds between other Commonwealth countries. Her closest economic ties are inevitably with the United States, and strategically the two North American nations are bound to become more and more tightly integrated. During the two great wars against Germany in which both Canada and the United States took part, the idea of an invasion of North America by way of the Arctic was inconceivable. Today, however, Alaska, Ellesmere Land and Baffin Land belong to a vulnerable strategic zone for which a joint American-Canadian defense is essential. Canada's strategic commitments under the NATO and North American defense agreements thus extend from the Mediterranean to the North Pole and round to the Aleutians.

Westward across the Pacific, however, Canadian interests and commitments stop short of the American. Canada has never shared in the American transpacific expansion which led to possession of Hawaii and the Philippines or in the traditional American concern for the fate of China. The Canadian instinct is to avoid involvement in the affairs of Asia. Neither the American obligations to Japan, South Korea and Formosa nor the Southeast Asia defense pact are underwritten by Canada. One result of this has been that the Canadian attitude towards Communist China is much nearer to the British than to the American. This is not to be attributed merely to a habit of taking advice from London or to the personal opinions of a Foreign Minister, but is to be explained largely by Canadian isolationism in relation to the Far East. The Canadian resolution not to become involved works in the same direction as the British desire to disengage.

The Manila Treaty, on the other hand, does bring together four members of the Commonwealth, as well as the United States, in a league to keep Southeast Asia from possible conquest or domination by Communist China. In addition, Australia and New Zealand are linked with the United States by the Anzus Pact, to which Britain is not a party.

The attitude of Australia and New Zealand to world affairs is conditioned to an increasing extent by awareness of the huge mass of Asia to the northwest, the nearest Asian neighbor being the new political creation of Indonesia with its alarming internal instability and Communist infestation. Until 1942 the two Australasian Dominions relied on British sea power for their security and willingly dispatched troops to the Middle East in both Britain's wars against Germany. In the war of 1914-18, with the Anglo-Japanese alliance ensuring security in the Pacific, this could be done without danger, but with a hostile Japan it proved extremely dangerous, and the crisis which followed the fall of Singapore put a severe strain on British-Australian relations, as revealed in the correspondence published in Volume IV of Sir Winston Churchill's war memoirs. Australia suddenly found itself threatened with Japanese invasion; the British Government agreed to the recall of part of the Australian forces serving in the Middle East for defense of their homeland, but subsequently tried to get part of them diverted for the campaign in Burma--a request with which the Australian Government bluntly refused to comply. The peril, though it was not of long duration, made a profound and ineradicable impression on the Australian mind, and when relief came, it was from the American victories in the Coral Sea and at Midway rather than from anything Britain was able to do at that time to help the two Dominions.

In the postwar period, with Britain hardly able to dispose of any surplus of strength over and above her European and Middle Eastern commitments, Australia and New Zealand have had to continue placing reliance for their security mainly on a defensive alliance with the United States. Politically, however, they have been less inclined to an American alignment. Long after Washington had decided to rebuild and rearm Japan as a barrier against Russo-Chinese Communist expansion, Australians could see no danger in the Pacific but from Japan. The fact that neither the Soviet Union nor Communist China possessed sea power such as Japan had had seemed to render them harmless for transoceanic expeditions, whatever they might do on the mainland of Asia.

Recently, however, Canberra has been taking a much more serious view of Asian Communist policies, and the main reason for this has been the development of the situation in Indonesia. The mainland of Asia may be far away, but Java, Timor and New Guinea are not. It was from this island chain that the Japanese threatened Australia a dozen years ago, and it is now realized that internal subversion could make it once more a frontier of menace even without a direct military conquest by a stronger Asian power. The earlier Australian sympathy for Indonesian nationalism has largely evaporated; the spectacle of a government leaning heavily on Communist support to maintain its domestic ascendancy, indulging in rabid anti-Western propaganda to divert attention from its economic failures, and stridently demanding possession of Western New Guinea when it is unable to maintain order in its own scattered territory, fills Australian observers with misgivings for the future. One of the great advantages of the Manila Treaty from an Australian point of view is that the combination of states for the collective defense of Southeast Asia may be expected to have a steadying effect on Indonesia, even though the latter remains outside the alliance.

Australian foreign policy may vary to some extent in accordance with developments in domestic politics, but it is unlikely that the return of the Labor Party to power would radically alter the current official preoccupation with the long-term threat to Australia from the course of events in the Far East. The tendency of Australian Far Eastern policy is to follow a path intermediate between the British and the American. Australia does not share in the American commitments to Japan, South Korea or Formosa and does not yet show any great enthusiasm for the revival of Japan; on the other hand, it cannot afford to take the risks Britain may be inclined to take in speculating on a benevolent heart behind the grim visage of Communist China. This is not a matter of ideology, but of geography. Sir Winston Churchill in his memoirs, speaking of the crisis of 1942, has to admit that "whereas the advance of Japan could make no difference to the safety of the British Isles, it confronted Australia with a mortal danger." The same principle applies to the new menace from Peking. Ultimately British policy must be determined by European priorities and Australian by Pacific priorities; in the last resort Britain can regard Southeast Asia as expendable, but Australia cannot.

At the last Commonwealth Conference the four members who are signatories of the Manila Treaty, that is to say Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, consulted together on Southeast Asian affairs preparatory to the SEATO conference to be held in Bangkok, but only the first three took part in a discussion on the defense of Malaya. Pakistan does not wish even to appear to be supporting what is still essentially a colonial régime; her own stake in SEATO is the security of the territory of East Pakistan, which would be threatened by Communist ascendancy in Burma --which in turn would be the almost certain consequence of a Communist conquest of Siam, quite apart from the possibility of direct pressure and infiltration from China. Malaya has no common frontier with China and could not be attacked overland unless Siam had been first overcome; it presents, however, a political problem of the greatest difficulty. As long as it remains under British sovereignty, it is an anomaly in a continent where all the major colonial régimes have now been liquidated and a most vulnerable target for Communist-guided anti-colonial propaganda; on the other hand, if British control is brought to an end, there is a real danger of Communist subversion through the Chinese element in Malaya. Singapore, the strategic pivot of the whole Southeast Asia region, is virtually a Chinese city. The problem of the future of Malaya has now indeed become one of the widest interest, and is no longer one simply of adjustment between the British Government and a colonial people advancing to independence. The two Pacific Dominions will henceforth insist on being consulted in any British decisions about Malaya, and the issue cannot be entirely separated from that of the British attitude towards the Chinese People's Republic.

While Pakistan is the only one of the Asian members of the Commonwealth to be a partner in SEATO, all three belong to the grouping known as the "Colombo Powers," which also includes Burma and Indonesia. This was originally designed in Delhi as the core of the neutral bloc which it has been the aim of Mr. Nehru's foreign policy to create, and Pakistan, by first accepting American military aid and then joining SEATO, has seriously disrupted the Nehruite solidarity. The policy of India herself, however, remains in sharp contrast to the purposes--or at least the estimates of international forces--which have led four members of the Commonwealth to take part in the scheme for collective security in Southeast Asia. Indian policy is the product of three main factors which have so far been operative without any lesson of experience sufficient to counteract their effects. The first is the determination since the achievement of national independence to have a completely independent foreign policy-- a mood which implies separation from, though not antagonism towards, Britain. The second factor is the pacifism of the Gandhi tradition, which is a genuine element of great influence in Indian politics, however little it may seem to a cynical observer to determine Indian actions where Kashmir is concerned; India's political leader as the heir of Gandhi is not expected to renounce the use of force where India's own vital interests are concerned, but on the world stage he must be the peacemaker par excellence, the disinterested mediator between warring camps. Finally, there is the continuing anti-imperialist sentiment which sees all Western intervention in Asia, even to sustain the independence of weak states, as a revival of colonialism, and takes it for granted that any Asian country in conflict with a Western Power must be in the right. For such an outlook Communist China appears as a nation striving to rid herself finally of semi-colonial status and Peking's aggression in Korea as basically a defensive measure against foreign interference on the Asian mainland. The conviction that Communist China is not a disturber of the peace, but the innocent victim of American warmongering, remains deeply rooted in the Indian mind.

Nehruite neutralism, which is continually leaning over sideways to give the benefit of the doubt to the Marxist-Leninists of the new China, is almost more exasperating to Americans than the straightforward hostility of states which have been gathered into the Communist bloc. The British attitude, however, is much more tolerant. Britain does not, indeed, hesitate on occasion to disregard Mr. Nehru's admonitions and rebukes, as when she joined in the creation of SEATO in spite of Delhi's view that it would be a provocation of the Chinese People's Republic. The British well understand India's dislike of any policy which looks like following in the wake of the Western Powers, and know that any kind of pressure on India would only defeat its own purpose. They are more than satisfied with the happy condition of Indo-British relations since independence and are unwilling to do anything that might put an excessive strain on them. They are convinced that the Congress régime in India will in the long run be resistant to Communism and that it will learn from experience if, contrary to Indian expectations and assurances from Peking, Communist China does make further forward moves in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile it is expedient to listen to the Indian Prime Minister's sermons without showing irritation and to make the most of the channels of contact and information which are made available by India's friendship with the People's Republic.

There have recently, in fact, been signs that India is becoming uneasy at the activity of international Communism in Asia, including its militant advance within India herself. The Communist bid for power in the Andhra elections has driven the Congress Party for the first time to drop the pretense that Indian Communism is a purely internal affair and to denounce it as an instrument of foreign Powers, even though this means the introduction of a jarring note into the professed harmony of Indian relations with the Communist world. A suspicion that the new China may not be quite as innocuous as she is made out to be keeps on finding expression in India in spite of the prevalence of the orthodox view that Americans are always in the wrong. Such a suspicion would indeed be alarming in view of India's relative weakness, aggravated by the unresolved conflict with Pakistan, for taking any counter-action to protect the lands which lie east of India and south of China. Fortunately, however, the Western imperialists have not hesitated to provoke the Chinese People's Republic by setting up roadblocks in Southeast Asia, and India is thus in the happy position of having her eastern approaches protected without being required to make any contribution to the common defense.

As a result of the Manila Treaty, Mr. Nehru is now able to denounce the disturbance to the peace of Asia caused by the defensive measures of the SEATO Powers--than which nothing can be more popular with Indian audiences--without having to worry lest Thailand be one day snatched into the Communist orbit without anyone lifting a finger to prevent it. The advantage to India in a security system which is officially condemned may go far to explain Mr. Nehru's good humor and cheerful confidence on his visit to London. Far from being an element of discord and recrimination in a gathering where most of the other participants were involved in those arrangements for checking Communist aggression which India professes to regard as superfluous, if not actively harmful, Mr. Nehru appeared entirely at his ease and entered fully into the discussion of the international situation.

The public statement issued after the conference in London inevitably contained much of the noncommittal verbiage to be expected in such documents, but in view of the diversity of policies represented the extent of agreement revealed was impressive. On the general situation vis-à-vis the Communist bloc, the communiqué was able to announce that the representatives of Commonwealth countries concerned in regional defense plans agreed that the overwhelming superiority of the Western Powers in nuclear weapons offers at the present time the most effective and practical assurance that world peace will not be disturbed by any deliberate act of aggression. They agreed that their defense policies should be founded on the principle that world war can be prevented if the free democracies are resolved to maintain in readiness forces sufficiently strong to deter any potential aggressor.

The statement went on to relate that defense policies in Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia were reviewed by the countries concerned. This means Britain and Canada, as NATO members, so far as Europe is concerned; the four signatories of the Manila Treaty so far as Southeast Asia is concerned; and members of both groups for the Middle East, as the region through which pass the main air and sea communications between them. The Commonwealth, indeed, is coming more and more to be divided into an Atlantic group of countries comprising Britain herself, Canada and, marginally, South Africa, and an Indo-Pacific group including Australia, New Zealand and the three Asian Commonwealth members. The two groups are linked together primarily by Britain's continuing presence as a Power in the Indian Ocean. British naval and air strength could provide invaluable help in case of need to any of the five Commonwealth partners in the Indo-Pacific region. But power depends on bases, and as the process of decolonization leaves Britain without suitable territories under her own full sovereignty, the interlocking of the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific defense systems becomes conditional on agreements for the maintenance of bases similar to those which assure American reinforcement for the defense of Western Europe.

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  • G. F. HUDSON, Fellow of St. Antony's College, Oxford, in charge of the Center of Far Eastern Studies; member of the editorial staff of The Economist, London; author of "The Far East in World Politics."
  • More By G. F. Hudson