Foreign Policy with an Australian Accent

Identity politics and Asian engagement

Next Voices

For around two decades now, Australia has been captive to a narrative that emphasises not choosing between our traditional Western allies and rising Asian powers. But there is one choice we can’t avoid: who we want to be in this Asian century. Because for all the focus on our foreign relations, questions about Australia’s “Asianness” cannot be answered without engaging in the debate around Australian identity.

Australia has a long and ignoble history of defining itself against an Asian “other”. Fears of invasion by our northern neighbours, particularly Japan, predated Federation. In fact, Federation was directly informed by the perceived need to pool defence resources and guard the continent against invasion. But with the long-overdue winding up of the White Australia Policy in the 1970s, a space opened for new definitions of our place in an Asian neighbourhood. Numerous projects of Asian engagement followed, from Whitlam to the present day.

With these projects came many questions. What does regional integration look like? How Asian do we want to be? How Asian can we be?

These questions have led to two opposing approaches. In one corner are those who argue that engagement with Asia is important, but Australian identity need not – in fact must not – change because of it. In the other are those who link growing relationships in Asia with a transformation of national selfhood. Each camp borrows from the rhetoric of the other, so that every leader since Howard seems, with varying degrees of emphasis, to proclaim our unique Australianness and our neighbourliness in Asia, and ultimately assert that we don’t have to choose between alliances with Western powers and regional engagement.

But the history of these different approaches shows us the importance of the Australian self-image to any debate about Asian engagement. For Australia, questions of “Asianness” and national identity are inextricable, and the stories we tell about who we are matter for foreign policy.

The new nationalism

How has Australia talked about itself in Asia since the end of the White Australia Policy?

Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all saw Asian engagement as being underpinned by a willingness to wrestle with, and even reshape, national identity. For these three leaders, Asian engagement was one aspect of a larger project of transforming what “Australian identity” meant.

Asian engagement formed part of Whitlam’s project of “new nationalism”. By the 1970s the phrase had been around for some time, but Whitlam gave it a central place in his political vision. In his view, “an authentic Australianism” underpinned all policy, both domestic and foreign. It was internationalist and multicultural, but based on “a secure and distinctive national identity”. Whitlam never outlined clearly what this distinctive national identity looked like, beyond the fact it was modern, progressive and independent of British and American influences. Embracing Asia was to be, for him, part of this updated Australian identity.

In policy terms, this involved putting the nails in the coffin of the White Australia Policy, finishing work that his predecessor, Harold Holt, had begun. Whitlam also intensified engagement with the region, including diplomatically recognising the People’s Republic of China, gaining dialogue partnership with ASEAN and fostering relations with Indonesia. Whitlam’s influence on foreign policy was so great even the conservative Fraser government that followed Whitlam largely maintained this emphasis on Asian engagement. 

Hawke embarked on regional engagement with perhaps less grandiose aims. But while he largely focused on the economic potential of the region, he did not dismiss the relevance of questions about our national identity. It is telling that in a 1987 speech in Singapore, Hawke declared: “I can say with confidence that the era of Australian complacency, of postponing the task of adjustment, is now behind us.” What is remarkable about this claim is that Hawke was talking about economic protectionism. Yet he presented Australia’s economic transition as a question of national character – of “complacency” being replaced by proactive engagement.

Hawke’s successor, Paul Keating, took this linking of Asian engagement and national character further. For him, a productive engagement with Asia went hand-in-hand with issues such as an Australian republic, Indigenous reconciliation and enhancing multiculturalism, to create a more independent, confident and outward-looking Australia. Importantly, Keating believed that government “has a role in shaping and expressing the values of our community”. He was willing to take on this challenge, in relation to Asia as well as more traditionally “domestic” concerns.

It’s important to note that all three governments were wrestling with these questions of national identity in a postcolonial setting. As new South-East Asian and African states emerged through violent convulsions and bloody nationalist movements, Australia too had a colonial history to confront. Hence Keating’s claim that engagement with the region had to come without “the ghost of Empire about us”. He believed that changes such as Indigenous reconciliation and the achievement of an Australian republic, with an Australian head of state, would project Australia’s own postcolonial status abroad. In turn, this would help foster friendly relations with regional states such as Indonesia.

The reception of these government efforts to engage more closely with Asia was mixed, in Australia and abroad. Hawke’s great achievement in foreign affairs was the creation of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) – a regional forum for Australia and its Asian neighbours that remains relevant today. Yet in the lead-up to the creation of APEC, figures such as then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad argued for Australia’s exclusion from a proposed alternative organisation, the East Asian Economic Caucus, because Australia was not culturally “Asian”. Within Australia, some sections of the community were not ready to let go of a racially and culturally “white” national identity just because their leaders argued for it. Pauline Hanson, with her vitriol against “Asian migrants”, and John Howard, with his comparatively more restrained focus on Anglo-Australian history and “values”, tapped into this fear.

Nonetheless, the legacy of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating cannot be overstated. Every government from Whitlam onwards, and particularly after Hawke and Keating, has recognised the importance of Asia to Australia’s security and prosperity. Not all leaders have been interested in projects of national reinvention, but all have been influenced by the reinvention that came before them. From Kevin Rudd’s personal fascination with China and emphasis on “Asia literacy” to Malcolm Turnbull’s affirmation that Australia’s regional vision has “ASEAN at [its] heart”, each leader at least pays lip service to Asia’s importance to Australia. Our contemporary foreign policy would have been unthinkable before Whitlam dismantled the idea that Asia was only a region from which Australia had to be defended.

The Howard backlash

Whitlam, Hawke and Keating understood that dramatically changing foreign policy orientation requires careful internal management too – deeper engagement with Asia cannot but impact upon our national self-image. Their legacy has reflected the size of the transformations they sought.

Although the inheritor of this transformation in vision, John Howard espoused an alternative view. He articulated the now-ubiquitous “we don’t have to choose” line, about embracing the economic opportunity posed by growing Asian economies while also maintaining close ties with a still-powerful United States.

The problem really lies with how he extended this idea. Back in 1995, shortly before he became prime minister, Howard claimed that building a lasting and productive relationship with the region involved synthesis between a comfortable acceptance of Australia’s past, a confident assertion of its ongoing values and traditions, and a readiness to understand, accept and embrace new associations. He warned of the danger for Australia in “disavowing its history or disowning its institutions” in the name of regional engagement. 

Under this worldview, regional engagement isn’t a process of integration so much as of “different but nonetheless wholehearted” partnership. Trade, educational exchanges, tourism and Asia literacy can all grow and grow without the fundamentally British heart of Australian identity changing – that is, with our white Anglo-Australian history and values remaining intact.

Ultimately, the belief that Australia need not exclusively align itself with one particular centre of global power was conflated with the idea that we can change how we engage with the Asia-Pacific region with little debate about who we are as a nation. What we are left with is this: Australia emphatically spruiking the values we share with our liberal democratic, Anglophone friends while seeking to engage productively with China and South-East Asia. No choosing, and no changing – or even debating – national identity. When Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Asia Society Australia about the “vitally important” partnership our nation holds with China, while arguing that “being true to our values and principles” will always be in Australia’s national interest, he demonstrated his acceptance of Howard’s line of reasoning. It is telling that his examples to support his claims included Australia’s defence of the British Empire in the “Great War” and its joining of the US-led coalition in Iraq. 

The issue with this reasoning is that the way a country engages with the rest of the world and the way it sees itself are inextricably linked. National stories shape how we see ourselves and our interests, and in turn, our self-image informs how we project ourselves to the world. That includes Asia. 

From ANZAC to Afghanistan, we like to tell ourselves stories about pitching in and helping Britain or the United States, often in the Middle East. This is the legacy of Howard’s skill in weaving yarns of Australian “heroic achievement” – stories that reinforced the “acceptance of Australia’s past” he valued. The inheritors of his legacy might not be so emphatic on this, but all contemporary Australian foreign policy is touched by some form of the “we don’t have to choose” view he espoused.

But stories should not be stagnant, nor should they work to police an exclusive vision of Australian identity. Many of the forms of economic engagement Australia pursues with Asia, such as education, create people-to-people links. As these links strengthen, often reinforced through growing diaspora communities, different identities mix and shape one another, and eventually the national character itself changes. Our national stories should reflect this.

Australian stories

We can trade with Asian countries, foster tourism and education, interact diplomatically and join regional institutions to our heart’s content. But if schools, the media and politicians repeatedly tell the parts of our history that clash most with our geography, understanding and trust between ourselves and our neighbours must suffer. We also won’t feel very secure in our region.

What we need is a more-inclusive narrative, a broader sense of national history. Perhaps we should be telling, more often, the stories about Whitlam setting off to China to discuss the future, before he was even elected prime minister. Or of Keating looking for the nexus between “mateship” and the communitarianism valued in many Asian nations, instead of jumping straight from “mateship” to “Gallipoli”. Perhaps our leaders could talk about the ways in which Chinese-Australians have been part of our community since before we called ourselves one country.

Ultimately, building deep relationships in our region requires a willingness to foster a national conversation about who we are as Australians. We can only practise “foreign policy that speaks with an Australian accent”, as Opposition leader Bill Shorten termed it, if we know what an Australian accent sounds like.

What Whitlam, Hawke and Keating knew is that deep, lasting foreign policy change is also about national selfhood. Howard, in his own way, understood this too, though he was loath to support a transformation of Australian identity. 

Of course, leaders don’t stand for policy in a vacuum. Change is always a process of push–pull: Howard tapped into a vein of uneasiness about the transformations Keating and his predecessors sought. We are a democratic nation, and part of the debate about Australian identity is about what our population wants. How Asian do we want to be?

Australia in the next decade probably won’t end up looking like Whitlam’s, Hawke’s or Keating’s ideal, if they had imagined the nation into the 2020s. Progress is messy, and rarely adheres to any singular vision. And expanding the repertoire of national stories beyond those we know so well takes time. But Australia must engage with our region in the awareness that questions of foreign policy are also questions about who we are, and who we might become, if only we are open to it.


Isabella Ostini is an undergraduate student at the Australian National University with an interest in the places where storytelling and policymaking meet. Read our interview with Isabella here.