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33 Draft Submission from Department of External Affairs to Spender

Canberra, 8 March 1950

Preparations for the Consultative Committee for South and South-East Asia

This paper has been drafted to bring to your attention certain considerations which, in the opinion of the Department, should influence our preparations for the meeting of the Committee. Three important questions are timing, the level of representation, membership at the first meeting, and the type of agenda envisaged. This paper deals with the first three.

Time of the meeting

Australia has suggested May 15th as a suitable date, partly to accommodate Mr. Doidge.

Although, no doubt, delay in calling the meeting is undesirable, a premature meeting can be embarrassing all round. The success of the first meeting will be largely dependent on the extent to which representatives are able to discuss the South-East Asian economic problem in terms of prior decisions by their Governments as to the broad limits within which they are prepared to act. Only two months have elapsed since the Colombo Conference. It is only within the last two weeks that those Commonwealth Governments which have so far said they will attend have had Cabinet decisions to that effect. Others have not yet considered whether they will come to the meeting. The United Kingdom plans have no doubt been retarded by the elections. It is, therefore, doubtful whether any Commonwealth country has yet begun to seriously to collect and analyse the necessary economic information on the area, much less to survey its own capacity to contribute towards satisfying the urgent needs of the area. In our case, as authors of the Colombo proposal, and as host Government to the meeting, Australia will be expected to state what it is prepared to do in the area. We are at present far from being in a position to do so. Extensive economic studies and some important internal Government decisions (both economic and political) are first necessary. For instance, there is a prima facie case that it is in Indonesia that Australia could make its major contribution and at the same time gain maximum political, economic and strategic advantage. Probably other Commonwealth countries will expect Indonesia to be the focus of Australia's interest.

However, any Australian contribution towards Indonesia still requires considerable further exploration as well as important decisions by the Government. Unless some decisions on principle as to the order of magnitude and to the nature of Australia's proposed contribution are made before the meeting of the consultative committee, Australia is likely to be embarrassed at that meeting.

Level of representation

The Minister has announced the intention of having a meeting at a ministerial level. It will thus be all the more necessary to delay the meeting until there is time for advanced consultations with other Governments on the Agenda, and decisions by Governments on the extent to which they will give aid in principle. The first function of the Committee is to 'receive from Governments an indication of the action which they consider it feasible to take in response to the recommendations...1 (made at Colombo)'.

A meeting at ministerial level will raise expectation's of immediate results, possibly in excess of what the first meeting of the committee, coming so soon after the Colombo Conference, could reasonably be expected to accomplish. It will be a Foreign Ministers Conference in Australia. The presence of Ministers will attract press correspondents and international attention. It will be embarrassing if the meeting of Ministers is able to announce decisions on only minor forms of economic action. Yet when we assess the limited ability of the United Kingdom to assist (when her problem is to prevent some Asian countries from spending sterling which they already own),2 the reservations of Canada and South Africa, the relative unimportance of New Zealand, it seems inevitable that the results of the meeting will be to offer very little to meet Asia's economic problems.

On the other hand representation at the level of High Commissioners or officials would limit these quite serious difficulties and reflect more accurately the [functions] of the Committee which is, in the Department's view, the following:–

(a) to maintain a tactical initiative which will provide the United States with an assurance of a continuing, though necessarily limited, effort on the part of the Commonwealth to share the task of combatting Communism in the area;

(b) to exchange technical information on needs and ways o f satisfying them, without calling for immediate Government decisions which it would be difficult in any case for Ministers to make on the spot;

(c) to seek recommendations, or a consensus of opinion, at the official level as to the countries needing prior assistance (this will be difficult with India, Pakistan and Ceylon in attendance);

(d) assuming Governments have already made decisions in principle, to discuss the allocation of training fellowships and the like in order to get co-ordination and the best results;

(e) to agree on lines of action which Commonwealth countries together might profitably take in each of the international organisations which has the capacity to assist Asian countries by way of other direct technical aid, or the calling of conferences on technical subjects and the like;

(f) to discuss the relationship of the Commonwealth's technical training and other proposals in the light of any known decisions made by ... the United States Government.

Such a meeting would be conducted with less publicity and with less risk of public misunderstanding about what could be achieved. It would be in the tradition of other Commonwealth consultative committees dealing with primarily technical subjects, such as Committees which discuss from time to time the currency and commodity questions arising out of the broad sterling-dollar problem.

Membership of the first meeting

It is a function of the Committee itself to approach the Governments of countries outside the Commonwealth with a view to enlisting their collaboration. The non-Commonwealth countries concerned are:–

(a) Netherlands, France and United States as potential contributors.

(b) Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The Philippines is a problem because, while the Ministers in Colombo deliberately left the Philippines out of consideration when defining the area, the Philippines regards herself as part of the area. Moreover, the Australian Government has told the Philippines Government that the consultative committee is considering the economic problems of the area and that it is to some extent an alternative for the proposals made by the Philippines.

Therefore Australia should be careful not to say anything which implies that we will invite to the first meeting countries which we do not think should attend. There is a risk that if we underline (as the Minister's draft speech3 underlines) the right of non-Commonwealth Governments to participate in the meetings we shall be obliged not merely to invite the United States, but also the Philippines and the potential recipient Governments themselves.

It is desirable in the first place that all members of the Commonwealth should attend. It seems unwise to invite any non-Commonwealth country at all to the first meeting which, in accordance with the terms of reference, might be the proper place to discuss future participation by other Governments. It would seem unwise to invite non-members of the Commonwealth to participate because it would be desirable for the committee to reach some basis of unity before admitting non-Commonwealth members. The presence of other countries would be embarrassing at a stage when there are bound to be conflicting views about, for example, the relative needs of let us say India and Vietnam. It would be much preferable to bring in the United States at a stage when a vigorous programme is under way.

It is clearly undesirable to have present potential recipient countries. To do so would limit the possibilities of a frank discussion on priorities and make the Agenda unmanageable.


In the light of the foregoing it is recommended that–

(a) Australia should not press to maintain as early as May 15th if other Governments say they will not be ready. In any case, we should accept the possibility that, in the interests of the success, of the meeting, we might have to defer it to give Governments more time to make prior decisions.

(b) The Minister might consider laying less emphasis in his statement to the House on representation being at 'high ministerial level'.

(c) Relevant Ministers be invited immediately to consider the possible lines of a policy by Australia to implement the Colombo resolutions (see draft letter attached).4

(d) In his statement to the House the Minister might limit his remarks to a general statement which implies the earnest desire of the Commonwealth countries to work in close co-operation with other Governments interested in the area, such as the United States, without, however, implying that invitations are likely to be issued to the first meeting either to the United States, Philippines or any other potential recipient Government in the area.

[NAA: A1838, 381/3/1/3 part lb]

1 Ellipsis in cited copy.

2 Several Commonwealth countries, including Australia and India, had accrued large holdings of sterling balances during and after World War II. In the interests of its own postwar recovery, the United Kingdom was obliged to restrict such countries from drawing down their balances.

3 Not published.

Last Updated: 10 January 2017
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