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4 Paper by Department of External Affairs

Canberra, 13 November 1949

Australia and South-East Asia

The important changes that are taking place throughout Asia are bound to have fundamental consequences for Australia, and call for a thorough re-examination of Australia's relationships with Asia and with the rest of the world. In particular, the existing pattern of Australia's international, political and economic relations, and even domestic policies, will inevitably have to be reviewed in the context of future security.

In September 1948 an appreciation was prepared in the Department o f External Affairs on
Australia's position in relation to current developments in China and South-East Asia.

This appreciation was based upon the principle that should armed conflict or large scale
disorder occur in any part of the South-East Asia area, Australian national security would
be directly threatened, and that it was Australia's first and over-riding responsibility to
take measures to guard against this. Australia's predominant political interest and defence
preoccupation must therefore be in the South-East Asia area.

The appreciation examined conditions in the countries of South-East Asia and the position
of China and India in relation to them, with particular attention to the potential threat to
their internal security arising from the existence of large Chinese minority populations. It
then outlined certain practical policies which might be followed by the Australian Government with the object of fostering friendly relations with the Governments and peoples of South-East Asia and of promoting political and economic stability in the area. In other words, the changed circumstances in which Australia now finds itself, particularly in the field of security, have faced us with a situation in which deliberate policy of reorientation
must be attempted towards South-East Asia. In this way, it was suggested, foreign policy considerations would have a major share in determining the commercial, defence and other policies which should be pursued.

The appreciation was forwarded in October 1948 by the Prime Minister,2as Acting Minister for External Affairs, to the Minister for Defence3 so that this active political programme might be considered in a defence context.

In April 1949 the Minister for Defence indicated that it was his considered opinion as well as the opinion of the Defence Committee that, to meet Australia's strategic requirements, it was necessary that appropriate political and economic measures should be taken to arrest the spread of, and ultimately eliminate, Communism throughout South-East Asian countries.4 He also agreed that every endeavour should be made by Australia and the western powers to assist South-East Asian Governments to defeat this threat and stressed the importance of India in this connection. The Minister for Defence at the same time expressed the view that any future major war would be global in character with the chief conflicts taking place in Europe, the Middle East and the Far East and that the fate of South-East Asia in such a war would be decided by the result of those conflicts.

There was thus a considerable area of agreement in principle between the two Departments most concerned on the importance of Australia's developing a programme of political and economic action in South-East Asia. In the view of this Department, the urgency and importance of this is paramount; Australia cannot afford to allow a political and military vacuum to be created in South-East Asia pending the decision o f a major conflict in other theatres.

The important things to be faced are that Asia at its present stage of transition is disorganised and potentially explosive and that Australia is no longer in a position to assume that its future security and progress are assured within the framework of the British Commonwealth alone. It is outside the purpose of this paper to discuss where any threat to Australia may be most likely to come from, but it can be assumed that China represents a decided danger point. China is unlikely to offer any direct threat in the immediate future, but the large Chinese minorities throughout South-East Asia provide a ready means for spreading Communism and generally fermenting disorder.

Irrespective of the point from which a threat may come, our principal aim should be to make of South-East Asia, an area of weak states incapable in itself of threatening us, a buffer region between us and the Asian mainland.

This will call for the formulation and application of a deliberate policy of strengthening the countries of South-East Asia by every means in our power. Our resources are limited and are likely to be so for a long time to come. As a result we must restrict our positive action in the area generally to the diplomatic and general economic field, with perhaps some emphasis on collecting accurate intelligence and assisting military planning. In Indonesia on the other hand, our nearest neighbour and the most populous of the countries of the region, we can make a considerable effort to take advantage of the present highly favourable position we occupy there for a forward programme of political, commercial, economic, financial, and military collaboration, with the ultimate object of bringing Indonesia into the closest possible association with Australia. Some of the same
considerations apply to Portuguese Timor.

A policy of this kind, involving a substantial re-orientation of Australian thought and practice, would demand some widening and strengthening Australian representation in the area. For example, the existing consular posts at Batavia, Bangkok and Manila should be raised to diplomatic missions, and consideration given to the establishment when circumstances permit of similar missions at Rangoon and Saigon. At the same time it is for consideration whether subordinate consular posts should not be established at key provincial centres, particularly in Indonesia, for example Surabaya, Khota Tinngi and Macassar. This would provide an opportunity for selected officers of the Services to be attached to suitable posts in South-East Asia, with a view to familiarising themselves with conditions there, undertaking study of the local languages, and perhaps acting as sources of military intelligence.

A comprehensive Australian policy to further Australian interests in the light of this analysis might be formulated under the following broad headings:

(i) Encouragement of international assistance to the area particularly in consultation with the United States and United Kingdom.

(ii) A planned Australian financial, commercial and industrial policy to help meet the reconstruction and developmental needs of the area and to remove any present causes of friction in commercial policy, etc.

(iii) A contribution by Australia to fill transport needs: civil aviation and shipping.

(iv) An expanded programme to furnish technical, administrative and educational experts in all fields where they can be spared.

(v) The provision of facilities for training in Australia at all levels, both under free Government fellowships and private arrangements.

(vi) Collaboration between the administrations of Australia's external territories and the administrations of contiguous regions.

(vii) Development of Australian information services to the area through information officers, radio, libraries, etc.

(viii) The encouragement of visits to Australia by members of South-East Asian Governments or business communities to obtain advice and material and goods, and ensuring that they are adequately received and their requirements catered for.

(xi) Assistance in training Service personnel, especially, by their intake into Australian Service Colleges and training establishments. An elaboration of these points is contained in a separate paper which might be the basis for inter-departmental discussion.

[NAA: A 1068, DL47/5/6]

1 Attachment to Document 121, Volume XIV, DAFP.

2 J.B. Chifley.

3 J.J. Dedman.

4 See Document 127, Volume XIV, DAFP.

Last Updated: 10 January 2017
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