Relationship Between Australia and Southeast Asia


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The purpose of this paper is to analyse the relationship between Australia and Southeast Asia (SEA) in the three decades following the end of the Vietnam War. In order to do this, the paper compares and contrasts economic, political and security policies of Labour governments in 1980s and the early 1990s and Liberal government in the late 1990s and the 21st century.

Australia and Southeast Asia in 1980s

The pre-1980s period had witnessed Australia’s loyalty to its powerful friends and the Cold War doctrine of containment (Jones 2003). Australia engaged in forward defence to prevent the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. However, this trend had changed in the 1980s, mostly due to changing geopolitical environment and economic opportunity (Goldsworthy ?, Vaughn 2004). Australia adopted the Manichean notion of engagement with the region, rather than protection from it. This move “sought to define Australia as a mature nation with an identity ideologically tailored to what Whitlam, its chief architect, conceived to be the requirements of an independent, regionally-engaged Australia (Jones 2003:38)”.

Australia’s regionalist approach was a response to the decline of the American and British interest in SEA, including military presence. Moreover, in a new world of emerging regional associations, Australia was looking for a region to call its own. Thus, the Australian governments of the 1980s, both Coalition and Labor, directed their diplomacy towards the goal of an interdependent, open and inclusive SEA compatible with Australian economic and strategic interests. It was the Labour Hawke’s government, and its two foreign ministers Hayden and Evans, that significantly expanded the scope of the engagement (Goldsworthy?).

It has been argued that the most important force driving the engagement with SEA was economic opportunity (Goldsworthy?, Jones 2003). The rise of Asian economies, accompanied by a decline in Australian economy in the 1970s and 1980s, encouraged the perception of trade and investment. The Labour government undertook a programme of economic reforms designed to encourage a more competitive and export-oriented trading profile, attempting to achieve greater economic integration through the creation of regional multilateral institutions (Goldsworthy ?). This resulted in an increase of Australian exports to its ASEAN neighbours by 24% between 1977 and 1988 (Jones 2003).

The Labor government led by Bob Hawke cultivated a distinctive regional and multilateral focus in security in 1983 (Jones 2003). The ASEAN Regional Forum had been established to foster dialogue on regional security issues and an agreement on maintaining security between Australia and Indonesia had been formed (Goldsworthy ?).

By the end of 1980s, the importance of Australia’s engagement with SEA had become a central strand of thinking on Australia’s place in the world.

Australia and Southeast Asia in 1990s

The early 1990s, which saw the end of the Cold War, witnessed an accelerated transition in perceptions of SEA ‘from battlefield to marketplace’. The engagement with SEA had become “the organising principle for a range of policies, including diplomatic efforts to improve and deepen bilateral relations with SEA countries, attempts to create regional structures for co-operation on economic and strategic matters, and efforts to boost knowledge of Asia and skills for engagement among the Australian population (Goldsworthy?:8)”. Paul Keating pressed for Australia ‘to be a country which is deeply integrated into the region around us’ (Vaughn 2004). Foreign Minister Evans strengthened bilateral ties and created strong regional linkages. The government also managed to form the security agreement with Soharto.

Australia’s approach to SEA has changed significantly in the late 1990s, with the arrival of John Howard (Goldsworthy?, Vaughn 2004). Vaughn (2004) lists six major reasons as to why the Labour government engagements failed. First, it was an attempt to fundamentally reshape the national identity that lacked widespread Australian public support. Second, it also lacked support from a broad cross section of political elites. Third, it required the acquiescence of Asia, which was not forthcoming. Fourth, the Asian financial crisis of 1998 taught Australia that it could live without over-reliance on Asia and that the economic rewards of engagement with Asia were not assured. Fifth, differences in values continued to be difficult to reconcile. Finally, the Keating/Evans policy of engagement was turning away from reliance on great and powerful friends. According to Jones (2003:41), “Howard has both reinvented and adapted a realist posture which stresses the national interest and the state as the key actor in international society”. Howard’s government returned to the more studied and skeptical approach to foreign relations of the Menzies era.

Australia and Southeast Asia in the 21st Century

According to Vaughn (2004), several developments under Prime Minister Howard’s leadership marked Australia’s shift away from Asian and SEA engagement toward closer relations with the US. Australia’s Foreign and Trade Policy White Paper identifies American alliance as the first of the key regional and bilateral relationships. According to Richardson (2005), the close ties to the Bush administration have helped to foster the perception, especially in Muslim majority Indonesia and Malaysia, that Australia is a proxy for the US in the region. Jones (2003) further adds that Howard has been described as a narrowly focused domestic politician, uninterested in and uncomfortable with Australia’s neighbours. According to Richardson (2005), ASEAN is not Australia’s gateway to Asia anymore. This is evident in recent growing trade and investment links with China and India.

Howard’s government has not turned his back to SEA completely (Jones 2003). The government accepts that Asian political integrity remains crucial to Australia. Australia has been a major contributor to SEA fiscal stability, has played a central role in stabilising East Timor, and has effectively worked with regional government on terrorism issues.

Despite the Howard government’s desire to focus Australia’s external relations more firmly on the United States, the war against terror has required Australia to also focus on Southeast Asia. According to Vaughn (2004), the war against terror has offered Australia and Southeast Asia the opportunity to develop new constructive and mutually beneficial security linkages. Considering the presence of a number of terrorist groups and supporters, including Jemaah Islamiyah, KMM, Laskar Jihad, MILF, and Abu Sayyaf Group, Southeast Asia is a region from which threats to Australia originate. The government attaches a high priority to strengthening CT cooperation with SEA partners (DFAT 2004). Cooperation is being pursued bilaterally as well as through regional bodies. Australia has concluded counter-terror memoranda of understanding with Fiji, Malaysia, Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, PNG, East Timor as well as Indonesia. Australia has supported ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), Council for security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, the SEA regional centre for CT in Kuala Lumpur, the International law enforcement academy in Bangkok, the Asia-Pacific Group on Money-Laundering and the Philippine centre on transnational crime in Manila. The government has provided support through the Australian Federal Police, immigration authorities, transport authorities, emergency management authorities and financial intelligence units (DFAT 2004).

The government has been attempting to address other regional vulnerabilities. Some SEA states have been characterized by slow growth rates, insufficient employment opportunities, economic hardship, and political and leadership weaknesses (Defence 2003). This has led to people smuggling, illegal fishing, money-laundering and corruption. According to Goldsworthy (?), SEA economies collapsed in 1997 and then failed to recover. Today, Southeast Asia is “heavily targeted by organised criminal groups, who can work to undermine (Australia’s) security by laundering money, violating borders, and importing illicit substances for profit (Keelty 2005:6-7)”. Ling (2001) claims that due to its pluralistic societies, many SEA countries have internal racial riots and ethnic conflicts, associated with the rise of modern nationhood.

The 2006 Australian Aid White Paper is focusing, among other things, on accelerating growth, fostering functioning states, investing in people, promoting regional stability and cooperation (Downer 2006). Foreign Minister Downer stated that the government will increase assistance to the regional governments to strengthen governance, tackle corruption and better harness their own resources for development (Downer 2006).

Australia is dealing with vulnerabilities through a number of bilateral bodies. “AusAID maintained its focus on poverty reduction in the region and adapted to playing a key role in more coherent, and significantly larger, whole-of-government responses to international challenges…including:

Significantly rising the profile of support for basic education in Indonesia
Encouraging cooperative responses to shared problems in our region such as regional transport and police training
Responding to humanitarian emergencies
Assisting reconstruction efforts
Contributing to the international response to global challenges such as HIV/AIDS and food security

(Davis 2004:3)”.

While it has shifted focus towards the United States, Australia has continued trade initiatives in SEA (Vaughn 2004). According to the DFAT (2006), the total two-way trade with SEA increased 25 per cent in 2005-06. Between 2000-01 and 2005-06, total trade increased at an average rate of 8 per cent per annum. Australia signed a free trade agreement with Singapore, initiated negotiations towards an agreement with Thailand, and pursued investment opportunities in Vietnam (Vaughn 2004).

There is now evidence of improved political relationship between Australia and some SEA countries (Richardson 2005). Dr Mahathir’s successor as Malaysian Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi made it a priority to repair relations with Australia and the US. At the same time, Australia – Indonesia relations have greatly improved as East Timor has faded as a bilateral issue. Governance in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore is based on parliamentary democracy inherited from British colonial rule. The Philippines has a US-style system of representative government. Thailand and Indonesia have moved from authoritarian government. However, many political, cultural and other differences remain. Democracy in Southeast Asia is often messy and there is authoritarian rule in Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.


The 1980s saw Australia’s engagement with SEA becoming a central focus of Australia’s foreign affairs, focusing on engagement with the region, rather than protection from it. The economic reforms, encouraged by the Labour governments, resulted in an increase of Australian exports to its ASEAN neighbours.

The 1990s witnessed two different approaches to SEA. The Labour government of the early 1990s had focused on an accelerated transition in perceptions of SEA ‘from battlefield to marketplace’, determined to see Australia deeply integrated into the region. This changed significantly in the late 1990s, with the arrival of John Howard, who reinvented and adapted a realist posture, shifting away from Asian and SEA engagement toward closer relations with the US.

Although the Howard’s government has continued to pursue close relationship with the US in the 21st century, it has not turned its back to SEA completely. The war against terror has offered Australia and Southeast Asia the opportunity to develop new linkages. The government has been attempting to address other regional vulnerabilities and has continued trade initiatives in SEA. Furthermore, there has been evidence of improved political relationship between Australia and some SEA countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia.


Davis, B. “AusAID Annual Report 2003-2004”.

Defence (2003). “A Defence Update 2003”. Department of Defence

DFAT (2006). “Composition of Trade: Australia 2005-2006”. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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Downer, A. (2006). “Launch of the Aid Paper”, Speech to the National Press Club, 26 April 2006.

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