Asialink Milestones: John Howard – Asia First, Not Asia Only

By Donald Greenlees, Senior Adviser, Asialink

By the time John Howard became prime minister on his second attempt in 1996, the conduct of Australia’s relations with Asia had become central to the political battle.

His predecessor Paul Keating had asserted a claim to superiority in foreign policy, in which the form and success of Australia’s engagement with Asia was portrayed as emerging at least in part from the projection of a new national identity. Australia was to see itself at home in Asia and find its future prosperity and security there.

By severing ties to the British Crown and declaring Australia a Republic, the country would demonstrate its conviction in the embrace of Asia.

The contrast Howard struck was to appeal to continuity and to stability. He advocated there was no innate contradiction between Australia’s history and its geography.

He made a virtue of being able to retain institutional and cultural ties to Anglophone countries, while forging beneficial relations in the Asian region – a notion manifested in his firm commitment to simultaneously preserving the United States strategic presence in Asia and growing an economic relationship with China.

In the second part of this Asialink Milestones interview with senior adviser Donald Greenlees, Mr. Howard reflects on what remain unresolved questions over how Australia engages with its region, now defined as the Indo-Pacific.

In a wide-ranging interview, the former prime minister discusses issues such as the relevance of learning Asian languages, the prospects for a Republic, the management of relations with Indonesia, and the biggest foreign policy venture of his government – the East Timor independence process.

Listen to part two of this Asialink Milestones podcast with Mr. Howard here:

The following are highlights of the interview with Mr. Howard

On the key to successful engagement with Asia:

I see our relationship with Asia as the sum of a number of individual bilateral relationships. I think it’s a mistake to see Asia as some kind of whole – it’s not.

[Y]ou have to have a strategic view of security in the Asian region and that involves inevitably a continued American presence and being part of encouraging that and to understand whatever may be said from time to time, Asian countries want America in Asia. They feel uncomfortable with China.

On encounters with Indonesia’s Suharto:

I remember when I went to see Suharto within two or three months of becoming prime minister… I didn’t want to have a big debate about East Timor at that stage. I was part of the consensus that East Timor was there – regrettable, but there it was, and having a good relationship with Suharto was what mattered.

These things are always a balance. It is possible to have a good relationship with a dictatorial country if we have common interests.

On the value of learning Asian languages:

One of the reasons it’s going backwards is that it’s seen as less necessary. Every Indonesian president I dealt with I had good conversational English.

It is obviously desirable. But I’m not sure that it’s now seen as the game changer it might have been seen 30 years ago.

I think what’s happened is that the expansion of information technology has probably consolidated, the Internet has probably consolidated the dominance of English…  I think you get to a point where the rationale has disappeared or greatly diminished.

On issue of national identity, and whether Australia is destined to drift away from the Anglosphere and forge its primary relationships in Asia:

Can’t we sort of have both? I mean we were talking earlier about not choosing between America and China. The same thing applies there.

On the effects of changing demography on changes to national identity:

It changes, sure. And we should not be nervous about that change, it should happen naturally. But it should not be forced…

I remember that incredible nonsense when we were debating the flag and John Dawkins said the Union Jack affects our trade with such and such a country. Ridiculous. The Asians understand this.

On the prospect of another referendum on the Republic succeeding:

My experience at the time was that the so-called momentum towards a Republic was much greater in the 90s than it is now. But I just don’t know about that. If anything, the unease people feel about institutions in the US and elsewhere makes a lot of people say, ‘we are pretty stable, why interfere with it?’

[W]henever I’m asked, ‘do I think Australia will become a Republic?’ I say, ‘well I can’t see any sign at the moment, but it could happen’. ‘When do you think it will happen, come and ask me in five years’. I just don’t know.

It’s something that will always be there and a lot of course as to do with personality of the current monarch. She is… in a unique position because she has been there so long and has handled herself so well. Everything seems to bounce off – including the palace letters. That didn’t get very far.

And the eternal problem that a lot of republicans have is this debate about direct election (of the head of state). I know plenty of people who voted ‘yes’ in ’99 who would vote ‘no’ if the choice were for a direct election.

On Australia’s foreign policy record in Asia:

I think one of the greatest things we did in Asia was the Australia-Japan commerce agreement. Now, most of the modern commentary on our links with Asia would treat that as a dim, distant relic of the past.   But just think how important that was. Think of the symbolism of it.

I think (former Foreign Minister Gareth) Evans and (Lt. Gen. John) Sanderson and others deserve great credit for Cambodia, very much so. I think East Timor, (was) even more important. And I’m not being churlish about that.

I thought there was an artificiality about the (Keating government’s) security agreement with Indonesia. I understood the politics of that. Keating and Evans wanted to make a big thing of wanting to find security in Asia, with Asia. I understand all that.

I think you will find in my book there is a fair bipartisan element in our relationship with Asia... I give Whitlam enormous credit for picking up the need for a change in the relationship with China. And I remember when I researched my book on Menzies, we (Liberal-National parties) were wrong-footed on that.

It remains the case that the most debated, criticised act of involvement in Asia since World War Two was Vietnam. Yet the great elder statesman of Asia till his dying days—Lee Kuan Yew supported the Americans over Vietnam—said it bought time for countries like Indonesia, Malaya and Singapore.

On the Asian economic crisis and an Indonesia’s transition to democracy:

We had a big argument with the US Treasury, with Larry Summers, and he hadn’t forgotten it when I saw him 10 years later. We thought the Americans were too tough on the Indonesians.

I don’t think Indonesia has received enough credit for what has been achieved in the last 20 years. It’s gone from a military dictatorship to the third largest functioning democracy in the world in a relatively short period of time and they have got very little credit for that.

On volatility in the relationship with Indonesia:

I think it’s always going to be difficult. I’m not sure I’d say regular cooling and warming, but we are fundamentally very different countries. It’s hard to think of two countries living cheek by jowl with each other that are so fundamentally different. I can’t think of two European countries that are anything like it.

It’s one of those relationships that has to be consciously worked on. And in some respects, not micro managed, but very carefully managed.

On the need to expanding people to people links with Asia:

It’s got to happen naturally… We are far more deeply integrated with China in this sort of people to people thing because its happened naturally. We have always had Chinese in Australia and the rapid rise of the number of Australians with Chinese heritage happened fairly easily.

On Indonesian leaders:

The last one that we had a difficult relationship with was Megawati (Sukarnoputri). She went very silent after she (became president).

[S]he was very unresponsive. Very difficult if you are engaged with a leader and are trying to get a response. Other leaders I have spoken to have had the same experience.

On whether the East Timor intervention was a success:

Yes, because people were given the opportunity to choose a free future and we were a part of that—an integral part of that—so it has to be judged a success.

Obviously, loss of life along that way – never intended, but it’s not the first and won’t be the last time in human history that there will be a cost involved in giving people freedom.

And the other great thing about East Timor is that it lifted something from the collective conscience in our country.

So, I think it was a great success. There is always a cost but the benefits were overwhelmingly great.

On leadership of the international force in East Timor:

One of the great side benefits of our intervention in East Timor and the leadership we provided to INTERFET was that the rest of the world saw us as sort of an authority on the region, more so than previously.

On ongoing obligation to East Timor:

If it were to run into serious trouble we would have to step up. I hope it doesn’t.

Banner image: Former Prime Minister John Howard speaks at the 2017 Asialink Chairman's Lunch, Melbourne, Australia - November 24, 2017. Credit: Asialink.