Responding to rising powers: Australian conservative approaches to Asia in the early 20th century

By Anthony Milner
International Director, Asialink

There are some surprising lessons for the conservative side of politics from an analysis of the strategic history of the 1930s, writes Anthony Milner.

Is there advantage today in examining Australia’s foreign policy experience in the early 20th century?

In a speech some months ago on the government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update, Prime Minister Morrison said he had been revisiting the “period of the 1930s … on a very regular basis”. When we “connect both the economic challenges and the global uncertainty”, he said, “it can be very haunting”. Australia faced an “existential threat”.

Morrison was probably trying to scare us a little – to soften up the public for some potentially tough times and tough decisions, including with respect to defence spending. Nevertheless, it may be worth reviewing early crisis periods as we make critical decisions today about Australia’s strategic posture. Some of the lessons will perhaps not be those the Prime Minister has drawn. One advantage in such a review is that it can stimulate the examination of conservative foreign policy traditions in Australia.

The 1930s was certainly a period of tense relations. Our region was facing a dramatically rising power — Japan in those years, not China — and Australians were worried as to whether they could rely on their powerful Western friends, Britain and the United States. Just as today, Australia was under a conservative government – the United Australia Party (UAP) administration led by Joseph Lyons (1932-1939) and then R.G. Menzies (1939-1941). It is true that Lyons, Menzies, John Latham, Richard Casey, Stanley Bruce and others in the leadership failed in their attempts to keep Australia out of war with Japan as well as Germany, but their endeavours were seriously considered.

It has been suggested that the Coalition (or conservative) tradition in Australian foreign policy can be summed up as an emphasis on “power and alliances” – while Labor is seen to put weight on “collective security and international institutions” (Gyngell: 4). Developments in the 1930s and earlier tend to blur this distinction. Key conservatives at that time believed Australia could not rely on the British connection. Apart from building Australia’s own defence forces, they saw advantages in Australia having a more independent foreign policy. They were concerned to achieve an accommodation with the rising Asian power – and proposed to achieve this inside a regional ‘pact’ of ‘non-aggression and consultation’. Beyond the Japan issue, some of these Australian leaders urged a creative approach more generally to Asian societies – which in a number of cases were emerging from Western colonial rule. Looking back to the early decades of the 20th century reminds us that Australia’s ‘engagement with Asia’ has not only been led by the Labor side of our politics.

In thinking about a conservative foreign policy heritage, we probably concentrate too much on R.G. Menzies. He was not the lead player in the 1930s. Also, although he possessed many strengths as a political tactician, he was described by Walter Crocker — who became a trusted adviser of Liberal External Affairs Minister Richard Casey — as “complacent about international affairs”. The post-War Menzies, according to Crocker, relied too heavily on the United States alliance and displayed insufficient interest in the emerging states which would be so important to Australia (Cotton: 233-234). By contrast, some of Menzies’s conservative predecessors from the 1930s and earlier were far from complacent.

There were strong indications of a positive approach to the Asian region in the first years of the 20th century, with Alfred Deakin – who (in Menzies’s words) laid down all “the foundational policies” of the Australian nation (Brett: 430). Prime Minister three times, Deakin is sometimes denigrated because of his commitment to White Australia. True, like many in Germany, Italy and Japan, he took a race-based approach to nation building. But he expressed great respect for Asian societies and saw Australia’s future lying in the Asian region.

The Australian colonists, he said, had “made their homes neither in Europe nor America, but in Austral-Asia – Southern Asia” (Walker: 22). Australia and Britain possessed different international perspectives. Having a close relation with a great imperial power could also bring danger as well as reassurance. Australia might be drawn into a European war “in the causing of which we have no voice, and in which we have no desire to take part” (Meaney 2009: 206). This is an important observation, invoking a longstanding fear in sections of the Australian elite – at least back to the mid-19th century, and the views of John Dunmore Lang (Hall: chapters 4 and 5). It reminds us that Australians were influenced not only by a “fear of abandonment” (as Allan Gyngell has recently highlighted), but also by a fear of entanglement.

In terms of Australia having its own perspectives, Deakin saw that as well as its British commitments, the country had to have a ‘Pacific policy’ (Meaney 2009: 11). The issue of Japan highlighted this. Although Japan’s alliance with Britain might bring advantages to Britain, Deakin saw the potential for Japanese conflict with Australia. This anxiety encouraged him to seek closer relations with the United States, despite British disapproval. He also focused on the development of an Australian navy.

Alongside such security concerns, Deakin saw advantages in Asian engagement. He published two books on India – which in itself makes him exceptional among our prime ministers - and argued that Australia’s future would be at least “partially identified” with the future development of the “Asiatic empires which lie closest to us …” (Deakin: 151). The encounter with Asian societies, he predicted, would “necessarily call forth whatever originality or receptivity the Anglo-Saxon possesses” (151). One concrete benefit which he thought Asian engagement might bring is strikingly evident today: closer involvement with India could lead Indian students to “come to the universities of our milder climate” rather than “face the winters of Oxford, Paris or Heidelberg” (La Nauze: 278). He also saw the Malay Archipelago as “an enormous, prosperous, fertile, and productive region” – and suggested that the issue of which power controlled this region was critical for Australia (Meaney 2009: 212).

Although fearing Japan, Deakin saw the country as one of the “most civilized among the nations of the world” (Meaney 1985:122). He insisted as well that his race-based nation-building in Australia was “not based on any claim of superiority” (Australian Federal Parliament, 9 October 1901). He pointed out how “high a position” Japan occupied “in art and letters” and noted that even “in the development of European art”, the “knowledge of the art of Japan will form one of the chief landmarks of our history” (Meaney 1985:122). One sign of Deakin’s desire to understand Japanese society — which he saw as having “its own independent development” (280) — was his interest in the cultural investigations of the contemporary Irish-Japanese writer, Lafcadio Hearn (La Nauze: 496).

Like many others, Deakin was made anxious by Japan’s striking victory over Russia in 1905 – but this concern was not driven by racial antagonism. He insisted that had Russia triumphed this would also have presented Australia with a transformed and dangerous power equation in the Pacific (Meaney 2009: 126). It has to be remembered that in 1905, Australian concerns were all the sharper because the growing struggle for naval supremacy in Europe had led Britain to reduce its Pacific naval fleet (124-5).

Deakin’s intellectual breadth was exceptional, and he influenced other, younger conservative politicians. Frederic Eggleston, for instance, was a minister in the Victorian Nationalist government in the 1920s, who later served Australia in a number of key international conferences and was appointed in 1941 (by Robert Menzies) as Australia’s first minister in China. Eggleston saw Australia as “a lonely outpost of European civilization in a region which is profoundly alien” (Osmond: 64), and also as a state that could not “defend itself by its own resources” (Cotton: 52). He acknowledged the argument for the British basis of the Australian nation – as fostering a harmonious society without the racial discrimination and intolerance encountered in such countries as the United States and South Africa (Osmond: 65). He also understood that the ‘White Australia’ branding would be damaging to the country’s relations with post-colonial Asia (Cotton: 71).

What Eggleston had no doubts about was the need for Australia to develop “a Pacific sense” (Osmond:139). He complained that the preoccupations of Australians were internal — the development of the continent — and that Australians were not sufficiently aware “of the sea and our surrounding” (139).

Eggleston’s sensitivity to Asian perspectives was apparent in 1919, when he was part of the Australian team at the Paris Peace Conference. Australia, he considered, made a serious mistake in alienating Japan – opposing the inclusion of a racial equality clause in the Covenant of the League of Nations (Cotton 52). Later Eggleston acknowledged the need to make room for this increasingly dynamic power, even expressing respect (in the 1920s) for Japan’s intervention in Manchuria (Osmond: 142, 184). His appreciation for Japan had developed when he visited the country in 1921 and was impressed not only by the agricultural achievements and governmental efficiency but also by the gardens and temples. (140) Here and in China and the Philippines Eggleston sensed that “the East [was] awakening” and he worried that, by contrast, Australia was “putting herself to sleep like Japan did three hundred years ago under the Shoguns, behind restrictions and tariffs” (141).

At an international conference in Kyoto in 1929 Eggleston was impressed by the Japanese and other Asian delegations – and noted that meeting “men of culture and intellectual ability from races of widely different origin” was “an education”, making him impatient with the “narrow racial intolerance “which was “conspicuous in Australia today” (Cotton 59). He was also troubled by the British delegates to the conference, finding them close-minded regarding Pacific relations. It was impossible, he thought, “for some minds to realise the whole world cannot be governed by ideas generated in a small corner of Western Europe” (Osmond: 143-144). During the 1930s, Eggleston certainly became troubled by “militarist Japan” – but even in 1935 he felt this rising state had to be “met with more understanding than is being given to it in Britain today” (180).

Although by no means a trained Asianist, Eggleston had a genuine interest in other societies, other cultures. His intellectual openness was apparent perhaps most of all in 1941-42, when he was Australia’s minister to China. Apart from travelling with the Sinologist, Joseph Needham, he engaged with a wide range of Chinese intellectuals. One account describes Eggleston in his official residence, “surrounded by Chinese paintings”, talking with “professors and merchants” – sitting on a “great chair, one gouty foot stretched forward, and behind him like a curtain all the yellow smoke of Chungking rises into the air” (211).

An important word in Eggleston’s thinking was ‘pattern’, which meant something like the sociological concept of ‘culture’ – and seems to have been influenced by American cultural anthropology. He did not see social ‘patterns’ as unchanging (191-192, 255, 262).  Australia’s ‘pattern’, he said, was a liberal tradition — though not one dominated by “rugged individualism” of the American kind — and he suggested ways in which it might be altered over time (291, 249). He argued the need to understand the Chinese ‘pattern’ — especially the role of Confucianism — with an eye to assessing the possible future characteristics of Chinese politics and society, including how far China might be susceptible to Western influence (226, 235). He did not anticipate that China would become imperialistic (230).

Looking beyond the 1930s, Eggleston saw that developments in Asia, particularly with the onset of the Pacific War, had urgency for Australia. In 1942 he concluded that the British failed to realise they had “lost the prestige by which [they] governed in the Far East in the past”. Australia, he thought, was ideally placed to explain to them that “vast new forces have been released in the Far East which will not subside quietly after the war” (Cotton: 63). Looking to the post-War period, he suggested the possibility of a “Pan-Asiatic movement in which India, China, and possibly Japan develop a common interest against European races.” (Osmond: 220). Such observations had obvious educational implications, so that in 1944 he was proposing the creation of an “Australian School of Chinese, Indo-Chinese and Pacific Cultures” (236).

With respect to Australia’s international positioning, Eggleston warned against alliances – arguing that they did not promote world order. Over a long period, he was a supporter of international institution building (Cotton: 70). At an Institute of Pacific Relations conference in Kyoto in 1929, for instance, he had proposed a regional disarmament conference – which would aim to give Pacific nations “the feeling that they are meeting and discussing their own problems and deciding them free from the dominance of Western interests” (Osmond:143). In the last years of his life he continued to encourage Australia to “espouse heartily the cause of international security through world organisation” (Cotton: 70).

Over time, Eggleston’s foreign policy concerns even led him to revise his views on immigration policy. In the 1940s, he saw that the Labor government’s determined adherence to White Australia created problems for Australia’s Asian relations. What is more, he began to believe that a “nation needs to be enriched with foreign strains and foreign ideas” – and that Australia would benefit from the “ideas … and blood of Oriental peoples” (71). One reason for optimism regarding future Australian engagement with Asian countries, he suggested, was that Australian society had “more affinity” with those societies than did that American “school of rugged individualism” (Osmond: 297).

Returning to the 1930s, the influence of Deakin was also evident on the Lyons conservative government (1932-1939). Lyons followed Deakin, and Eggleston (Osmond: 251), in his concern to develop a ‘Pacific Policy’ – reflecting Australian rather than British interests. Lyons did not doubt the importance of the British navy in protecting Australian security (Meaney 1985: 431, 436) – but he also understood that there were strong differences between those Australian and British interests (346). Also, he knew that the British priority was Germany not the Asian region and saw the danger of Australia becoming entangled in a European war which it did not favour (Bird: 97; 118-119, 301, 393q). Lyons spoke of the ‘Near North’ not the ‘Far East’ (350). Like Deakin he was also willing to take independent action.

For instance, he surprised the British government in 1934 by dispatching an Australian Eastern Mission – a mission of ‘friendship and goodwill’, led by External Affairs Minister, and former leader of the conservative Nationalist Party, John Latham – to the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and China, as well as to Japan. Lyons said “something positive should be done to cultivate friendship with our neighbours” and that this was the first “official visit” by Australia to the region (90). He added that in foreign relations what mattered was to “understand one another’s point of view” (90). Latham was well aware of the economic benefits that could arise from Asian engagement. In 1932 he had earlier expressed strong interest in expanding trade relations not only with Northeast Asia but also with the Dutch East Indies (Kilmister: 234).

Latham — who, like Eggleston, had been influenced by Deakin (Foster: 21, 51; Kilmister: 45) — respected Japan, with its “vigorous efficiency” (Cotton: 87; Kilmister: 177) and worked to promote Australia-Japan cultural as well as political relations (Edwards: 124). He tried to get Japan to return to the League of Nations and sought a way to make space for this impressive and ambitious state – steering it away from military confrontation (Bird 103-109; Meaney 1985: 388-390). Latham’s determination to avoid alienating Japan was in part economic. Early in 1933, he had suggested that the people of Australia “would hardly be able to exist to-day if it were not for the purchase of Australian wool, wheat, flour, and minerals in the East by Chinese and Japanese … it ill becomes us to speak in derogatory terms of people who are now important and, indeed, vital buyers of our goods” (Kilmister: 227). At that point, of course, Australia’s exports to Asia were nowhere near the level they have reached in recent decades. The 10 per cent of exports going to Japan in 1932 was considered a high figure (Smith: 69) – but it is small compared to one-third of Australian exports which today go to China.

Key to Prime Minister Lyons’s own, independent diplomacy was his attempt to create a Pacific Pact – an instance of a conservative commitment to building ‘international institutions’. Deakin had argued for a form of Pacific agreement in 1909 (Meaney 2009: 200-202) and Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, in 1923, had proposed a “league of nations of the nations of the Pacific” (Bird: 210). Lyons wanted a pact of “non-aggression and consultation between all the countries of the Pacific” (226-227) – and saw it embracing “a general declaration of economic and cultural collaboration” (Meaney 1985: 415). He proposed this at a time when Australians were engaged in a range of multi-lateral networks – from the United States-based Institute of Pacific Relations forum to regular science and medical conferences. To achieve his objective of a pact, Lyons engaged in personal advocacy with representatives from Japan, China, the United States, the Netherlands and France (Bird: 231-232). He also won support in Australia, including from Eggleston (Osborne:184, 251). The British government, however, was not keen. As Robert Menzies — another member of the Lyons government — pointed out in February 1940, soon after he replaced Lyons as prime minister, there was a feeling in Australia that “British authorities [were] indifferent to the problems of the Far East and in particular to our own vital concerns to maintain friendly relations with Japan” (Cuffe: 78). Nevertheless, Menzies himself “look[ed] forward to the day when we will have a concert of Pacific powers … [with] increased diplomatic contact between ourselves and the United States, China and Japan, to say nothing of the Netherlands East Indies and the other countries which fringe the Pacific” (Smith: 94).

Partly because of the frustrations in advocating the Pacific Pact, having to rely heavily on British diplomacy, Lyons decided to appoint Australian diplomatic representatives in Asia (Bird: 246, 342, 405). Despatched after his death by his successor, Menzies, Latham was chosen for Japan while Eggleston went to Chungking. The appointment to Japan was made in the face of strong British Foreign Office opposition (Edwards: 124).

It is important to recognize the different planks in the Lyons government’s approach to the region. Lyons himself was certainly devoted to promoting what he called “international co-operation leading to political and economic stability” (153). He was even willing to “allow” the Japanese to “expand in their own area” (127), and to agree with Richard Casey and Latham that it was best to come to terms with the Japanese advance into Manchuria (63, 103, 114, 233; Meaney 1985: 388-389). Stanley Bruce, the government’s High Commissioner in London, also recommended a range of economic and legal concessions to Japan, aiming to avoid conflict (Cotton: 90). Especially after mid-1936, Lyons saw the task as finding a way to conciliate Tokyo “before any new alignments solidified into alliances” (Bird: 199). Yet there was contradiction in the Australian policy – which Lyons came to regret. The development of trade diversion in 1936 — which entailed favouring British over other imports — angered Japan, damaging Lyons’s peacemaking endeavours, and led to a costly Japanese boycott of Australian wool (203; Akami and Milner: 545). Another plank in the Lyons approach, as explained below, was solid defence expenditure.

In addition to support from Australia’s conservative elite, Lyons sought assistance from intellectuals whom he believed could assist this conciliatory diplomacy. He and his leadership circle may have been attracted to the thinking of Norman Angell, who was influential in the 1930s and argued that it was possible for competing national interests to be reconciled through rational deliberation (Legge: 56-57). Lyons was certainly impressed by Thomas Baty, the British-born legal adviser to the Japanese government – noting his “love of humanity” and refusal to make “distinctions of colour, creed and caste”. Such “men of wide sympathies”, he said, were needed “to promote friendships between nations” (398-399). In Australia, Lyons sought the advice of academics, including A.C.V. Melbourne – who had close connections with Japan and believed Australia had a greater need than Britain to “maintain friendship” with that country (Cotton: 82).

Melbourne encouraged Lyons to develop a specifically “Australian Foreign Policy” (Cotton: 78) – and this was also a growing theme in conferences of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, an organization in which Latham and Eggleston were prominent (Legge: 32-33; 62-64). Australia, Melbourne said, was not a European but a “Pacific country” (Cotton: 86) – and in the event of war with Japan he questioned how far Britain would help Australia (86, 89). Melbourne wanted to see Australian trade officials in Asia – and argued that they needed to establish “good relations with people of Japanese and Chinese race rather than with the foreign residents” (77). Australia, he said, should help China with technical advice and remember that Australia “may someday need China’s help” (78). Melbourne also argued for more visits to Australia by Asian business people, students and tourists (77).

There can be no doubt about the commitment of Lyons and his advisers to a positive involvement with the Asian region – including a concern to find ways to accommodate the aspirations of the rising power in the region. Those who argue that the Labor side of politics in Australia has a monopoly on Asia initiatives fail to acknowledge the work of Lyons, Deakin, Eggleston and others in the first half of the 20th century — as well as such post-War achievements as McEwen’s Australia-Japan Commerce Agreement of 1957, Casey’s and Holt’s pan-Asian diplomacy, Fraser’s support for Vietnamese refugees and Downer’s determination to engage Asian regionalism — via Australian membership of the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit. Labor Prime Minister Keating, who made his own substantial contribution to Australia-Asia relations, has exaggerated the degree to which Australia’s “conservative parties” have been guided by a “fervent wish to remain under the wing of imperial protection”, and also by a “deeply ingrained fear of what would happen to us – socially and culturally, as well as economically and strategically – if we dared strike out on our own” (Keating: 7).

Pacific diplomacy was critical in Lyons’s thinking but it is only one dimension of the pre-War conservative heritage. Apart from trade policy, the approach to defence was critical. Recall Deakin’s part in founding the Australian navy (La Nauze: 530) – and his initiative in inviting to Australia the United States Great White Fleet, a dramatic celebratory event which anticipated the forging of the ANZUS Pact of 1951 with the United States. Similarly, alongside Lyons’s passion to promote ‘international cooperation’, he invested heavily in Australia’s defence. Today, in the face of growing regional turbulence, with the Morrison government from time to time employing strongly critical language toward China, we designate about two per cent of our GDP for defence – or some 5 or 6 per cent of our national government expenditure. By 1938-9 the Lyons government was spending almost twenty per cent of the national budget on defence (Bird: 27; Meaney 1985: 436). The British government at that time was moving more slowly. In 1936 Australian Treasurer Casey, commented that “we are the only part of the Empire…that is making any serious attempt to deal with Defence” (198). [1]

The Lyons government, of course, failed to prevent Japan from joining Germany – but the attempt made a degree of strategic sense, especially when combined with determined rearmament. Like Deakin before him, Lyons appreciated the value of Australia’s relationship with a major Western power – but they both also saw the dangers. Given our geographical positioning, Australia was seen to have special interests. The Asian countries were of vital significance to Australia and in the early decades of the 20th century conservative (as well as Labor) leaders appreciated the power shifts underway – and in particular the far-reaching significance of the decline in international leadership of our great friend, in that period the United Kingdom.

Developments in the Asian region in the first half of the 20th century certainly caused concern in Australia, but we should not ignore the optimistic elements in the Australian response. True, a “felt-threat from Asia” (Meaney 2009: 202) was an influence on Australian thinking – but it is something of an exaggeration to sum Australia up as an “anxious nation” (in David Walker’s words), driven by a “fear of abandonment”. As Eggleston pointed out, Australians tended to be far more concerned about internal matters — internal development — than external relations (Osmond: 139). Also, to the extent that members of the Australian leadership did look outwards, some of them — including on the conservative side of politics — viewed the emergence of a new Asia with a degree of optimism. They saw not only economic benefits but also the possibility of inter-cultural stimulation. With respect to strategic challenges, the Lyons government appears to have acknowledged the historic need to make space for a rising power, whether it be an Asian or Western power.

The emergence of a specifically Pacific policy took place at a time when many Asian societies were still governed by European colonial empires – and yet Deakin, Lyons and others were realistic about the coming decline of Western influence. They saw that Australia and the mother country had to have different external relations perspectives. Although Britain might retreat from Asia, Australia would remain and would be surrounded by independent states – in what Eggleston saw as an ‘awakening’ East. Today those states, even some of the smaller ones in Southeast Asia, are increasingly powerful vis-à-vis Australia – and Australia’s international perspectives must again differ from those of a great-power Western ally.

One message from the 1930s, as Prime Minister Morrison’s speech on the Strategic Update made clear, is the need today to enhance Australia’s defence capacity. But another message concerns crisis diplomacy. Crafting our engagement not only with China but also with India and all the other protagonists in the region in which we ‘have made our home’ (as Deakin put it) will demand more and more diplomatic skill – especially if United States hegemony is passing. In seeking today to build Australian relations with a range of states in Asia, our current Coalition government might gain from an examination of the heritage of conservative engagement with the region – noting the record of independent Australian action, and examining both strengths and limitations in the way the early 20th-century leaders dealt with an ambitious Asian power.

Anthony Milner is International Director, Asialink (University of Melbourne) and Emeritus Professor, Australian National University. He served for a decade on the Howard Government’s Foreign Affairs Council. For generous advice, he thanks Tomoko Akami, James Cotton, Donald Greenlees and Nick Tait.

Banner image:  HMAS Australia [ii] - October 19, 1939. Credit: Parer, Daniel 1942. 'HMAS' (Canberra: Australian War Memorial), 88.

This article first appeared in the April 2021 edition of Quadrant magazine.

[1] The graph of Australian defence expenditure since 1901 makes clear how much higher as a proportion of GDP it was in Lyons’s time compared to now:


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