According to reports, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, will be spruiking her government’s Australia in the Asian Century white paper at this week’s Asian and European leaders meeting in Vientiane. If this gives the impression that Australia is focused on recent developments in Asia, well and good. However, if the promotion of the white paper implies that Australia has suddenly discovered Asia, its publication could be counterproductive.

Australia’s interaction with Asia goes back at least eight decades. Indeed, some
of these institutional connections are documented in chapter three of the white paper, which is titled ”Australia in Asia”. Here are some facts.

In 1934, when Joseph Lyons was prime minister, the conservative politician John Latham led an eastern mission to what was then called the Far East. The aim of Latham’s delegation was to increase Australian contacts in, and trade with, Asian nations. Lyons broadly accepted Latham’s recommendations. At the 1937 Imperial Conference in London, Lyons raised the possibility of the formation of a Pacific pact involving such nations as the US, France, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, China and Japan. Discussion of the proposal was terminated due to the conflict between China and Japan.

Between 1939 and 1945, the focus of Australian foreign and defence policy centred on victory in the Second World War. At the conclusion of hostilities, Ben Chifley’s Labor government gave strong diplomatic support to independence movements in Indonesia, Burma, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Percy Spender, when external affairs minister in Robert Menzies’ Coalition government, which was elected in December 1949, played a key role in the creation of the Colombo Plan aimed at helping the economies of south and south-east Asia. Part of Australia’s contribution to the Colombo Plan provided for young Asians to be educated in Australian universities. Many went on to become leaders of their countries. Spender advocated that Australia should be a ”bridge” between Asia and the West.

In July 1950, the Menzies government committed military forces to help the US-led United Nations force preserve South Korea against attack from communist North Korea, supported by China. As Gillard acknowledged when launching the white paper, the allied success in thwarting the communist advance made possible the establishment of a vibrant society in South Korea. In this conflict, Australians fought beside South Koreans along with forces from the Philippines and Thailand.
In 1955, Australia, along with Britain and New Zealand, committed forces to the Malayan Emergency to protect Malaya from a communist insurgency. This commitment, which was opposed by Labor, proved successful.

In 1965, Australia provided forces to support the newly formed nation of Malaysia against the confrontation initiated by the Sukarno regime in Indonesia. Once again, this was successful and confrontation ceased.

In July 1957, the Country Party leader and trade minister John (Jack) McEwen visited Japan to complete negotiations of a commerce agreement between the two nations. This was a remarkable event, especially in view of the fact that the Pacific War had only ceased about a decade previously and the appalling treatment of Allied prisoners of war by Japanese forces was widely known. The trade agreement proved of considerable benefit to both nations. However, it was opposed by Labor under the leadership of Bert Evatt.

Australia’s Vietnam commitment in the late 1960s and early 1970s was controversial. Today there is little support for it among academics or journalists. Yet support can be found among the South Vietnamese descendants living in suburban Sydney and Melbourne. Australia’s Asian allies in Vietnam included South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand.

In early 1966, Harold Holt, who replaced Menzies as prime minister, began the junking of the White Australia policy. Holt died in December 1967. During his brief term in office, Holt’s priority was to increase Australia’s focus on the nations of Asia.

Immediately after his election in December 1972, Gough Whitlam recognised China. This policy was embraced when Malcolm Fraser became prime minister three years later. Fraser commissioned Owen Harries to write the Australia and the Third World report, which was released in 1979.

Bob Hawke, after he became prime minister in March 1983, continued Australia’s focus on Asia. He commissioned Ross Garnaut’s Australia and the North-East Asian Ascendancy report. The Hawke and Keating governments played an important role in the development of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. These initiatives were continued by the Howard government, which oversaw the successful UN-endorsed peacemaking operation in East Timor. Australia’s focus on Asia continued under Kevin Rudd and, now, Gillard.

Talking up the white paper may have political benefits in Australia. But it would be helpful if world leaders assembled in Laos knew that Australia was deeply involved in the region decades before anyone had spoken of an ”Asian century”.

Gerard Henderson is the executive director of the Sydney Institute.