National Interests and Global Norms in Australia’s Policies towards the Asia-Pacific

Published date01 April 2014
Date01 April 2014
Subject MatterArticles
JASIA_1-1-02_Makinda.indd Article
National Interests and
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
Global Norms in
1(1) 25–40
2014 SAGE Publications India
Australia’s Policies
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
towards the Asia-Pacific
Los Angeles, London,
New Delhi, Singapore,
Washington DC
DOI: 10.1177/2347797013518394
Samuel M. Makinda1
Australia’s foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region is primarily driven by
self-interest. Australian prime ministers, foreign ministers, diplomats and other
political leaders have asserted on various occasions that their goal in the region
has always been to promote Australia’s national interests while at the same time
helping some of the states in the region meet some of their needs. However,
Australia has not pursued self-interests to the exclusion of global values and
norms. This article examines Australia’s policy towards the Asia-Pacific region
and explains how governments have tried to align national interests with global
values in the region since the Cold War ended.
Australian foreign policy, Asia-Pacific region, national interests, security, global values
Geographically, Australia is next door to Asia and our destiny as a nation is irrevoca-
bly conditioned by what takes place in Asia. This means that our future depends to an
ever increasing degree upon the political stability of our Asian neighbours, upon the
economic well-being of Asian peoples, and upon the development of understanding
and friendly relations between Australia and Asia. Whilst it remains true that peace is
indivisible and that what takes place in any part of the world may affect us, our vital
interests are closer to home. It is therefore in Asia and the Pacifi c that Australia should
make its primary effort in the fi eld of foreign relations
. (Minister for External Affairs,
Percy C. Spender, 2 January 1950)
Success in the Asian century requires a whole-of-Australia effort, with businesses,
unions, communities and governments being partners in a transformation as profound
as any that have defi ned Australia throughout our history
. (Australia in the Asian
Century, White Paper, October 2012, p. 3)
Samuel M. Makinda, School of Management and Governance, Murdoch University,
Australia. E-mail:

Samuel M. Makinda
Within one week of becoming Australia’s first female foreign minister, Julie
Bishop flew to New York where she presided over a United Nations (UN) Security
Council session (Connolly, 2013). Her party, the Liberal Party of Australia, in
coalition with the National Party, had won the election on 7 September 2013,
shortly after Australia had assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council
seven days earlier. This was the first time that Australia had held this position
since 1986 (Makinda, 1996). While the foreign minister’s first visit was to the
UN, the newly elected Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first visit, which took place
two weeks after taking office, was to Jakarta, Indonesia (Sheridan, 2013). This
visit was designed to signal that his government’s foreign policy would pay more
attention to the Asia-Pacific region than to the UN or other non-Asia global issues.
The prime minister returned to Indonesia to attend the Asia Pacific Economic
Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Bali a week later. Abbott, whose third foreign
trip as prime minister was to Sri Lanka in November 2013, has claimed repeatedly
that Australia’s security and economic interests and the nation’s future lie in Asia,
but there is nothing new in such a claim (Hodge, 2013). Various Australia’s gov-
ernments since World War II have reiterated this claim (Evans & Grant, 1995).
Abbott’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, spoke Mandarin and placed a strong emphasis
on Asia, although he also reached out to other areas, including Africa (Vasek,
2012).2 Moreover, Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister who held
office from June 2010 to June 2013, helped establish in April 2013 a regular
annual dialogue between the Chinese and Australian leaders (McDonnell, 2013).
On Australia’s part, the dialogue is expected to involve the prime minister, the
treasurer and the foreign minister. Gillard not only focused on Asia, but also
issued a White Paper on the Asian Century, which provides Australia’s compre-
hensive view of Asia’s prospects and Australia’s role in them till 2025 (Australian
Government, 2012).
Australia’s foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region appears to be driven
primarily by self-interest. Australian prime ministers, foreign ministers, diplomats
and other political leaders have asserted on various occasions that their goal in the
region is, and has always been, to promote Australia’s national interests while at
the same time helping some of the states in the region meet some of their security,
political, economic and social needs (Smith, 2010).
There is no scientific or universally accepted definition of the national interest.
Hans Morgenthau (1967, p. 8) described it in terms of power, but he pointed out
that its meaning was not ‘fixed once and for all’. He claimed that ‘the kind of
interest’ that determined ‘political action in a particular period of history’ depended
upon ‘the political and cultural context within which foreign policy [was] formu-
lated’ (Morgenthau, 1967, pp. 8–9). The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs
and Trade (DFAT) defined the national interest in a 2003 White Paper as ‘the
security and prosperity of Australia and Australians’ (DFAT, 2003, p. vii). DFAT
further claimed that the national interest could be understood broadly to include
Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 1, 1 (2014): 25–40

Australia’s Policies towards the Asia-Pacific 27
humanitarian assistance as well as the promotion of ‘good governance, human
rights and development’ (DFAT, 2003, p. xviii). According to the 2003 DFAT
White Paper, the Australian government believes that the ‘improvement of gov-
ernance around the world can help create an environment that contributes to the
security and prosperity of Australia’ (DFAT, 2003, p. xviii). In other words, at
least for Australia, the meaning of the national interest is fluid and flexible.
The fluidity of the concept of national interest has been acknowledged widely
(George, 1980, pp. 233–262). The mutability of this concept was also reflected in
the 1997 Australian debate on foreign aid. A government report in that year enti-
tled One Clear Objective: Poverty Reduction Through Sustainable Development
(also called the Simons Report, after Paul Simons, the committee chair) declared,
‘The objective of the Australian aid programme should be to assist developing
countries to reduce poverty through sustained economic and social development’
(Simons, Hart & Walsh, 1997, p. 12). However, in response to the Simons report,
the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) suggested that
the aim of the aid was ‘To advance Australia’s national interest by assisting devel-
oping countries reduce poverty and achieve sustainable development’ (AusAID,
1991, p. 16).
Thus, it would appear that in Australia, the national interest basically means
what the government of the day says it is. This approach to the national interest
has been criticized by several academics. For example, Joseph Camilleri (2003,
pp. 431–453) argues that the ‘national interest’ rhetoric assumes many things,
which should not be accepted at face value.
The definition of the national interest given above implies that Australia has
not pursued its self-interest to the exclusion of global values and norms. The con-
cept of ‘good international citizenship’, which former Foreign Minister Gareth
Evans popularized in the 1990s, suggested that Australia’s foreign policy needed
to take seriously global rules, norms and institutions (Linklater, 1992, pp. 21–43).
This is borne out by the fact that Australian government officials have declared
frequently that part of their purpose in the Asia-Pacific region, as elsewhere in the
developing world, has been to help various states enhance their political and eco-
nomic stability and to realize several Millennium Development Goals (MDG).
The overriding objective of Australia’s Official Development Assistance (ODA)
is to assist some Southeast Asian and Western Pacific countries in their efforts to
meet some of their MDGs and to tackle other problems in sectors in which
Australia is said to have expertise and experience, and in which it is best able to
make a difference (Hollway, Farmer, Reid, Denton & Howes, 2011).
Based on Australia’s concrete actions in the Asia–Pacific region since the Cold
War ended, it is plausible to argue that the Australian government’s aim is to try
to align national interests with global values. If I may paraphrase Anthony Bubalo,
Australia strives to balance values and principles in its policy towards the Asia-
Pacific (Bubalo, 2012). It is generally assumed that the pursuit of principle
requires a focus on the preservation and promotion of self-interests, while the
pursuit of global values requires adequate attention to the respect for global
Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs, 1, 1 (2014): 25–40

Samuel M. Makinda
norms, rules and institutions as well as the promotion of other matters, such as
human development, gender and racial equality, in addition to ecological sustain-
ability. However, such an argument gives rise to several...

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