Diplomatic history of Australia

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The diplomatic history of Australia refers to the historical events surrounding Australian foreign relations. Following the global change in the dynamics of international state of affairs in the 20th century, this saw a transition within Australia's diplomatic situation to broaden outside of exclusively commonwealth and western European nations. Its core relationship was with Great Britain until 1941, and with the United States and New Zealand since then as represented by ANZUS. In the 21st century trade has soared with China. However relations have cycled back and forth from friendly to strained. For recent relations see also Foreign relations of Australia.

1930s: Appeasement[edit]

During the 1930's, Australian foreign policy was centralised around the fear of war and an eagerness to appease Germany, Japan and Italy. The Australian government gave considerable support to the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain government in London regarding Germany. However, as a consequence of supporting Chamberlain, many Australians experienced fear due to Japan's strong military and aggressive foreign policy[1] whereas Australia was still an evolving nation to wield any independent force in world affairs in the 1930s. [2]

Shift in dependence from Britain to United States[edit]

At the beginning of World War II, Australia was part of the commonwealth of the British Empire, and depended on Britain for its security against Japan.[3] On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced, "Great Britain has declared war on Germany, and as a result, Australia is also at war... There can be no doubt that where Great Britain stands, there stand the people of the entire British world".[4] Australia was the first nation to come to Great Britain's aid, sending its combat divisions to fight in the Middle East and North Africa.[5]

The unprecedented Japanese attack on an American naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941, led to the formal entry of the United States into the war.[6] Japanese attacks continued through Burma, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and Malaya. The island of Singapore was strategically crucial for the British defence plan, however it was poorly defended and surrendered to the Japanese on 15 February 1942, with thousands of Australians as prisoners of war.[7] British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had given priority to the European war and was unable to assist the Australians. Australia Prime Minister John Curtin appealed to the US instead, "Australia looks to America free of any pangs as to our traditional links of kinship with Great Britain."[8] This speech announced the shift of reliance from Great Britain to the United States.

Relations with the United States[edit]

In March 1942 after the Japanese attacks on Darwin, U.S. President Roosevelt ordered General Douglas MacArthur to move the American base from the Philippines to Brisbane, Australia.[9] By September 1943, more than 120,000 American soldiers were in Australia. The Americans were warmly welcomed at first but tensions grew evident.[10] MacArthur worked very closely with the Australian government and took command of its combat operations. Fighting continued throughout Southeast Asia for the next two years. When the European war was declared over, Australia and the US still had a war to win against Japan. MacArthur promoted a policy of "island hopping" for his American troops while he suggested that the Australian troops should continue clearing and rounding up the Japanese from New Guinea, New Britain, Borneo and Bougainville.[11]


Australian society changed greatly between 1945 and 1972, undoing the monoracial immigration policies of White Australia[12] whereby immigration of distinct ethnicities acted as a catalyst. After the war, the Immigration Minister, Arthur Calwell, introduced an assisted immigration scheme with the slogan "populate or perish".[13] The government was still trying to increase Australia's population, especially with people who have skills in the secondary industry sector. As the world was transforming into a more industrial and technological world, Australia needed to keep up.

Australia looked first to Britain for migrants. In the beginning, the assisted immigration scheme was popular among young married couples and single people. It was inexpensive, an adventure and an opportunity. After only a year, there was a shortage of ships and immigrant numbers dropped. The immigration targets were not being met. For the first time in a revolutionary step for both Australian society and international relations, Australia reluctantly looked outside Britain for migrants.[14] In 1947, Arthur Calwell agreed to bring 12,000 people every year from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Many of these people were refugees who were being cared for by the International Refugee Organisation (IRO). They were accepted on humanitarian grounds with the condition that they would remain in Australia for two years and work in government selected jobs.

Over the next twenty years, patterns of immigration continued to change. The government encouraged more people to come to Australia and many more assisted agreements were made with countries. In the late 1950s, more immigrants began to be accepted from the Middle East. In 1958, under the Migration Act, the dictation test was removed and a new scheme of entry permits was introduced.[15] This allowed many non-Europeans to emigrate. Their entry was now based on what they could contribute to Australia and if it could be shown that they could integrate into Australian society. This attracted many highly qualified people who added to Australia's relatively small tertiary industry.[16]

Changing global opinions in the late 20th century resulted in particular hostility to the White Australia policy, which was still in effect. This was eventually disbanded, and since then Australia has received a steady increase in migrants from Asia and around the world through its controversial policy of 'multiculturalism'.[17]

Communism and the Cold War era[edit]

Although the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States co-operated during World War II, the tensions between the two superpowers over economics (Communism versus capitalism), political authority (totalitarianism versus liberalism) and the fate of Europe (East versus West) escalated into the Cold War by 1947.[18] Australia unequivocally stood by the American side and the Cold War became the preponderant influence on Australian foreign policy.[19]

As the international community polarised into opposing alliances led by the respective superpowers, Australia too moved to strengthen its alliance with the United States. Along with the United Kingdom and France, Australia was a main ally of the US in the Asia-Pacific region.[20] China (after 1949), North Vietnam (after 1954) and the USSR were all in one camp. Australians were once again reminded that the initiation of this cold war was similar to that of WWII, thus reinforcing the fear and need for security, from Asia. After the Communist Revolution of China in 1949 and the North Korean infiltration of South Korea in 1950, Australia's foreign policy was influenced by growing concern over communist aggression.[21] Australia increasingly looked to the US, as its new "great and powerful friend" for help to contain and fight communism.[22] The Menzies government made a great effort of linking Australia to US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region. Two major alliance agreements were made between members of the Western Bloc in the 1950s: ANZUS, an agreement for aid in the event of an attack between Australia, New Zealand and the US and SEATO, an agreement guaranteeing defensive action in the event of an attack against the US, Australia, Great Britain, France, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea, and South Vietnam.[23]

Vietnam War[edit]

When communist North Vietnam infiltrated South Vietnam, the Western Bloc viewed it as a fundamental step in what could result in the communist subjugation of the democratic world. In a country gripped by this fear, the government's defence policy was dominated by the idea of "forward defence", in which Australia would seek to prevent the Communist "thrust into South-East Asia". The committal of troops to the Vietnam War was viewed as an attempt by the Menzies Government to strengthen the alliance with the USA following Great Britain's withdrawal "east of Suez".[24]

With his arrival in October 1966, Lyndon Baines Johnson became the first US President to visit Australia. The visit came in the light of increasing international criticism over the war in Vietnam.[25] The majority of Australians seemed to support the war, obvious from the return of the Liberal/Country Party in late 1966. Many Australians were however protesting against the war. They wondered why we had followed the United States into a war that they thought had nothing to do with them and were concerned at our apt readiness to fall in line with American foreign policy.[26] The slogan used by Harold Holt - "All the way with L.B.J." - directly demonstrates this partnership which perhaps could be considered rather inequitable and profitable for the US.[27] They were tired of military solutions and "power politics", and as one Labor politician said, "tired of anti-communism as a substitute for common sense." By 1970, the anti-war sentiment in the society had exploded into huge rallies, church services and candlelight processions. The moratorium movement represented a great range of people's opinions, from young political radicals to people who would not normally challenge government decisions and from mothers of conscripted men to prominent politicians, writers, academics, artists and church leaders.[28]

The intensity of conflict in Australia over this issue contributed to the 1972 election of the first Labor government in 23 years. The new Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam immediately abolished conscription and withdrew troops from Vietnam. The US Signed a peace treaty for Vietnam in 1973, after withdrawing all of its troops in 1972. South Vietnam, however, was invaded and overwhelmed by North Vietnam in 1975.[29]

Détente with communism[edit]

The Whitlam government, a new type of Labor government, developed a general opposition to the US and especially President Nixon who they viewed as especially conservative and paranoid.[30] Whitlam announced that Australia was not automatically going to follow US defence policy any more and this annoyed the United States Government. In late 1972, when Nixon bombed North Vietnam, the controversial Tom Uren and two other left-wing politicians publicly attacked Nixon, resulting in an immediate halt in Australian/American cooperation. Instead Whitlam reached out to our geographically nearer neighbours, Asia. He eliminated the last remaining remnants of the White Australia Policy and introduced a new quota/permit system. With race no longer a barrier, substantial immigration from Asia began, especially from Vietnam.[31] This immigration provided impetuous for the swing in Australia's foreign policy from the US to Asia and increased Australia's trade relations with Asia. In 1973, the People's Republic of China was officially recognised as the "real" China and it was realised that the move towards a more open political and trading relationship with China was a priority. Dr Stephen Fitzgerald was appointed as the first Australian ambassador to the People's Republic of China and Australian understanding and appreciation of China's history and culture was encouraged. The Whitlam government was leaving behind the racist "yellow peril" past and was poised for the move towards a multicultural Australia.[32]

Recent developments[edit]

This focus of multiculturalism and a focus on Asia in Australia foreign policy was not lost because of the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975; contact and understanding continued to grow during the following decade.[33] Australia’s imports of major weapons increased 65 per cent between 2005–2009 and 2010–14, making it the sixth largest importer in the world according to SIPRI.[34]


Relationships with China continued to improve until the Chinese government massacred thousands of students in the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. Along with many other nations, Australia ceased diplomatic and trade relations with China for the next two years.[35]

Relations between the two countries began to deteriorate in 2018 due to growing Australian concerns regarding Chinese political influence in various sectors of Australian society including Chinese students and residents, the national and state governments, universities and the media.[36][37] There is sharp criticism regarding China's human rights policies regarding the treatment of Hong Kong and the Uyghur minority. Furthermore Canberra has been troubled by China's aggressive stance on the South China Sea dispute. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated tensions after Australia called for an international, independent inquiry into the origins of the disease. The subsequent restrictions that China made to its trade policies have been attacked as political retaliation and economic coercion against Australia. In 2021 Canberra disallowed the effort by the state of Victoria to join China's vast Belt and Road Initiative as a potential threat to Australia's security.[38]


Australia had a developing relationship was Indonesia. Whitlam did not object to the invasion of Portuguese Timor by Indonesian troops in 1975 because maintaining good diplomatic relations with Indonesia was considered the highest priority at the time.[39] The government could only express regret for the Timorese people as they were not prepared to go to war. Hawke and especially Keating also supported Indonesia despite their continuing maltreatment of the East Timorese people. When John Howard was elected in 1996, he saw the opportunity to distinguish himself from the previous Labor approach to the East Timor conflict.[40] Immediately he sent peacekeeping forces into East Timor and advocated Australia's support for their independence. The role of this support of an essentially Christian country against a Muslim nation was detrimental to Australia's reputation with other Muslim countries.[41]


Since the 1970s (when Vietnamese boat people started coming), wave after wave of refugees from distressed countries in Asia and elsewhere have sought haven in Australia.[42] Many have died making the hazardous journey. How to deal with them has been a highly contentious political issue.[43]


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  2. ^ David Samuel Bird, J. A. Lyons, the Tame Tasmanian: Appeasement and Rearmament in Australia, 1932-39 (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2008)
  3. ^ "BBC - WW2 People's War - Timeline". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
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  8. ^ Francis Gordon Clarke (2002). The History of Australia. Greenwood. p. 136.
  9. ^ "GENERAL MACARTHUR TAKES COMMAND OF AUSTRALIA'S DEFENCE". www.pacificwar.org.au. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  10. ^ kanopiadmin (10 April 2014). "War and Time Preference: The American Army in Australia". Mises Institute. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  11. ^ Peter Dean (2013). Australia 1943: The Liberation of New Guinea. Cambridge UP. pp. 26–43. ISBN 9781107470880.
  12. ^ corporateName=National Museum of Australia; address=Lawson Crescent, Acton Peninsula. "National Museum of Australia - End of the White Australia policy". www.nma.gov.au. Retrieved 28 October 2020.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  13. ^ "Populate or Perish? | Newgeography.com". www.newgeography.com. Retrieved 28 October 2020.
  14. ^ "Post World War II British Migration to Australia". Museums Victoria Collections. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
  15. ^ "The Immigration Restriction Act and the White Australia policy". National Archives of Australia.
  16. ^ corporateName=Commonwealth Parliament; address=Parliament House, Canberra. "Australia's Migration Program". www.aph.gov.au. Retrieved 2 November 2020.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
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  19. ^ Peter Geoffrey Edwards and Gregory Pemberton, Crises and Commitments: The Politics and Diplomacy of Australia's Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-1965 (Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1992)
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  21. ^ "US Enters the Korean Conflict". National Archives. 15 August 2016. Retrieved 2 November 2020.
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  36. ^ Navdeep Suri, “Australia-China Relations: The Great Unravelling,” (ORF Issue Brief No. 366, June 2020) online
  37. ^ Hamilton, Clive (2018). Silent Invasion: China's influence in Australia. Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books. p. 376. ISBN 978-1743794807.
  38. ^ Mike Cherney, "Australia Cancels China Infrastructure Deal, Citing National Interest: Decision deepens diplomatic dispute; Beijing says Australian government has no sincerity to improve ties" Wall Street Journal
  39. ^ Clinton Fernandes, Reluctant saviour: Australia, Indonesia, and the independence of East Timor (Scribe Publications, 2004).
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  42. ^ Katrina Stats, "Welcome to Australia? A reappraisal of the Fraser government's approach to refugees, 1975–83." Australian Journal of International Affairs (2015) 69#1 pp: 69-87.
  43. ^ John Vrachnas; et al. (2011). Migration and Refugee Law: Principles and Practice in Australia. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139505635.

Further reading[edit]

  • Australian War Memorial. Encyclopedia online with scores of topics
  • Bolton, Geoffrey. The Oxford History of Australia: Volume 5: 1942-1995. The Middle Way (2005)
  • Bridge, Carl ed., Munich to Vietnam: Australia's Relations with Britain and the United States since the 1930s, Melbourne University Press 1991
  • Chieocharnpraphan, Thosaphon. Australian Foreign Policy under the Howard Government: Australia as a Middle Power? (2011)
  • Davison, Graeme, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre, eds. The Oxford Companion to Australian History (2001) online at many academic libraries; also excerpt and text search
  • Dennis, Peter, Jeffrey Grey, Ewan Morris, and Robin Prior. The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History. 1996)
  • Firth, Stewart. Australia in International Politics: An Introduction to Australian Foreign Policy (2005) online edition
  • Grant, Ian. A Dictionary of Australian Military History - from Colonial Times to the Gulf War (1992)
  • Gyngell; Allan, and Michael Wesley. Making Australian Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2003) online
  • Lee, David. Search for Security: The Political Economy of Australia's Postwar Foreign and Defence Policy (1995)
  • Lowe, David. Menzies and the 'Great World Struggle': Australia's Cold War 1948-54 (1999) online edition
  • Macintyre, Stuart. The Oxford History of Australia: Volume 4: 1901-42, the Succeeding Age (1993)
  • McLean, David. "From British Colony to American Satellite? Australia and the USA during the Cold War," Australian Journal of Politics & History (2006) 52 (1), 64–79. Rejects satellite model. online at Blackwell-Synergy
  • McLean, David. "Australia in the Cold War: a Historiographical Review." International History Review (2001) 23(2): 299–321. ISSN 0707-5332
  • Murphy, John. Harvest of Fear: A History of Australia's Vietnam War (1993)
  • Schreuder, Deryck, and Stuart Ward, eds. Australia's Empire (Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series) (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Serle. Percival, ed. Dictionary of Australian Biography (1949) online edition
  • Suri, Navdeep. "Australia-China Relations: The Great Unravelling," (ORF Issue Brief No. 366, June 2020, , Observer Research Foundation.) online
  • Watt, Alan. The Evolution of Australian Foreign Policy 1938–1965, (Cambridge UP, 1967)

See also[edit]