Pacific Asia may be a thriving region of enviable opportunity but the duel between "Pacificism" and "Asianism" profoundly shapes Australian and United States foreign policy in the area.
By Michael Wesley
For more than a century, Pacific Asia has profoundly shaped the Australian-American relationship. By the mid-19th century, elites in both countries were defining themselves as Pacific nations, and the lands and societies of Pacific Asia provided important ingredients of the geopolitical identity of each. Asia was seen as a new frontier for these young and vigorous settler societies, which as the century wore on identified themselves and each other as representatives of the “Anglo-Saxon race” that had taken possession of the most productive temperate territories outside of Europe. To re-order and engage with Pacific Asia was seen as a civilisational destiny.
The most important principle in the re-ordering of Pacific Asia was to try to force the other colonial powers to comply with an “open door” principle of access to Asia’s markets. While this principle is now broadly accepted as a central tenet of US foreign policy, what is less commonly acknowledged is the extent to which it was a powerful norm at the heart of the foreign policy of the British Empire at its height. The United States’ own foray into colonialism was driven by civilisational and strategic impulses. The Philippines was seen as an important strategic base to allow the US to prosecute its commercial interests in Pacific Asia. The one-sided result of the Spanish-American War stimulated paroxysms of delight and Anglo-Saxon solidarity in Britain and the white Dominions. It marked the beginnings of a strong movement within the British Empire and the US for the development of an English-speaking alliance that would maintain global peace and free commerce; a sentiment that was carried by many of those who would later drive the formation of close alliances among the Anglophone states.
If Asia was seen as an opportunity by Americans and Australians, it was also feared. The paradox at the heart of Anglo-Saxonism was that even though the English-speaking peoples were believed to be freedom-loving, just, reliable, tenacious, strong willed and enterprising, there was the prospect that they would be overwhelmed by the more fecund, avaricious, conniving societies of Asia. Not only did this require that “racially pure” Anglo-Saxon societies in North America, Australasia and southern Africa had to keep themselves free of Asian immigration, it further mandated solidarity among the Anglophone powers. Writers such as A.T. Mahan and J.R. Seeley argued explicitly that the freedom-loving and independent-minded Anglo-Saxons risked being divided and overwhelmed by lower races, and that they needed to forge strong alliances of common purpose to protect the Anglophone world order—an appeal for “civilisational” solidarity in the face of the rising Asian challenge that was echoed in recent years by the late Samuel Huntington. It was partly a response to the rise of Japanese power that prompted Theodore Roosevelt—himself an avid believer in Anglo-Saxonism—to dispatch the Great White Fleet on a tour of the Pacific in 1908. Its rapturous reception in Sydney was underpinned by a sense of pride felt by Australians in the extraordinary rise of this branch of their “race” and also a sense of relief that in the face of the Japanese menace, Australia could find protection in the bonds of racial solidarity. As The Sydney Mail editorial put it:
We welcome the American officers…if it ever has to come to seeking the protection of another power our people could probably turn instinctively to Uncle Sam.
While these conceptions of race and civilisation have receded from elite discourse since the end of World War II, these impulses—the sense of geopolitical destiny as Pacific nations, the desire to re-order and engage with Asia, the complex interplay of enterprise and fear—have continued to bind Australia and the United States together and shape the heart of their relationship. Both societies believed that newly independent Asian states faced the prospect of falling to an advancing communist tide; and that in order to be inoculated against the red virus they had to be helped to modernise through both political and economic developmental blueprints copied from the West. Australia reluctantly agreed to Washington’s peace terms with Japan on condition that it gained a black letter alliance with the US, even though the black letters turned out to be considerably less binding on the US than the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation treaty. Importantly, it was at Washington’s insistence that Britain was excluded from the Australia, New Zealand, United States pact.
But the thickening of the Australian-American relationship was also nourished as part of the broader alliance between the white British Commonwealth and the United States that had been forged during World War II and consolidated in the early years of the Cold War. Arguably the most important sinew in this relationship was their intimate intelligence collection and sharing, pioneered in the midst of war and formalised in the 1947 UK-USA agreement. Thereafter, information flows reinforced shared geopolitical conceptions, particularly in relation to the Pacific region, which had been defined by the ANZUS treaty as the two states’ area of shared strategic concern. The former secretary of state Dean Acheson cabled President Truman after the first ANZUS meeting in Hawaii:
It seemed to me that [Australia and New Zealand] suffered from a paucity of knowledge of what was going on and a faulty appreciation of current situations. So [we] decided that instead of starving the Australians and the New Zealanders we would give them indigestion. For two days we went over every situation in the world, political and military, with the utmost frankness and fullness.
As the Cold War receded in Asia, new commercial imperatives began to tie the United States and Australia to the economies of the western Pacific. Both countries became a crucial part of Pacific Rim trade that saw the Asian tiger economies register the fastest rates of economic development in human history. Australia became a key supplier of commodities, while the US presented an open market and buoyant demand for goods produced by Asia. Both the US and Australia gradually began to accept that the stability and economic vitality of the western Pacific was not only necessary for their own economic health, but increasingly important for the global economy. How this region is defined has become the central thread of all other Australian and US policy considerations towards Asia, and arguably a major consideration in shaping the evolution of the Australian-American relationship. There have emerged two competing visions of regionalism, which I have termed Asianism and Pacificism, whose dialectical relationship has shaped the Australian-American relationship in complex ways.
Pacificism arises from, and promotes a vision of, a region that is predominantly maritime and defined by free trade and economic dynamism. Conceptions of maritime trade as the essence of self-definition have deep historical roots in the Pacific Rim. Japan, southern China, Southeast Asia and southern India carried on a vigorous maritime trade for long before the arrival of Europeans, a history that has left lasting cultural legacies. The settler colonies of the Pacific Rim—the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—were all founded as being part of a British Empire that was Protestant, commercial, maritime and free. These legacies have contributed to modern policy stances: export-oriented development among the Pacific Asian states and a passion for free trade among the western states of the Pacific Rim.
Pacificism contains a strategic component. Geopolitical stability and freedom of navigation are essential for maritime commerce. The strategic essence of Pacificism is the San Francisco system of bilateral alliances between the United States and Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines and Australia. None of these alliances involves the same depth of commitment to the defence of regional countries as the NATO alliance does in Europe. According to John Ikenberry, the multilateral form of NATO allows smaller states to “lock in” a US presence and restrain the use of its power, while enabling the US to “lock in” the policy commitments of smaller states. If the image of Gulliver among the Lilliputians best describes the United States in Europe, its presence in the Pacific is best described using the image of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. In the Pacific, Washington has not allowed itself to be tied down; like the Leviathan, it exists apart from and above its charges, allowing knowledge of its preponderant power and the expectation of its decisive involvement in disputes to maintain the peace among potentially quarrelsome states.
The policy agenda of Pacificism is driven by a belief that the Pacific’s eastern and western shores will never be as dynamic and wealthy if they are divided from each other. The fear of the Pacificists is that the vital trading links crossing the Pacific will be broken by irrational impulses: US isolationism; anti-Americanism in East Asia; trade tensions driven by domestic rent-seekers; or geocultural loyalties leading to the creation of exclusive trade blocs on each side of the Pacific. A major fear is that the societies of the western Pacific will turn towards a terrestrial form of regionalism and thereby exclude other Pacific players from the region. It was just such a fear that led Britain, which at the time considered itself a Pacific power, to conclude a contentious alliance with Japan in 1902, and to concede naval parity with the United States in 1921-22. Concern about the Pacific fracturing into rival trade blocs under the pressure of mounting US-Japan trade tensions, was also at the heart of the push to establish the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. More recently, one of APEC’s greatest supporters, Fred Bergsten, has argued that US inattention and festering anti-American resentment among the countries of the western Pacific are driving the development of an East Asian regionalism, that will perhaps lead to a “bipolar confrontation” between an East Asian Economic Community and the nascent Free Trade Area of the Americas.
The strongest supporters of Pacificism reside in the free trade constituencies in the United States and Australia. In the US traditionally, the Republican Party has been the bastion of Pacificism and the champion of naval interests, with the Democratic Party more Atlanticist in orientation. In Australia, the strongest Pacificists generally reside in the right of the Labor Party, the National Party and among free-trade advocates in the Liberal Party. So strong are the free-trade preferences of Pacificists that they ultimately defined APEC’s distinctive (and ultimately unviable) approaches to regionalism around open regionalism and concerted unilateral liberalisation. The belief that the American-Australian alliance is a crucial element in Australia’s security, and that US presence in the Pacific is vital for regional stability, has created a strong Pacificist community within Australian elites. Similar considerations are the reasons for powerful Pacificist constituencies in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore. These countries have been among the most ardent promoters and defenders of APEC.
Pacificism has lost some of its lustre in recent years. APEC’s failure to deliver on its grand trade-liberalisation promises left it looking for other reasons for being. The organisation’s non-response to the Asian financial crisis further damaged its reputation. But as a doctrine Pacificism has survived APEC’s failures. In recent years Pacificists have resorted to preferential trade agreements that have been constructed around the Pacific’s trade flows. Both Australia and the US have embarked on a determined campaign to link themselves to their vital Asian trading partners through PTAs.
Asianism draws variously on post-colonial grievances and Asian success to assert that Asian countries do not need Western models or advice about how to develop or organise their own politics. Its vision of history is that before European colonisation, Asia was the centre of global gravity in wealth, learning, culture, technology and religion, and that now that the era of Western dominance is passing, Asia will return to its former global status. The imperial era showed the West’s avarice to its fullest extent, and its willingness to impoverish Asian societies in the cause of its own enrichment. The animating goal of Asianism is the common interest of Asian states in developing their own wealth and resilience, free of external intervention or extraneous priorities. Asia’s wealth and dynamism will always attract external interests; Asian countries should ensure that their interests are not subordinated to those of external players. Asianism organises around convictions that a lack of solidarity among Asian states allows outside powers to play a dominant role in the region; that as long as Asian countries’ ties to external states are stronger than their ties with each other their destiny will be heavily influenced by interests from beyond the region. Asianists’ dissatisfaction with the regional order extends to a disgruntlement with Asia’s lack of voice at the global level. Only through coming together in genuine solidarity can Asia play a role in global politics commensurate with its size and weight.
Asianists are critical of links and agreements that they see as diverting the attention and energies of Asian states away from their collective interests with each other. Their goal is to supplant these external ties with stronger forms of intra-Asian solidarity. But if they allow intramural rivalries and weak forms of intra-Asian co-operation to continue, external interests will go on playing an important role in shaping the region’s future. The dilemma facing Asianists is what to do about Asian states that are highly committed to links with outside powers: on the one hand it is precisely these states and their commitments that impede the growth of Asian solidarity; on the other, to be too overtly critical of them or prescriptive would be to further erode the solidarity that Asianists so crave. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the first intergovernmental institution built around modern ideas of Asianism, built just such a compromise into the core of its compact. Although fundamentally committed to ending all outside involvement in Southeast Asia, the ASEAN states opted to tolerate some of their members’ maintenance of alliances with the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The ASEAN formula enshrined evolution as the Asianists’ principle of achievement: even if forms of intramural solidarity were imperfect, they would inculcate patterns of collaboration among Asian states which would eventually trump their ties to outside states.
The core policy agenda of Asianism is the maintenance and defence of the developmental state. The developmental state is one that prioritises economic development and accords the state a central role in promoting development. Development, in turn, relies heavily on social peace and stability, a consideration that has led many developmental states to curtail democratic processes and rights and focus on efficient, technocratic governance. Many Asianist intellectuals and leaders argue that it is a common commitment to Asia’s distinctive and highly successful developmental model, and a willingness to eschew formal democratic processes in the interests of social stability, that supplies the common values that define East Asia as a region. From the common developmental preoccupations of Asian states arises a solidarity around “developmental regionalism”. Developmental regionalism places regional stability and economic development at the heart of the Asianist project. The incentive for regional solidarity lies in the common interest of member states in contributing to the rapid and sustainable economic development of all, variously through promoting regional investment and economic complementarities, sharing successful development models or improving the bloc’s position in the global economy. Its central metaphor is the “flying geese” pattern of East Asian development, in which successively larger numbers of East Asian states adopt and adapt the developmental state model and follow its earliest founders along a rapid development path. This way of thinking is implicitly present in rejecting and critiquing Western advice on how to shape effective economic institutions.
These are themes that resonate powerfully among many in Asian countries, and the incentive to draw on them has been constant in regional politics. “Asia for the Asians” was a powerful rallying cry in many de-colonisation movements, and public intellectuals such as Rabindranath Tagore and Sun Yat-sen established early transboundary ties of solidarity and mutual support. It was a movement that gained great support in Japan, which used the pretext of pushing the colonial powers out of Asia to justify its forceful construction of the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. Even though discredited by the Pacific War, the Asianists in Japan did not give up on their regionalist vision. Having observed the founding of the Inter-American Development Bank and the African Development Bank, Japanese officials began advocating the creation of an Asian Development Bank to promote economic development in Asia. Japan became the largest contributor to the ADB, established in 1966 in Manila, and has supplied every president of the ADB and fostered an intimate relationship between the ADB and the Japanese Ministry of Finance. The belief that intramural rivalry perpetuated Southeast Asia’s weakness and encouraged outside powers to intervene was the central rationale for the founding of ASEAN in 1967. The ASEAN charter enshrined a common interest in promoting “regional resilience” as a vital ingredient in each member’s national resilience. By the early 1990s, Asianists within ASEAN had begun to look to Northeast Asia’s economic miracle to turbo-charge their vision.
More recently, China has taken up the Asianist cause. In the lead-up to the 2005 ASEAN summit, Beijing campaigned for a more restrictive vision of western Pacific solidarity with ASEAN+3, in opposition to Japan’s more expansive East Asia Summit vision, which includes India, Australia and New Zealand. China’s arguments were based on the contention that East Asian countries face distinctive but common challenges in the current international order, and will only be able to respond adequately if they are able to caucus among themselves, and leave behind outside commitments and considerations. The People’s Daily criticised Japan for “trying to drag countries outside this region such as Australia and India into the community to serve as a counterbalance to China”. On arriving in Kuala Lumpur for the summit, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao asserted, “The East Asian Summit should respect the desires of East Asian countries and should be led only by East Asian countries.” The presence of India, Australia and New Zealand at the Kuala Lumpur summit meant the ASEAN states ultimately endorsed Tokyo’s more expansive view, a result China has apparently now accepted. But China’s growing centrality in the regional economy, and its unassuaged concerns about the number of US allies around its borders, means that Beijing is unlikely to have discarded Asianism as a diplomatic tool.
Pacificism and Asianism are linked in a mutually antagonistic relationship. Each embodies a denial of the other; indeed each sees the other as its main reason for being. It is adherence to each of these doctrines that has underpinned many of the diplomatic stand-offs in the region in recent decades, and has ultimately shaped many of the region’s diplomatic outcomes and institutions. Often Pacificism and Asianism are advocated by different elites within the same country; for example, in Korea most of those who oppose their country’s alliance with the United States are strongly committed to Asian solidarity in the place of the US alliance. At times, the same people advocate Pacificism and Asianism for different political or strategic purposes. A good example is former prime minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia. Dr Mahathir proposed the East Asia Economic Group, was one of the staunchest propagandists for the existence of Asian values, and stood firm on rejecting Western economic prescriptions during the Asian financial crisis. At the same time, Malaysia took no action during his premiership to withdraw from Pacificist institutions and trade flows, and indeed fostered closer military co-operation with the US, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom than with any Asian state.
Yet another iteration of the dialectic between Pacificism and Asianism is that sometimes the same country discards one and adopts the other for strategic purposes. The best example here is Japan. Between the early 1960s and the late 1990s, Japan peddled a subtle form of Asianism in the form of developmental regionalism. Tokyo’s advocacy of the state-led development model, strategic flows of aid and offshore investment, and its founding and leadership of the ADB were part of a strategy for asserting regional leadership without provoking alarm in others that it was trying to re-establish the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, or US suspicions that it was trying to rescind the alliance or push the US out of Asia. But challenged by China for regional leadership, Japan has become avowedly Pacificist, strengthening its alliance with the US, proposing to turn APEC into a mechanism of regulatory regionalism and championing an expansive model of East Asian regionalism to include South Asia and Australasia.
For Australia and the United States, the Pacificism-Asianism dialectic is not some doctrinal ephemera; both Canberra and Washington perceive real policy interests at stake in each round of diplomatic struggle between their proponents. Both countries interpret Asianism in self-interested terms, as a doctrine that seeks to exclude Australia and the US from the Asian region. For most of the past half-century, both states have reacted with suspicion and alarm to anything they thought was driven by Asianism. Early conferences promoting Afro-Asian solidarity against colonialism and domination by the great powers, such as at Bandung in 1955, were viewed with extreme suspicion in Canberra and Washington, particularly as they developed into a Non-Aligned Movement that was highly critical of Western actions in the Cold War. The US and, to a lesser extent, Australia reacted warily to the precursors of ASEAN and to the first Japanese proposals for the formation of an ADB. It was only when the Johnson administration in Washington accepted that regional solidarity among the region’s non-communist states and the promotion of economic development were useful adjuncts to the containment of communism in the region that the US acquiesced to the creation of ASEAN and the ADB. In the late 1980s, the Bush administration reacted in much the same way to the original Australian proposal for APEC, which was initially proposed only to consist of the countries of the western Pacific. In an interview with me in 1996, Gareth Evans, the Australian foreign minister at the time, recalled in a later interview that the proposal initially aired by prime minister Bob Hawke excluded the US partly out of frustration with its trade diplomacy, and partly because he wanted to build western Pacific co-operation before adding trans-Pacific links. Evans recalled secretary of state James Baker’s anger at the exclusion of the US in their first meeting after Hawke’s initial APEC proposal. Soon after, the APEC proposal was modified to include the US, Canada and Mexico.
In the early 1990s, the Bush administration and the Keating government both reacted with alarm to the proposal for an East Asian Economic Group floated by Malaysian prime minister Mahathir. A period of intense diplomatic lobbying followed, in which US pressure was brought to bear particularly on Japan, to reject the Malaysian proposal. Eventually, the states of East Asia agreed to form a much watered-down East Asian Economic Caucus as a contact group within APEC. Canberra’s anguished response to the creation of the Asia-Europe Meetings process, which included all of the Asian members of Mahathir’s proposed grouping but pointedly excluded Australia, showed how much Australia feared being locked out of the region by Asianist agendas. Then in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, Australia and the United States joined together to oppose a Japanese proposal for the creation of an Asian Monetary Fund, ostensibly because it was thought it would undermine the IMF, but ultimately because it threatened the creation of a Tokyo-led economic bloc.
The duel between Pacificism and Asianism will continue to profoundly shape Australian and US foreign policy, as well as the bilateral relationship between the two countries. Neither doctrine will triumph because neither is intellectually complete. Pacificism attempts to create a region out of the littoral of the world’s largest ocean; Asianism’s implicit concepts of hierarchies of leadership and imitators will only heighten Sino-Japanese rivalry, thereby preventing any meaningful regional unity. But each doctrine will live on because each is strategically useful to its protagonists at any given point in time. The inability of either to become dominant goes a long way towards explaining the chronic weakness of Asia-Pacific institutions.
The Pacificism-Asianism dialectic has introduced a rigidity into Australian and US foreign policies on Asia to an extent that may prove counterproductive in the years ahead. As China rises, and exerts increasingly diplomatic leverage over regional states, their common commitment to promoting Pacificism will serve as a thickening glue for the Australian-American relationship.