Assured Prevention over Assumed Protection: How Regional Development can Secure Australia better than an Uneven Alliance


by Lachlan Strauch


Executive Summary

  • In April 2012, a group of 200 American soldiers landed in Darwin to begin a joint training program with the Australian Army. This number will increase to 2500 by 2017 and is a new step for the US-Australian alliance.
  • Permanently stationing American troops on Australian soil will prove detrimental to Australia’s standing in Asia because it will give the impression that we view the region as hostile.
  • The Australian government is intent on securing extra US military support, despite the fact that it does not guarantee Australia’s security.
  • This article proposes that the Australian government should not prioritise its alliance with the United States as a means to maintain its security. Instead, Canberra should emphasise aiding development in the region because regional development will help to stabilise the region.
  • The Australian government should revisit the objectives of the Colombo Plan, which it helped to create in 1950. The Colombo Plan was a model for a mutually-beneficial exchange of resources, training, and support with and among the developing nations in South and South East Asia.
  • By aiding development and spreading goodwill throughout the region, Australia created a more stable and pro-Australian region. Adopting a similar approach in the twenty-first century would suit Australia’s security needs far more than maintaining its close alliance with the United States.


In April 2012, some 200 American troops landed in Darwin signalling the beginning of a new initiative for the US-Australian alliance. This number will increase to 2500 soldiers by 2017. These soldiers will take part in joint training exercises with the Australian Army and increase the American presence in the region. Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith heralds the move as a great step for the US-Australian alliance, cementing a sixty year old security partnership between the two countries into the future. He said that it would be a ‘force for peace, for security, for stability and for prosperity’. Whilst government rhetoric would have the Australian people believe that this is a mutually-beneficial move for both nations, actually it can be seen as Australia conceding some of its national sovereignty in the name of the ANZUS alliance.

The decision by the Australian government to allow US troops to be permanently based in Australia is a first for the alliance, mostly because Australia has never needed — and, really, still doesn’t need — them to be here. Despite common fear of the ‘yellow peril’ throughout the twentieth century, Australia never has been in serious danger of invasion from an outside power since World War II. Furthermore, Australia does not have any natural enemies or a valid reason to believe that it will be in danger of invasion in the near future. Why, then, would Canberra place so much emphasis on this alliance? This act of allowing American troops to be permanently stationed in Australia shows that the federal government still views Asia as a hostile region and that Australia needs a ‘great and powerful friend’ to protect it from its neighbours. This also can be seen by some Asian states as a move that shows Australia’s lack of interest in engaging the region, instead opting to gain protection from them. Moreover, it has been viewed by China as a furthering of the American ‘containment’ strategy that follows the idea that Washington is trying to limit China’s rise in the Pacific. Combined, these factors can limit Australia’s influence in the region as it is seen to be subordinate to the United States.

This is not the only time, however, Australia can be seen to be pandering to its American allies’ desires. Australia has shown that it will do whatever it takes to secure American protection, despite the consequences. It has been widely documented that Canberra’s public support for Washington in most of its foreign policies is damaging to its reputation in Asia. Australian involvement in the 2003 Iraq War was a prime example of this. The war was not backed by the UN Security Council and, therefore, technically was illegal in the international system under the UN Charter. The fact that no weapons of mass destruction were found — the original mandate for intervention — was very detrimental to future American foreign policy objectives. Australia’s very public support for the war meant that it was guilty by association and the act was widely condemned across Asia.

Apart from the harsh political criticism that Australia has taken in the name of the ANZUS alliance, it also has had to pay for it with blood. According to the Australian War Memorial website, there have been 38 soldiers killed serving in the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan and another 2 in Iraq. Hundreds of others have suffered wounds, injuries, and mental health issues. This has been the toll of fighting in wars on the other side of the world with no actual bearing on Australia’s security or foreign policy objectives. Canberra has accepted these casualties as a necessary means to secure American assistance in the event of an attack on Australia. The ANZUS Treaty, however, contains no such guarantee of assistance. On the insistence of the Americans during the formation of the treaty, it encourages military assistance in the event of an invasion on either party, but does not compel either side to do so. Therefore in the unlikely event of an invasion on Australia, US support will only be gained if it is militarily viable or strategically important for their interests. This is a problem for Australia because, as the British showed in World War II, national interests will always take precedence over that of an ally, no matter how strong the bond. The supposedly ‘infallible’ Singapore Strategy — Britain’s plan for the protection of Australia in World War II — fell apart because its naval resources were pulled back for the defence of Britain, leaving Australia vulnerable. There is no reason to believe that the United States will defend Australia if American soil is under attack.

Despite the problems with the ANZUS treaty and Canberra’s willingness to follow Washington around the globe, it is not the intention of this author to argue wholeheartedly that Australia should not have an alliance with the United States. In the past it unquestionably has been useful for Australia to have the largest power in the world on its side. Currently, however, the political and military costs of maintaining its position as the White House’s most loyal (or subservient) ally have become greater than what is expected in return. Instead of forever attempting to please the United States in order to secure Australia, it would be more beneficial to spend Australia’s time and resources on making Asia, and South East Asia in particular, a place it does not need protection from.

The best way to better secure Australia in the region is to concentrate on promoting regional development and creating political stability in Australia’s near north. Whereas Australia is a highly developed first-world country, it is surrounded by some of the poorest nations in the world. Countries such as Papua New Guinea, Myanmar, Fiji, Indonesia and many other island and mainland nations in the Pacific region suffer from extreme underdevelopment and poverty. Such problems contribute to higher political unrest and, by extension, possible contempt for their first-world neighbour. It is therefore in Australia’s best interests to facilitate development in these states as a way to encourage stability, because a stable region equates to a more secure and peaceful region. It is also important that Australia is perceived by its Asian neighbours as friendly and helpful. This will help to remedy Australia’s damaged reputation caused by years of antagonistic foreign policies.

The Australian government should take a look back at an international agreement that it was instrumental in creating over sixty years ago: the Colombo Plan, which advanced cooperative economic and social development in Asia and the Pacific. The Plan was formally created in 1950 in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), during a meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers. The founding countries were Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. This since has been extended to include up to 27 nations in the mainland Asia and Asia-Pacific regions. It encouraged the formation of bilateral partnerships between member states which would mainly be in the form of aid and technology transfers. The idea behind this was that the developed countries such as Australia, the UK, and later the United States would supply the poorer countries with the means to develop infrastructure and training facilities. In turn, this would equip the poorer nations with the skills and resources to hasten their own development. It also will enable them to assist in the development of other countries. As has been explained already, the idea was that a more highly developed region would lead to better political stability and therefore a more secure region.

Another major aspect of the Colombo Plan has been the sponsoring of thousands of Asian students to study in Australia’s tertiary institutes, technical schools, secondary schools, and primary schools. This encouraged many Asian students to visit Australia and gain the education needed to further industrialise their home nations. It also aimed at creating pro-Australian elites in those nations because the students could gain an appreciation of Australian society and therefore this would translate into support of Australian policies in Asia.

One notable point is that the Colombo Plan was created at a time when fear of communism spreading through Asia was in the forefront of foreign policy decisions. Therefore, forging positive political and economic links within non-communist Asia was a very important aspect of the Plan. In order to better gain security for Australia, their policy was to spread goodwill and assist development in the region. Although the communist threat is virtually non-existent today, regional engagement and a no-strings-attached assistance policy is one that the current government could pursue instead of further developing an alliance that is proving detrimental to Australia’s regional influence.

Evidence reveals that the Colombo Plan achieved a major success in its goal of improving diplomatic and commercial relations within Asia. Beforehand, Australia had little interest in engaging with its near-north neighbours in anything besides trade. The Colombo Plan encouraged cooperation and exposure to other cultures and people. This was one of the major successes of the Plan. The technical cooperation scheme also was a successful initiative of the policies associated with the Colombo Plan. It was an integral part of the Plan since its inception and it involved the exchange of technical assistance between member countries. The scheme was useful for the building of infrastructure, for instance, and providing the training and expertise that then meant the local population could maintain itself. The Australian government sent experts to India to build railways and provided free training to others so they could then continue to develop their own transportation sector. More importantly, the free training provided to these people was then reciprocated by them in other developing nations and therefore the Plan had become a model for mutual help. This is a policy that the Australian government should continue to pursue in its future engagement with and integration into Asia.

The operation of these national policies assisted by the Colombo Plan resulted in significant progress within the region. Especially over the first 20 years, there was a large growth in national incomes, increased food production, and better production of cash crops in the recipient countries. It also facilitated a shift towards an industrial bias instead of the more traditional agricultural-centric economies of those nations. The Plan also contributed to a better understanding of other people’s cultures and helped Australia to shake some (but not all) of its reputation as a racist country during its White Australia Policy period. It was beneficial, then, for Australia’s integration into Asia that was led by the goodwill it spread through the policies associated with the Colombo Plan. Instead of distancing itself from Asia — something that stationing American troops in Darwin will do — foreign ministers such as Percy Spender succeeded in improving diplomatic and commercial relations with Asia simply by the spread of mutual assistance policies.

The Colombo Plan still is in existence today, albeit in a much less significant form. The purpose of this article is to show that the Australian government should emphasise policies that reflect the policies that were in effect mostly during the first twenty years of the Plan. This was the time when it was most effective in developing the region and it displays a model that the current government can adopt to promote development and therefore stability for its neighbouring countries.

For the time being, however, the federal government appears entrenched in its idea that the Washington-Canberra alliance under the ANZUS Treaty is the best way forward for Australia’s security. The recent posting of American troops on Australian soil signals to Asia that Australia views it as a hostile region from which it needs protection. Pandering to the United States in the hope of gaining protection in the event of hostilities, furthermore, Australia has made itself vulnerable to criticism of the independence of its foreign policies. This is damaging to Australia’s influence in the region and also cements Australia’s place as ‘the other’. It would better suit Australia’s security needs to follow policies that aim at making the region more stable and prevent conflict on its doorstep. The government should take heed of the Colombo Plan, which itself played an integral role in its foundation. Canberra needs to stop spending so much of its resources into securing its ‘great and powerful friend’. Instead, it should pursue a more independent policy that promotes the spread of mutual assistance throughout Asia and gives the perception of Australia as a good neighbour once again. This would better protect Australia than the one-way alliance that it holds with the United States.



Selected further reading:

Auletta, Alex, ‘The Colombo Plan & the development of Australian education’, in Sauer, Geoffrey (ed), The Colombo Plan for cooperative economic development in South and South East Asia 1951-2001: the Malaysian-Australian perspective, Australian Malaysia Cultural Foundation, Adelaide, 2001, pp. 7-11.

Auletta, Alex, ‘A Retrospective View of the Colombo Plan: government policy, departmental administration and overseas students’, Journal of Higher Education Policy & Management, Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, pp. 47-58.

Beeson, Mark, ‘American Hegemony: The View from Australia’, SAIS Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, 2003, pp. 113-131.

Flitton, Daniel, ‘US troops in Darwin’, National Times, 4 April 2012, The Age, http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/us-troops-in-darwin-20120403-1waug.html

Lowe, David, Colombo Plan: An initiative that brought Australia and Asia closer, 17 October 2011, retrieved 8 October 2012, http://theconversation.edu.au/colombo-plan-an-initiative-that-brought-australia-and-asia-closer-3590

McDougall, Derek, Australian Foreign Relations, Pearson, NSW, 2009.

Megarrity, Lyndon, ‘Regional Goodwill, Sensibly Priced’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 38, no. 129, 2007, pp. 88-105.

Reynolds, Wayne, ‘Beyond White Australia’, International Journal of Learning, Vol. 13, No. 3, 2006, pp. 7-14.

SBS World News Australia, ‘US Military in Darwin to be a ‘force for peace’’, SBS World News Australia, 4 April 2012, retrieved 8 October 2012, http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1639921/US-military-in-Darwin-to-be-a-force-for-peace

Snyder, Craig, ‘Southeast Asian Perceptions of Australia’s Foreign Policy’, Contemporary Southeast Asia: A journal of International &Strategic Affairs, Vol. 28, No. 2, 2006, pp. 322-340.

Spender, Percy, Exercises in Diplomacy: The ANZUS Treaty and the Colombo Plan, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1969.

The Colombo Plan Secretariat, History, retrieved on 8 October 2012, http://www.colombo-plan.org/index.php/about-cps/history/

The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, Australia’s part in the Colombo Plan: Progress report to 31st December, 1961, Commonwealth Government printer, Canberra, 1962.

© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Lachlan Strauch, Assured Prevention over Assumed Protection: How Regional Development can Secure Australia better than an Uneven Alliance. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/assured-prevention

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