Lessons from our diplomacy in Asia in the 1930s

Jan 29, 2021

Scott Morrison says he has been “revisiting” the 1930s, a period in which Australia faced an “existential threat”. The strategies of conservative policy makers of the 1930s are worth examining by today’s leaders so we don’t repeat the disasters of that time. 

Conservative politicians of the 1930s and 1940s appear to have had a clearer view of the need for independent Australian action than they do now. They were wary of over-reliance on a Western ‘powerful friend’ and they accepted the reality that a dynamic Asian power would demand greater elbow room in the global order.

Are we being as realistic today about China’s growing role?

When last July the Prime Minister announced a major upgrade in Australia’s war-fighting capability, he offered a bleak reflection on history. “When you connect both the economic challenges and the global uncertainty, it can be very haunting,” he said.

The Prime Minister is wise to look back. The 1930s evokes powerful images – we endured the Great Depression and witnessed the rise of revisionist powers in Asia and Europe that challenged the global order. It culminated in the calamity of World War Two.

During the pre-War years of the 1930s, Australia was, as now, governed by an electorally successful conservative administration – led then by Joseph Lyons and including such prominent figures as John Latham, Richard Casey and Robert Menzies. Lyons won three successive terms between 1932 and 1939 – the years when Japan emerged to press its claims as Asia’s dominant power.

We know how that ended. But how did our conservative policymakers perceive the strategic environment and act to secure Australian interests? 

Although Australia sought to avoid war, and failed, the way our leaders handled Australia’s international challenges might surprise some in the Coalition today. There was a desire to operate independently in the Pacific – and in its different initiatives the Lyons government reminds us that the conservative side of Australian politics has a serious heritage of positive engagement with the Asian region.

The Lyons government valued Australia’s relationship with its ‘great and powerful friend’ – at that time the UK. The ‘fear of abandonment’ – lying ‘deep in the history of European settlement in Australia’ – was certainly present. There was an anxiety that Britain might become too preoccupied with challenges in Europe to attend to Asian region issues.

There were also fears about entanglement – about Australia being drawn into a European war that it did not favour. Gaining influence over London’s foreign policy was a priority – but often frustrating, even when it concerned Australia’s region of the world. The Lyons government acknowledged that British and Australian interests in Asia differed. Menzies, so famous today for his British sympathies, felt the “British authorities [were] indifferent to the problems of the Far East and in particular to our own vital concerns to maintain friendly relations with Japan”.

The conservatives responded by spending almost twice the amount on defence as a share of GDP as our government delivers today. There also was an insistence that Australia needed a Pacific outlook, or a ‘Pacific Policy’, to use Alfred Deakin’s (some decades earlier). Deakin, who had laid down all “the foundational policies” of the Australian nation, saw that a Pacific outlook required Australia to act independently at times.

In 1934, Lyons caused surprise in Britain when he sent an Australian Eastern Mission to the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and China, as well as to Japan. Lyons explained it was the first “official visit” by Australia to the region. In foreign relations, he said, what mattered was to “understand one another’s point of view”. The government also hoped to expand Australia’s trade with Asia.

Already some 11 per cent of Australian exports were going to Japan – a low figure compared to today’s export levels to China, but it was one factor in Australia’s desire to avoid conflict with Japan. Lyons and others in the conservative elite saw that to avoid war there was a need to make space for a growing Asian power. Lyons argued the need to conciliate Tokyo “before any new alignments solidified into alliances”.

Another independent initiative of Lyons was the ‘Pacific Pact’ – intended to be a pact of “non-aggression and consultation among all the countries of the Pacific”, and one embracing “a general declaration of economic and cultural collaboration”. Lyons and his colleagues lobbied for this with representatives from Japan, China, the Netherlands and France – and with President Roosevelt.

This Pact endeavour qualifies the view that conservative approaches to foreign relations in Australia emphasise ‘power and alliances’ while Labor puts weight on ‘collective security and international institutions’.

This said, the proposal did not gain effective British support – which was one reason the Lyons government decided Australia had to have its own diplomatic presence in the key capitals of the region. The first representatives to the US, Japan and China were the pioneers of Australia’s diplomatic network across the Indo-Pacific.

Lyons, in his commitment to “international co-operation”, referred often to the need to understand the perspectives of others. Conservative politician and diplomat Frederick Eggleston – who had a philosophic interest in cultures or social ‘patterns’ – saw “the East awakening” and noted that British officials were too inward-looking to comprehend this.

A Lyons academic advisor, A.C.V. Melbourne, took a similar approach – suggesting it was crucial for Australian trade officials to establish close relations with “people of Japanese and Chinese race rather than with foreign residents”. Australia, he said, needed to see itself not as European but as a ‘Pacific country’. Eggleston and Melbourne would be horrified to learn of the decline of Asian studies knowledge in Australia today.

We should not draw too literally from history to understand contemporary events. The international rules-based order we have now was then less elaborate. The existence of nuclear weapons affects the calculus of war. Our economies were less deeply enmeshed.

Looking back to conservative approaches in the 1930s, however, we might ask whether we are inclined today to put too much trust in our great Western ally. Apart from enhancing our military capacity, might we also learn from the efforts of the Lyons government to accommodate a rising Asian power? And from the frustrations that government faced?

 This is an edited version of an article published in Asialink Insights.

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