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Facing Asia

Facing Asia: A History of the Colombo Plan OPEN ACCESS

Daniel Oakman
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: ANU Press
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    Facing Asia
    Book Description:

    'No nation can escape its geography', warned Percy Spender, Australia's Minister for External Affairs, in 1950. With the immediate turmoil of World War II over, communism and decolonisation had ended any possibility that Asia could continue to be ignored by Australia. In the early 1950s, Australia embarked on its most ambitious attempt to engage with Asia: the Colombo Plan. This book examines the public and private agendas behind Australia's foreign aid diplomacy and reveals the strategic, political and cultural aims that drove the Colombo Plan. It examines the legacy of WWII, how foreign aid was seen as crucial to achieving regional security, how the plan was sold to Australian and Asian audiences, and the changing nature of Australia's relationship with Britain and the United States. Above all this is the question of how Australia sought to project itself into the region, and how Asia was introduced into the Australian consciousness. In answering these questions, this book tells the story of how an insular society, deeply scarred by the turbulence of war, chose to face its regional future.

    eISBN: 978-1-921666-93-3
    Subjects: Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. For most of their history, Australians have seen themselves as a beleaguered white outpost of the British Empire, perched precariously between the hordes of Asia and the edge of the world. They looked north with a mixture of ignorance, wonder and fear, and always through the prism of imperial design and racism. But by the middle of the 20th century the turmoil of the Second World War, communism and decolonisation had ended any possibility that the region could be ignored. ‘No nation can escape its geography’, warned Percy Spender, Australia’s Minister for External Affairs, in 1950, ‘that is an axiom...

  2. The decaying gun emplacements dotted around Australia’s coast stand as an epitaph to an idea once central to Australian civilisation: that freedom and security were best preserved by building physical barriers and deterrents against a hostile world. ‘We live in an unstable era’, warned founding father and future Prime Minister Alfred Deakin in 1888, ‘from the far east and the far west alike we behold menaces and contagion’.¹ Safe behind their defences, Australians populated and cultivated their continent largely unfettered by outsiders who, many believed, looked rapaciously at an empty, undeveloped country. Indeed, hard work and the fruitful exploitation of...

  3. In Colombo, on the morning of 9 January 1950, a small crowd gathered to catch a glimpse of representatives arriving for the conference. Delegates posed for a publicity photograph in the gardens opposite the Senate building, unperturbed by a recent theft of explosives and threats to disrupt the meeting. Ceylon’s first Prime Minister and conference chairman, the affable Don Stephen Senanayake, moved proudly among the representatives from eight nations and smiled through his magnificent drooping moustache. He knew that the Colombo conference would make headlines and that Ceylon would, at least briefly, be in the world spotlight. To ensure maximum...

  4. ‘Hungry people are dangerous people’, exclaimed the Melbourne correspondent for the Eastern World journal, ‘the East keeps clamouring for rice and more rice and the bullock cart and the wooden plough are poor instruments in breaking up virgin land quickly enough to supply the need — only the bulldozer and the tractor plough can hope to win in this race for food’.¹ The remedy for socio-political instability in Asia seemed profoundly simple: if the people were hungry and restive then feed them, or at least provide the technology for them to do so themselves. ‘The key to the political problem...

  5. Richard Casey struggled throughout his career to generate interest in Asia and in Australia’s foreign aid program. In 1954 he lamented in his diary that Australians were ‘living in a fool’s paradise of ignorance about the East’. ‘Most people’, he continued, ‘are hostile to the UN — hostile to the Colombo Plan — and unsympathetic with Asia’.¹ Strict export restrictions and the Treasury department’s reluctance to look beyond domestic economic concerns were constant thorns in Casey’s side. But the essence of the problem, as he explained to diplomat Walter Crocker, was that his colleagues simply saw ‘no immediate material advantage’...

  6. In 1953, a group of recently-arrived Indonesian Colombo Plan scholars waited for a tram to take them into central Sydney. Among them was Sumadi, later to become a senior official in the Indonesian Department of Information: ‘Everybody looked at us, everybody stared. We all joked among ourselves, “No matter how much we dress up we still [felt like we were at] Taronga Zoo … they consider us the orang-utan.” Everybody always stare … and we felt there must be something wrong with us. Then we realised that maybe because at that time not many Australians have ever come face to...

  7. The immediate and unexpected success of the student program in Australia threatened to overshadow the Colombo Plan’s primary objective: the reduction of poverty in Asia. Simmering beneath the government’s carefully manufactured publicity were deep-seated problems with aid management, the use of Australian projects, and the complexities of international trade. By the mid-1950s, much of the early optimism for the Colombo Plan — arising partly from the sheer novelty and boldness of the program — had faded, and a more searching and penetrating body of opinion began to emerge. The renowned journalist and interpreter of Asia, Peter Russo, accused aid donors...

  8. Since the Second World War a pervasive uncertainty about Australia’s regional presence has spread across the political landscape. True, that anxiety had been there since settlement, but the experience of war and its aftermath intensified national ambivalence towards the region. A monolithic ‘Asia’ emerged as Australia’s northern frontier, a place whence future enemies might come, but a place most knew needed to be more deeply understood. Paul Carter, in his history of Australian settlement, The road to Botany Bay, argued that the notion of the frontier as a barrier, a ‘one-sided, unified line of defence or attack’, was of limited...

  9. 9. EPILOGUE (pp. 280-284)

    The Colombo Plan still operates and is one of the longest running aid programs in the world. Yet awareness of the Plan has diminished, largely because its main functions have slowly been eclipsed by the multitude of cooperative forums that have emerged since the Second World War. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ECAP), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and regional groupings such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have all diverted attention, and finance, from the Colombo Plan. Greater prosperity...