Australia was at war in 1942 when Dr John Burton joined the then Department of External Affairs (DEA) as its first economist. He and others urged Prime Minister John Curtin to establish a Department of Post-war Reconstruction to plan and coordinate Australia’s transition from a wartime to a peacetime economy. It drew on the experience of top public servants, as well as the talents of future luminaries Richard Kirby, Roland Wilson, John Crawford, Finn Crisp, H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, and Burton.
John Burton’s opportunity
Chosen to be Permanent Head—as Secretaries of Departments were then quaintly called—of DEA by the Minister, Dr H. V. Evatt, in 1947, Burton was at thirty-two, the youngest ever Head of the Department. His appointment was an early example of Labor’s penchant for seeking academic talent to fill senior public service positions: others to follow included Nugget Coombs, William Macmahon Ball, Stephen FitzGerald, Peter Wilenski, Stuart Harris, Burton’s daughter Meredith Edwards, and most recently Glyn Davis.
The work of the Post-war Reconstruction Commission had many admirers, but they did not include Burton. The Commission, he complained, did not ask why the war had taken place or head off causes of future wars: it merely sought to restore the status quo ante. In his view, what it reconstructed was the past, and the change of government in Australia in 1949 ‘led back to business as usual’. For a few years, before ANZUS and the Korean War, Australia had an opportunity to unilaterally develop relations with newly independent Asian countries. But after the 1940s came the Cold War, and as for new directions in Australian policy, Burton recalled, ‘there weren’t any’.
Even in the late 1990s, Burton thought Australians had still not properly engaged with Asia. Hawke, Keating and Rudd tried, but not until 2012 did Ken Henry’s initiative, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, call for the same thing. Unfunded, it was buried by subsequent governments, and as Professor James Curran has recently described, another decade of Asia-neglect and Cold War orthodoxy set in. Curran advises Canberra, where a new Prime Minister has promised not to politicise national security, to refocus on Asia, and to assert Australia’s interests in its undertakings to Washington.
Codes for new nations
When the postwar window of opportunity opened, newly independent nations drew up codes for themselves and shared them with their neighbours. Australia didn’t join them, much as Burton would have liked to. In November 1945, Indonesia’s President Sukarno proposed five principles for the new Indonesia:
- Ketuhanan yang Maha Esa (Belief in One God)
- Kemanusiaan yang adil dan beradab (Just and civilised humanity)
- Persatuan Indonesia (The unity of Indonesia)
- Kerakyatan yang dipimpin oleh hikmat kebijaksanaan dalam permusyawaratan/perwakilan (Democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives)
- Keadilan sosial bagi seluruh rakyat Indonesia (Social justice for all of the people of Indonesia).
Sukarno’s successor, President Suharto, later delivered a different version, listing rejection of poverty, backwardness, conflicts, exploitation, capitalism, feudalism, dictatorship, colonialism, and imperialism.
At the Geneva conference in 1954 following the French Indochina war, India’s Prime Minister J.N. Nehru was able to discuss independence face to face with China’s Premier Zhou Enlai. They agreed on five principles—Panch Shila—for non-aligned countries. These were:
- Mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty
- Mutual non-aggression
- Mutual non-interference in internal affairs
- Equality and mutual benefit
- Peaceful co-existence.
The People’s Republic of China was only five years old. Its Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence were announced in 1955 and were included in its Constitution. Beijing says that the Five Principles remain the cornerstone of China’s independent foreign policy of peace.
Even before India’s independence, Nehru was preparing to take advantage of the postwar opportunity. He commissioned the Indian Institute of International Affairs to hold an International Asian Relations conference in New Delhi in 1947, to which Australia—the first country with which India had established diplomatic relations—was invited. Burton sent observers from the Australian Institutes of International Affairs and of Political Science, but not officials, mainly to avoid criticism of the White Australia Policy. Next, Nehru called another conference of African and Asian ministers for January 1949 and invited Evatt, who was travelling by sea from London to Australia (he feared flying). Burton went in his place, with his wife Cecily.
Presumptuously, Burton sent Nehru his suggestions for the conference program. But more reasoned argument, common sense, and honest purpose were evident than Burton had expected among the representatives of small and middle-sized nations. Having been working directly with Chifley to foster Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonial rule, and with Evatt to develop a new approach to Asia based on the UN Charter, Burton advanced these policies to good effect at the conference. But the consensus was that Australia was different, never having struggled for independence. It was mutual: Australia wasn’t yet close to Asian countries either. ‘It was a tremendous challenge to Australian thinking’, Burton recalled.
Working in 1950 under Evatt’s successor, Percy Spender, Burton went to another conference at Baguio in the Philippines at which Australia was the only ‘non-Asian’ country represented, joining Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Thailand. Anti-Communism, rather than non-alignment, dominated the Philippines agenda. This was a time when independence movements in colonised countries were branded ‘communist’ by Western governments, and Britain was anticipating an anti-communist war with Indonesia. The CIA, Burton later wrote, didn’t understand that nations which sought independence wouldn’t align themselves with communist ones either. Having had difficulty attracting Evatt to Asia, he encouraged Spender to focus Australian policy on Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and to establish the Colombo Plan.
Bandung and the NAM
Of the twenty-nine countries represented at the Asian–African nations conference hosted by Sukarno in Bandung in April 1955, only six had been independent a decade earlier. The conference was convened by Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, and Burma (Myanmar), and it led in 1961 to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). When Sukarno invited Australia to the conference, the Menzies Liberal government declined. But Burton—out of government employment by then—Professor C. P. Fitzgerald, and KCO (Mick) Shann from DEA attended as observers. Cecily Burton went too, attended most sessions, and wrote records. Nehru advised Australia to draw closer to Asia, and Burton took the opportunity to ask Indonesia not to overlook Australian participation in future conferences on the grounds that Australia was not racially Asian or African.
At Bandung’s Dasasila Building, ten principles were unanimously adopted. These were expanded from the Panch Shila on which Nehru and Zhou had agreed the year before. Inscribed on the wall outside the conference venue, the principles testified to the ‘spirit of Bandung’. From the US, John Foster Dulles said that the Bandung communiqué was ‘a document which we ourselves could subscribe to’. Similar statements would later appear in the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 1976, which Australia ratified, as did China and later the US. The Bandung principles could be summarised as:
- Respect for human rights, for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, for the right of self-defence in conformity with the UN Charter, and for justice and international obligations;
- Abstention from intervention in other nations’ internal affairs, from threats or acts of aggression or use of force, from serving the defence interests of great powers, and from exerting pressure on other countries; and
- Peaceful settlement of disputes, and promotion of mutual interests and cooperation.
In turn, Evatt devised three categories of foreign policy interests for Australia: realist/power, nationalist/internationalist, and regional. An incoherent mix of adjectives and nouns—as APEC later was—these were hardly going to resonate in independent Asia. In 2008, Kevin Rudd’s three pillars were similar, and equally unsurprising: engagement with the UN, with Asia, and with the US Alliance. Anthony Albanese has repeated them, in reverse order, but has renamed our regions of interest ‘the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific’. The Lowy Institute’s Executive Director used the same formula in June for Australia’s relations with the global ally, international institutions, and countries of Asia and the Pacific. But none of these geo-descriptive triplets amounted to a set of principles, and none has been inspirational. None is a statement of non-alignment.
Recognition of the PRC was a central issue at Bandung. Premier Zhou sought to build consensus between China and the nations represented, to emphasise agreement over difference, and to negotiate with them to achieve agreement on a ‘third way’ for African and Asian countries, independent of the then two super-powers, the US and USSR. Early in 1955, Nationalist China in Taiwan and Communist China on the mainland had clashed over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, held by the Nationalists, and Zhou’s diplomacy at Bandung helped to avoid war. So, possibly, did Menzies’s timely advice to the US that Australia would not join it in war over the issue.
The NAM grew to become an influential force. By 1992, when Suharto held a Summit in Jakarta, many of the nations present no longer opposed non-alignment as they had in 1955. This was followed by the establishment of the Group of 77 (G77) in 1964. These two multilateral groupings, one political (NAM), the other economic (G77), have enabled developing countries as a group, despite their differences, to articulate their views in the United Nations and other international arenas, and to promote unity and solidarity across the developing world. Recently, influential sub-groups of independent nations have formed, such as the BRICS, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The Eurasian Union, a response to the EU, includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and observer members Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Cuba, and may soon add ASEAN. China’s Belt and Road Initiative extends across West Asia and into Africa, and its Shanghai Consensus advances China’s interests in the territories of its member states. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo will host the G20 in November 2022, but Indonesia, true to its non-aligned principles, has not taken sides over the war in Ukraine.
Although Australia helped found APEC and supports RCEP, the TPP and its successor the CPTPP, these are economic and trade-based bodies with broad membership beyond the region. If Australia’s opportunity to join the non-aligned nations faltered with the ANZUS Treaty in 1952, it died at Bandung. The US response to the NAM was the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), an imitation of NATO, with Australia and New Zealand among its members. Several Southeast Asian nations rejected SEATO, leaving only Pakistan, Thailand, and the Philippines as Asian members, and after the Vietnam War the organisation had little purpose or credibility. It was dissolved in 1977. Now a successor ‘Asian NATO’ is said to be a possibility, exchanging China for Russia as NATO’s enemy.
Left with only the ASEAN 3+3 and the East Asia Summit as Asian regional groups in which Australia could participate without being overshadowed by its American ally, Kevin Rudd in 2009 threw that away by proposing an Asia-Pacific Community which was to include the United States. The ASEANs—from whom he failed to secure agreement in advance—found a compromise solution to that by inviting Russia to join the East Asia Forum.
Same issues, same unfinished business
At every opportunity for independence since 1901, Australia has faltered. Burton considered in retrospect that Australia under Labor could have persuaded Indonesia to give its diverse communities status in a federation, and history’s course would have changed. American and Australian interventions in Korea, Malaysia and Vietnam would not have happened, he supposed, and the US wouldn’t have supported a military government under Suharto. But for decades, both major parties in Australia put short-term interests and economic concerns ahead of harmonious relations with the region. ‘I don’t think the Australian people have really come to terms with the fact that Australia is in Asia’, Burton said. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was an ‘intelligence and trading department lacking any discernible foreign policy’. He even recommended in 1997 that DFAT, which had 4000 staff, should be reduced to ‘50 or so’ diplomats plus consular officials and support personnel.
Now is a time when, Curran says, diplomacy is destiny—a time to see the world differently. It is seven decades since John Burton took out his metaphorical telescope in Canberra and saw Australia sharing a region with India, Indonesia, China, and other Asian countries. Since then, the independent direction he wanted us to take in Asia has been endorsed by many Australians, and by some political leaders. But for every enthusiast we have a sceptic, and a leader who proposes independent Asian engagement is soon displaced by one who prefers the British monarchy or the American alliance, or both. Australian citizens who seek peaceful coexistence and the rule of international law are confronted by those who advocate the US-devised ‘international rules-based order’ and expect its military enforcement. Prime Minister Albanese refuses to ‘politicise national security’, so bipartisan foreign and defence policies persist. The opportunity has already been missed, and once again, as Professor White warns, we sleepwalk towards war.
In their 2022 book, Pam Burton and Meredith Edwards give us a comprehensive portrait of their parents. Both Cecily and John Burton were complex, intelligent people, from Methodist upbringings. John was a perpetually active man with a talent for attracting admirers and acolytes into his orbit: ‘Planet John’. He learned from his missionary father how to convert others to his views, and he also observed that improving people’s lives was more important than saving their souls. John recalled the sharing of ideas in his parents’ household, where guests frequently came from South Pacific countries. Both he and Cecily were ahead of their white, Anglocentric times. It would be a fitting tribute to them if Australia devised a five-point code for peaceful coexistence in our international and regional relations. It would probably be much like China’s. The leaders of both countries could perhaps exchange their codes when they are back on speaking terms and agree to abide by them.
 John Burton, ‘Indonesia: Unfinished Diplomacy’, in John Legge, ed., New Directions in Australian Foreign Policy: Australia and Indonesia 1945–50, Melbourne: Monash Asia Institute, 1977, pp. 33–51.
 James Curran, ‘It’s back to diplomacy as destiny’, Pearls & Irritations, 31 May 2022, https://johnmenadue.com/its-back-to-diplomacy-as-destiny/.
 Suharto, G Dwipayana and KH Ramadhan, Soeharto: My Thoughts, Words, and Deeds: An Autobiography, Jakarta: Citra Lamtoro Gung Persada, 1989, p. 194.
 Christopher Waters, ‘Lost Opportunity: Australia and the Bandung Conference’, in Antonia Finnane and Derek McDougall, eds., Bandung 1955: Little Histories, Caulfield: Monash University Press, 2010, pp. 75–87.
 Burton in Legge, 1997, pp. 33–51.
 Garry Woodard, ‘Restrengthening Through Adversity: Australian-Indonesian Relations During Confrontation’, in Legge, 1997, pp., 100–10.
 Burton in Legge, 1997, pp. 32–51.
 Australia-China Society, The Facts of the Bandung Conference, 1955.
 Waters in Finnane and McDougall, 2010.
 Pam Burton and Meredith Edwards, Persons of Interest: An Intimate Account of Cecily and John Burton, Canberra: ANU Press, 2022, p. 229.
 JAC Mackie, ‘The Bandung Conference and Afro-Asian Solidarity’, in Finnane and McDougall, 2010, pp. 9–26.
 McDougall, ‘Afterword’, in Finnane and McDougall, 2010, pp. 131–9.
 In Troy Bramston, ‘Labor’s Challenge in Chagnign Climate’, The Weekend Australian, 25–26 June 2022, pp. 15, 18.
 Michael Fullilove, ‘Height, width and depth of a balanced foreign policy’, The Australian, 22 June 2022, p. 11.
 Mackie in Finnane and McDougall, pp. 9–26.
 Pepe Escobar, ‘St Petersburg sets the stage for the war of economic corridors’, The Cradle, https://thecradle.co/Article/columns/11928.
 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
 Waters in Finnane and McDougall, pp. 79–87.
 Burton in Legge, 1997, pp. 33–51.
 Curran, ‘Diplomacy as destiny’, 2022.
 Hugh White, ‘Sleepwalk to War: Australia’s Unthinking Alliance with America’, Quarterly Essay 86, 2022.
 Burton and Edwards, Persons of Interest.
 Burton, ‘Indonesia: Unfinished Diplomacy’, pp. 33–51.