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Australia and North–South Political Relations

Derek McDougall

To cite this article: Derek McDougall (2011) Australia and North–South Political Relations, The
Round Table, 100:415, 361-374, DOI: 10.1080/00358533.2011.595251

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The Round Table
Vol. 100, No. 415, 361–374, August 2011

Australia and North–South Political

University of Melbourne, Australia

ABSTRACT North–South issues as such do not figure prominently in Australia’s international

policy but are mostly implicit. These issues arise particularly in the context of Australia’s
relations with countries in its immediate vicinity, including the South Pacific, Indonesia and East
Timor. There are also some global issues in the North–South context where Australia is affected.
Australian governments, in developing policies relating to this context, have been influenced by a
‘practical realism’ that puts first priority on Australian interests as perceived by governments at
any given time. The way in which those policies have been developed, in both the regional and the
global contexts, can be assessed through an examination of issues relating to security and
international economic relations. Australia’s alliance relationship has a strong bearing on the way
Australia approaches the security issues. In relation to international economic issues there are
many commonalities with fellow producers of raw materials in the Global South.

KEY WORDS: Australia, Global South, international alignments, international security,

realism, international economic relations, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Non-
aligned Movement, Group of 77, Valdivia Group, World Trade Organisation, Asia-Pacific

In the study of international politics the use of the term ‘Global South’ has become
increasingly popular.1 Other terms that have been and are still being used are
‘developing countries’ and ‘Third World’. All of these terms are open to criticism.
The term ‘developing’ makes assumptions about the meaning of development, which
in turn is open to debate. ‘Third World’ was originally applied to those countries that
were not part of either the Western (first) world or the Communist (second) world.
Global South is more geographically based, referring to the position of Africa, Asia
and Latin America in relation to North America, Europe and Japan (although
Australia and New Zealand, southern in location, are usually grouped with the
North). All of these terms can be criticised on the grounds that they simplify too
much. There is much diversity within each group, whatever term one uses. ‘Global
South’ appears to be the most neutral and relevant of these terms: it does not make

Correspondence Address: Associate Professor Derek McDougall, School of Social and Political Sciences,
University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia. Email:

ISSN 0035-8533 Print/1474-029X Online/11/040361-14 Ó 2011 The Round Table Ltd

DOI: 10.1080/00358533.2011.595251
362 D. McDougall

assumptions about the meaning of development, nor is it limited by an association

with Cold War divisions (as is the case with Third World). Global South does make
some geographical sense, while also including those countries where per capita
incomes range from low to middling in world terms. At the same time one needs to
keep in mind that certain countries usually seen as part of the Global South are
becoming increasingly significant in terms of their economic strength (measured by
gross domestic product). China is the most obvious case in point (although China’s
identification with the Global South can be ambiguous), but India and Brazil are
also significant in this respect.
If we accept that the Global South is important as a broad grouping in
international politics, then it is important to examine the way in which Australia2
relates to that grouping. This involves assessing the way in which Australia relates to
international politics in terms of those issues where the Global South is significant.
As indicated previously, the geographical definition of the Global South requires
qualification in relation to the location of Australia and New Zealand. These two
countries (and perhaps Australia even more so) are unusual in being located within
or adjoining a Global South context. This means that issues that might be important
for Australia in relation to the Global South at a global level can also have an
important regional focus. Here it is argued that this regional dimension has
contributed to a strong realist dimension in the way Australia approaches issues
relating to the Global South. ‘Realism’ is used in this context as essentially
synonymous with pragmatism, rather than deriving from its use in international
theory (classical realism or neo-realism). Although the Australian approach
emphasises the importance of ‘national interests’, this focus can be pursued through
various means, frequently institutional but involving military measures in some
situations.3 Despite the emphasis on realism as defined here, Australian policy
towards the Global South can at times have a more explicitly moral or humanitarian
emphasis, perhaps best exemplified in the use of the term ‘good international
citizenship’ by Gareth Evans (Australian Foreign Minister, 1988–96) (Evans, 1990).
There has been a perception that Australia’s position means that its interests are very
directly affected by both its regional location and its relative isolation in world terms.
The emphasis has been on the pursuit of ‘practical’ measures to deal with relevant
situations relating to regional countries and those issues at the global level that
directly impinge on Australia’s interests.
The realist approach applies to both the conservative Coalition and Labor parties,
although perhaps more strongly in the former case. The institutional and moral
dimensions receive more attention with Labor, but realism as defined here remains a
strong emphasis. In the National Interest (1997) and Advancing the National Interest
(2003), the titles of the two major reports on foreign policy under the previous
Coalition government, are indicative of the Coalition’s realist approach (Australia,
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1997, 2003). The post-2007 Labor
government did not issue a foreign policy report as such, but the article on foreign
policy by then opposition leader Kevin Rudd in February 2007 (Rudd, 2007) was
primarily realist; the greater emphasis on the United Nations (UN) was essentially
for strategic reasons but also indicated some emphasis on the moral dimension in
Labor foreign policy.4 Interestingly, neither the Coalition foreign policy reports nor
Rudd’s article put a major emphasis on North–South issues as such. For a major
Australia and North–South Political Relations 363

Australian report specifically emphasising North–South issues, one would have to go

back to Australia and the Third World, issued by the Fraser Coalition government in
1979; this report was primarily realist (Australia, Committee on Australia’s
Relations with the Third World, 1979).5
In discussing Australia’s position in relation to North–South political relations,
the focus in the first instance will be on how Australia is positioned politically in
terms of contemporary world politics, with particular reference to the strategies it
employs to protect and advance its position. These issues will then be taken up in
relation to security broadly defined and the politics of international economic
relations. Specific issues such as trade policy, development assistance, people
movements, human rights and climate change are taken up in other papers. In
relation to security and international economic relations, it will be argued that
Australia’s position in relation to the Global South involves both global and regional
dimensions. There can also be some issues relating to regions of the Global South
outside East Asia and the Asia-Pacific more broadly where Australia is involved;
these regions include South Asia, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Africa and
Latin America. For each of the broad areas of Australian involvement in North–
South political relations, some comparison between the Coalition (Howard
government, 1996–2007, and the current opposition) and Labor (Rudd government,
November 2007–June 2010; Gillard government, June–August 2010; Gillard
minority government, September 2010 onwards) can be instructive. Both the Coali-
tion and Labor have been and are primarily realist in their approach to the issues
under discussion, although the Labor approach can be modified to some extent by
ideas of ‘good international citizenship’.

Australia’s Position in Relation to World Politics

To appreciate the Australian approach to North–South political relations, it is
helpful to review Australia’s position in world politics and the general strategies it
employs in that context. The Commonwealth of Australia was established as a self-
governing dominion within the British Empire in 1901; six self-governing colonies
constituted the new federation, five on the Australian mainland together with
Tasmania; New Zealand remained outside the federation but had (and has) the
option of joining under the Australian constitution. The establishment of Australia
in this way appeared definitive at the time in terms of establishing a ‘boundary’
between Australia and its regional context. The neighbouring colonial territories
would evolve into mostly independent states during the period from the late 1940s to
the 1970s and 1980s (beginning with Indonesia, independent from the Netherlands in
1949) and concluding with the Pacific island countries (the French territories remain
linked to France, and American Samoa is also a US territory); East Timor achieved
independent status only in 2002. By the time of the Second World War Australia was
also effectively independent. This is the background to the situation where Australia
as a Northern (or Western) country has a series of neighbours that are part of the
Global South.
Further afield in East Asia, both Southeast and Northeast, Australia has also been
very much affected by developments in this region. In the case of Japan, its
emergence after the end of the 1945–51 occupation meant that it too was part of the
364 D. McDougall

North. In Southeast Asia, Thailand and all the remaining countries emerging from
colonial rule were most commonly categorised initially as part of the developing
world. In Northeast Asia the situation with China under Communist rule from 1949
(Taiwan remaining under the Nationalists), and with Korea divided effectively from
1945 (confirmed by the Korean war of 1950–53), was more complicated. While there
was an important sense in which this region, with the exception of Japan, was part of
the developing world, it was most commonly seen as an arena in the Cold War
(subsequently complicated by the emergence of the Sino-Soviet conflict). The history
of post-1945 East Asia, construed as part of the developing world, was one of
increasing differentiation. China’s modernisation after the death of Mao in 1976
made it increasingly powerful economically and politically, even though most people
continued to be in the developing world in terms of living standards. The newly
industrialising economies of South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan
moved beyond the developing world in the 1970s and 1980s. Countries such as
Thailand and Malaysia became more middle-income in international terms.
Nevertheless, in the contemporary era most countries in Southeast Asia could be
seen as part of the Global South, as is North Korea in Northeast Asia (although
North Korea is generally isolationist in terms of its international orientation).
Both during the dominion phase and in the era of independence Australia has
identified with the major Western (that is, Northern) countries: initially Britain, and
then increasingly the United States. Its relationships with those countries have often
emphasised Australia’s need to protect its position within its regional environment.
This has frequently led to Australia supporting the major power in various conflicts
on the assumption that this will strengthen the political and security relationship
with Australia should there be threatening or difficult situations emerging within
Australia’s regional environment.
Looking beyond Australia’s immediate and extended regional environment, there
have been other issues of a more global nature where Australian interests have been
and are affected. Issues relating to security and international economic relations are
discussed in more detail below. As a Northern country in a Southern context
Australia has frequently felt isolated. To some extent it has relied on its relationship
with its ‘great and powerful friends’ (Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ phrase from
the 1950s), while also knowing that those powers will act ultimately according to
their perception of their own interests. Therefore, Australia has had concurrently to
develop links with like-minded countries to pursue issues that it believes to be
important. This is the coalition-building activity often seen as a characteristic of
‘middle powers’ (see Cooper et al., 1993; Ungerer, 2007). Apart from this approach it
has also been important for Australia to ‘build bridges’ with countries whose
interests might be different but where there is scope for compromise on the basis of a
‘mixed sum’ assessment. In other words, there might be a perception that interests
are different but there could be scope for mutual gains through cooperation. This is
an area of activity where Australian relations with the Global South, or at least
sections of that broad grouping, can be important.
The major groupings of the Global South are the Non-aligned Movement (NAM)
and the Group of 77 (see Braveboy-Wagner, 2009, chapters 1 and 2). The NAM has
become less significant in the post-Cold War era than it was during the Cold War.
The divisions that previously contributed to the NAM’s raison d’eˆtre are no longer
Australia and North–South Political Relations 365

relevant. Links with the NAM have not been particularly significant for Australia in
an immediate policy sense, although statements from the NAM give some indication
of thinking within the broader grouping on key issues. Similarly to the Group of 77,
its statements can provide some insight into thinking within the Global South on
issues of trade and development, and these too can be relevant to Australia.
Some transregional North–South groupings have been important to Australia.
Perhaps the best example is the Cairns Group of agricultural free traders formed in
1986.6 Another less well-known coalition is the Group of Temperate Southern
Hemisphere Countries on Environment, known as the Valdivia Group, established
in 1995 to coordinate policies on international environmental issues.7
The most important North–South groups for Australia have been those within
East Asia and the broader Asia-Pacific. These groupings have been very important in
furthering Australia’s regional diplomacy. Australia has thus been active in forums
such as Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Association of Southeast
Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum on security issues (Asia-Pacific in focus)
and the East Asia Summit. Australia joined the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) in
Brussels in October 2010; Australia has also been involved in the Indian Ocean Rim
Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), although that group has
operated with a relatively low profile since its foundation in 1995. Although not a
member of ASEAN, Australia has maintained strong links with this organisation
and most of its members, who are an important grouping within the Global South.
A different type of grouping again with a North–South focus is the Pacific Islands
Forum, involving 14 Pacific island countries, Australia and New Zealand. The two
antipodean countries contribute most of the funding for the Forum and are politically
dominant within the grouping. The Forum is a very important vehicle for Australian
diplomacy within the South Pacific, the area of the Global South that is perhaps of
most direct concern to Australia. One concern for the Rudd Labor government was
to develop a stronger Asia-Pacific community involving the major powers and most
significant middle powers in the Asia-Pacific region; the existing structures are judged
insufficient but so far the proposal has not gained political momentum.
In the global context an interesting recent development is the emergence of the
BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as a grouping. Among the BRICs Brazil
and India are definitely leading members of the Global South, as indicated
previously, with China also notionally within this group. Australia does not appear
to be developing links with the BRICs as a grouping (its institutional development is
relatively weak), but it has very strong links with China and increasingly India; links
with Brazil are also being fostered.
Another interesting development that is relevant to Australia’s engagement with
the Global South is the emergence of the G20 as a major forum for dealing with
economic and more broadly political issues arising from the onset of the global
financial crisis in 2008. Australia is a member of the G20, but this grouping is also at
one level a forum for North–South relations (at least in terms of significant powers
on both sides). Among the 20 members, Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia,
Mexico and South Africa could all be regarded as members of the Global South (the
status of South Korea and Turkey would be more ambiguous). Australian
involvement in the G20 has become very important as a context in which Australia
engages with the major North–South issues.
366 D. McDougall

Perhaps the longest serving North–South grouping with which Australia is

involved is the Commonwealth (see McDougall, 2005). In this context Australia,
along with Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, can be regarded as a
Northern country. The Commonwealth provides opportunities to engage with all the
major North–South issues in a setting that involves leading Southern countries such
as India and South Africa, as well as a range of middle and smaller states from various
regions of the South: southern, eastern and West Africa; South Asia; Southeast Asia;
the South Pacific; the Caribbean; the Indian Ocean; and parts of the Mediterranean.
Broadly speaking, the approach to North–South political relations outlined here
has been shared by both the Coalition and Labor parties in Australia. The focus has
been primarily on Australia’s regional interests in relation to the Global South, but
there have been various means for Australia to engage also with the more global
issues that are of particular concern. Relying on Australia’s major allies has been
important, but has been judged insufficient as a means of protecting Australian
interests. Underpinning this approach has been a view of international affairs putting
a strong emphasis on the advancement of perceived Australian ‘national interests’.
Relatively speaking, Labor generally puts more emphasis on the importance of
middle power diplomacy and the opportunities for advancing Australian interests
through the UN; the current campaign for Australia to win a seat on the UN
Security Council in 2013–14 is a case in point. Labor is more inclined to use the
language of a ‘better world’ than are its Coalition opponents. There are certainly
differences in emphasis between Coalition and Labor, leading at times to different
policy choices, but overall there is much overlap between government and
opposition, whichever of the parties are in power at any given time.

Security Issues
Security issues highlight the way in which Australia has positioned itself in terms of
North–South political relations. Australia has had an important regional focus in its
concern with security issues affecting Global South countries; at the same time it has
also been involved with global security issues, many of which involve the Global
South. As with political relations more broadly, Australia’s approach to security
issues affecting the Global South has been broadly realist, in the sense previously
defined. Australia has put a strong emphasis on its relationship with the Western
countries (that is, the North), particularly through its alliance with the US. At the
same time Australia has attempted to pursue its own independent diplomacy in
developing relations with the most relevant countries in the Global South in terms of
particular security issues. This generalisation applies especially to those issues
involving a more traditional (primarily politico-military) view of security, as
compared with comprehensive security, with its attempt to incorporate relevant
societal, economic and environmental dimensions (see Buzan et al., 1998). Here the
emphasis is on the more traditional aspects, although comprehensive security can be
relevant in some contexts. The Coalition and Labor have followed similar policies in
their approach to security issues relating to the Global South, although there can be
differences of emphasis over broad strategy and in relation to specific issues; Labor
rhetoric can also put more emphasis on moral considerations from time to time. The
lead given by Kevin Rudd (as Foreign Minister in the Gillard minority government)
Australia and North–South Political Relations 367

in relation to the floods in Pakistan in September 2010 is a good recent example of

this last point.
Beginning with the regional focus, it is clear that Australian governments have put
considerable emphasis on the way in which developments in neighbouring countries
can affect Australian security. Indonesia, East Timor and the Pacific island countries
can all be regarded as part of the Global South. From a security perspective
Australia’s main concern has been that instability in these countries will adversely
affect Australia itself. Conflicts within the region might lead to the emergence of
states and political movements hostile to Australian interests. Criminal groups
involved in issues such as drug trafficking and people smuggling might take
advantage of situations where government is weak. To minimise the risks of
instability in neighbouring countries, Australia has put a strong emphasis on
developing policies judged appropriate to the various situations. It has coordinated
with the US to some extent, particularly in relation to Indonesia and East Timor, but
has pursued largely independent policies. In the South Pacific the US has generally
looked to Australia to take the lead in dealing with regional issues. While Britain was
once the major colonial power in this region, it now defers to Australia and New
Zealand as the ‘responsible’ regional powers.
In the post-Cold War era the most difficult security issue Australia has had to deal
with in its immediate region has been East Timor. While this issue goes back to the
mid-1970s when Indonesia invaded East Timor in the context of the collapse of
Portuguese rule and the emergence of Fretilin as an independence movement
(December 1975), the issue came to a head following the collapse of the Suharto
regime in Indonesia in May 1998. During 1999 arrangements were set in train by
Indonesia for the holding of a referendum on the independence issue. The
Indonesian preference was for East Timor to have autonomy within Indonesia,
but the vote on 30 August 1999 was strongly in favour of independence. Mayhem
orchestrated by the Indonesian military led to widespread destruction and loss of
life. Australia took the lead in winning support for international intervention to stop
the mayhem and uphold the act of self-determination by the East Timorese. US
support was crucial in pressuring Indonesia to accept the intervention and in
securing a favourable resolution in the UN Security Council. However, Australia
was the leading contributor to both INTERFET (International Force East Timor,
the initial UN-authorised force) and UNTAET (United Nations Transitional
Authority in East Timor, the subsequent UN-run force). Following independence in
East Timor in 2002, there was a severe challenge to the institutions of the nascent
state in disturbances in April–May 2006. Australia again took the lead in providing
military assistance, this time at the invitation of the East Timor government.
A major concern for Australia in its involvement with the East Timor issue has
been to minimise damage to its relationship with Indonesia as much as possible.
Before 1999 this had been the motivation for supporting Indonesian incorporation
of East Timor. Clearly in 1999 there was some damage to the relationship, but
subsequently Australia has attempted to return to the approach it pursued during
the Suharto period. It has achieved some success in this respect, particularly during
the Yudhoyono presidency from 2004. On the issue of West Papua, Australia has
supported autonomy rather than independence, while generally avoiding any major
focus on this conflict.
368 D. McDougall

In the South Pacific the most difficult situation Australia has faced has been in the
Solomon Islands, with the Australian-led RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission
Solomon Islands) intervening there in mid-2003 to deal with a widespread breakdown
in law and order; the ‘intervention’ was with the approval of the Solomons
government and parliament, with the Pacific Islands Forum providing regional
legitimacy.8 There have also been major concerns in Papua New Guinea, particularly
with the secessionist conflict in Bougainville (at its most intense from 1989 to 1997).
Australia contributed to the small peacekeeping operation after a political settlement
was achieved in Bougainville, although New Zealand was more prominent as a
facilitator of this settlement (Australia being compromised by its identification with
Papua New Guinea). Australia has continued to have a significant political and aid
relationship with Papua New Guinea, but concerns about matters such as corruption,
law and order and the effectiveness of government have not abated.
In Fiji, Australia (along with New Zealand) has attempted to uphold democratic
principles in response to the various coups (twice in 1987, 2000 (attempted coup) and
2006). Ethnic divisions have been important with all these developments, although
interestingly the 2006 coup, led by the Fijian military, was based on the claim that it
was motivated by a desire to ensure equality for all racial groups (ethnic Fijian and
Indo-Fijian). Australian attempts to exert influence have been based mainly on
diplomatic pressure (including through the Pacific Islands Forum and the
Commonwealth) and selective sanctions.
Further afield in Southeast Asia more broadly and Northeast Asia the scope for
independent Australian diplomacy in relation to important security issues is more
limited. Nevertheless, Australia does engage in diplomacy in relation to the most
significant issues. It coordinates with the US while not necessarily following US
policy in all respects. It is conscious of the increasing importance of China, both
strategically and economically (China’s importance to the Australian economy being
a particular point to note). Links with Japan also play some role in Australia’s
security involvement in the region. Indian involvement in relation to Asia-Pacific
affairs has been welcomed by Australia; this development provides another useful
diplomatic focus for Australia in the broader region. In terms of specific security
issues, Australia has made clear its preference for a peaceful approach to the Taiwan
issue, while also indicating that it would not necessarily support the US should
armed conflict arise. In relation to the Korean peninsula, Australia has generally
given support to the approach embodied in the six power talks. Clearly Australia is
not a major player, but its diplomacy is facilitated by the links it has not only with
the US, Japan and China, but also increasingly with South Korea.
In terms of regional security issues there appears to be little difference between the
policies of the Coalition and Labor. If we consider security issues at the global level
relating to the Global South, there are perhaps more differences but still considerable
overlap. Some of the differences relate to perceptions of what the US alliance entails.
While both the Coalition and Labor see the alliance as central to Australian security,
the Coalition normally puts more emphasis on the need for Australia to follow the
US on major global security issues, including those relating to the Global South.
Labor believes that Australia can support the US but in a critical way if necessary:
Australia does not have to support the US on every security issue. Over the past
decade the most significant security issues in the Global South have been those in the
Australia and North–South Political Relations 369

Middle East and Southwest Asia. These issues arose in the context of the new era
inaugurated by the Al Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and
the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001 (9/11). The first fruit of the
George W. Bush administration’s ‘war on terrorism’ was the invasion of Afghanistan
in October 2001 to overthrow the Taliban regime there. This regime had been
accused of providing sanctuary to Al Qaeda. Australia under the Howard Coalition
government was involved in the initial campaign, with Australian involvement
continuing also under the Rudd Labor government from November 2007 (and then
the Labor governments led by Julia Gillard from June 2010). At one level support
for the Afghanistan war was justified as a means of minimising any threat from
terrorism that might arise from this source; the terrorist threat was judged to be just
as much a concern for Australia as for the US. At another level support for the US
over this issue was seen as a means of strengthening the relationship with the US.
Pro-Taliban groups were active in neighbouring Pakistan, but this situation was even
more difficult for the US to ‘manage’ than was the case in Afghanistan. Australian
objectives in relation to Pakistan over this issue were similar to those of the US, but
clearly with Australia having far less influence than the US. It was more a matter of
Australia supporting the US to achieve outcomes seen as mutually beneficial.
In the case of the Iraq War from 2003, the Bush administration used 9/11 as a
pretext for trying to resolve an issue that had arisen in the aftermath of the Gulf War
in 1991. The Bush administration believed that the containment of Iraq under
Saddam Hussein was insufficient to prevent this regime threatening regional security
and possibly beyond (if weapons of mass destruction were being developed as was
alleged). The alleged link between Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups was a means
to generate political support for what was proposed. The Howard government gave
support to the US over this issue, including the provision of a small military force for
the initial campaign and subsequently in relation to the occupation. This support
was given irrespective of there being no specific UN Security Council resolution
authorising military action. The Labor position at the time was that specific UN
authorisation was necessary. The Labor position was similar to that adopted by
Canada and New Zealand. When the Rudd Labor government came to power the
Australian military force in Iraq was withdrawn, the argument at the time being that
the main focus needed to be on Afghanistan, a much more palpable threat in terms
of the terrorist issue.
On other Middle Eastern issues such as Israel/Palestine and Iran, both the
Coalition and Labor are generally sympathetic to the US position, although not
necessarily in all respects. Australia is clearly a minor player in relation to these issues,
but that is not to say that its involvement is not relevant at times. Iran’s situation is
important not simply because of its influence in relation to the Middle East and
Southwest Asia, but also (and perhaps primarily) because of concerns about nuclear
proliferation. Iran becoming a nuclear power would clearly have implications not just
for the Middle East but also globally. Similarly, part of the concern with North Korea
in Northeast Asia relates to that country’s erstwhile acquisition of nuclear status.
India and Pakistan becoming nuclear powers in the late 1990s was another significant
development in terms of fears about nuclear proliferation. Most of the countries of
concern are in the Global South. Australian governments, both Coalition and Labor,
have generally been strong supporters of the nuclear non-proliferation regime.
370 D. McDougall

They have not necessarily followed US policy in all respects on this issue, generally
preferring tougher measures against India and Pakistan, for example. However, the
Rudd Labor government welcomed relevant US initiatives under the Obama
administration, such as the US Nuclear Posture Review as announced in April 2010
and measures to advance nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
While developments relating to the Middle East and Southwest Asia and then
nuclear proliferation more generally are perhaps of most significance in terms of
Australian involvement in the global dimension of North–South security issues,
there are other situations that are also relevant to the Australian approach. One area
of interest in this respect has been and is Australian participation in peacekeeping
operations outside its immediate region. Africa has been of greatest significance in
this respect. In 2010 Australia was contributing 17 military personnel and 10 police
officers to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), operating in the south of
Sudan, while also maintaining a commitment of eight military personnel to support
the United Nations and African Union Mission to Darfur (UNAMID) (Australia,
Department of Defence, 2010; Australian Federal Police, 2010). Previous peace-
keeping contributions in Africa (from the end of the Cold War) were in Namibia
1989–90, Somalia 1992–94 and Rwanda 1994–96 (see McDougall, 2002; Horner
et al., 2009). The Australian motivation has been partly humanitarian, with other
factors including support for the UN and the Commonwealth (in Namibia); support
for the US was relevant in the Somalian operation. It might be argued that support
for African peacekeeping is an element of ‘good international citizenship’ from the
Australian perspective. The commitments from 1989 to 1994 occurred under the
auspices of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, and the concept of ‘good
international citizenship’ is generally emphasised mainly by Labor governments. The
subsequent Coalition government initiated the small commitment in Sudan in 2005,
as described above; this commitment has been continued by the post-2007 Labor
government. Apart from support for peacekeeping operations, involvement in some
African issues has been facilitated through Australian membership of the
Commonwealth. For example, in relation to the situation in Zimbabwe, Australia
took a leading role in dealing with this issue when it was a member of the
Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) from 2000 to 2003.

International Economic Issues

Another broad area where Australia’s position manifests itself in terms of North–
South political relations is international economic issues. This area covers matters
such as international trade and financial relations, and development assistance.9
From a realist perspective Australia’s main concern is to protect and advance its own
position. In relation to the Global South, there can also be a moral element involved
given that people in this part of the world are poorer and more vulnerable. Here the
focus is on the kinds of economic issues that are important to Australia in a North–
South context, with particular reference to the institutional settings where Australia
attempts to advance its position. (Trade and development assistance are dealt with in
more detail in subsequent articles.) While many of these settings are global in
orientation, there is also an important regional focus in the way Australia pursues its
interests in these matters.
Australia and North–South Political Relations 371

The economic issues that are important to Australia in a North–South context are
those where the position of the Global South has some bearing on Australia’s own
situation. With the shift towards neo-liberal economic policies from the 1980s,
Australia has generally favoured free trade or at least the minimisation of tariff
barriers. The policies of major economic centres in the North such as the US, the
European Union (EU) and Japan are obviously crucial in determining the direction
agreed to within the World Trade Organisation (WTO), most recently in the Doha
Round, in relation to such matters. Increasingly, however, the positions of emerging
economic powers within the Global South are also important. China, India and
Brazil are most relevant in this respect. The increasing importance of the Global
South, mainly because of the role of these emerging powers, was most evident at the
Cancun (Mexico) meeting of the Doha Round in September 2003, where the Group
of 20 developing countries (not to be confused with the G20 as such) were able to
block progress towards agreement on the grounds that the US and EU were not
taking sufficient action to end agricultural subsidies. The position of the G20
developing countries would have been in Australian interests because it represented a
move towards freer trade in agriculture. This is an issue that Australia has previously
pushed through the Cairns Group, a North–South coalition in favour of agricultural
free trade. This issue is symptomatic of the fact that Australia as a resource exporter
(minerals as well as agricultural products) frequently has interests that are similar to
the interests of resource exporters from the Global South.
On broader economic issues covering matters such as monetary and fiscal policy,
international cooperation is facilitated through bodies such as the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) and increasingly the G20. Australia is involved in both bodies.
Global economic interdependence means that serious problems experienced in even
middle-sized economies can have an adverse effect on many other countries. This is
even more the case when the problems are experienced by a major economy such as
the US. This situation was evident with the global financial crisis (GFC) beginning in
2008, where the problems were felt most acutely in the first instance in the US. In
previous situations where major financial problems had been experienced, such as the
Asian financial crisis in 2007, the IMF had played the leading role (augmented by
additional funding from some countries such as the US) in assisting the affected
countries to recover. With the GFC the countries affected were so central to the world
economy that it was difficult for the IMF to play quite the same role it had in the past;
the problems were also being experienced by those countries concurrently. This
provided the context where the G20 assumed a significant coordinating and policy
role. As indicated previously, leading countries from the Global South were involved
as well as major economic powers from the North (and some middle-sized ones such
as Australia). An important point for North–South relations in relation to the GFC
was that it was mostly the leading powers from the Global South that were in an
economically stronger position and therefore able to contribute more to the
attempted global recovery. China was most important in this respect, but Brazil
and India were also in a relatively strong position. Australia, along with other
Northern countries, stood to benefit from this situation, but was also in a position to
have some influence on global policy through its membership of the G20.
Although much of the focus for economic issues where Australia is affected by
North–South relations has been at the global level, it is important to keep in mind
372 D. McDougall

that, as with security issues, there is also a strong regional dimension for Australia.
Often those issues at the regional level are not construed as North–South issues as
such, but one can see that dimension as being present. Since the 1960s, Northeast
Asia has been Australia’s major trade destination, beginning with Japan, but
extending subsequently to China and South Korea (Taiwan and Hong Kong are
also important). In recent years Northeast Asia has generally taken about 40% of
Australian exports. Arguably China (now Australia’s principal trading partner) is
part of the Global South. Most of Southeast Asia (Singapore being the exception)
would be regarded as part of the Global South, although there is significant
variation within that region; Southeast Asia normally takes about 15% of
Australian exports.
Australia has attempted to develop its economic relations with the East Asian
countries through both multilateral and bilateral means. Agreements reached
through the WTO would be relevant in this context as well as others. Australia has
attempted to use regional forums such as APEC to advance trade liberalisation
within the region, although with limited success (APEC has also been used as a
caucus for similar ends within the global trade negotiations). Under the Howard
government there was also an attempt to advance Australian economic goals in the
region by concluding free trade agreements (FTAs) with different regional countries:
Singapore in 2003 and Thailand in 2005. Under the Rudd government an agreement
for an ASEAN–Australia–New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA) was signed
in 2009. Negotiations for FTAs have been taking place with China, Japan, Malaysia
and South Korea; FTAs with India and Indonesia are under consideration. A
proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) would link Australia to
Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam. The FTAs
generally minimise trade and other economic barriers rather than instituting free
trade, strictly speaking. Among the agreements concluded, under negotiation, or
under consideration, those with Thailand, China, Malaysia, India and Indonesia
could be seen as involving countries of the Global South; in the TPP context, Brunei,
Chile, Peru and Vietnam could be seen as part of the Global South (an FTA between
Australia and Chile took effect in 2009).
In relation to the Pacific island countries, the post-2007 Labor government has
pursued a regional FTA known as PACER Plus. This is an attempt to take trade
liberalisation further than was achieved under the PACER (Pacific Closer Economic
Relations) agreement of 2001. With Australia and New Zealand as part of the North
and the Pacific island countries very much in the Global South, the negotiations over
PACER Plus are within a North–South context. Although PACER Plus has been
criticised for potentially causing a significant loss of revenue for the Pacific island
countries (see Penjueli and Morgan, 2010), Australia and New Zealand have been
keen to move towards a final agreement.
As far as the approaches of the Coalition and Labor are concerned, there has been
considerable overlap in their approach to North–South economic issues affecting
Australia. Both adopted stances focused primarily on perceived Australian ‘national
interests’. Their approach in the relevant global institutions was similar.10 Although
there was some Labor criticism of the Howard government pursuing FTAs (on the
grounds that this was undermining the multilateral system), once in office Labor
gave just as much attention to FTAs as had the Coalition government.
Australia and North–South Political Relations 373

Overall, this paper has argued that Australia’s approach to North–South issues has
been primarily realist in emphasis. This approach derives from perceptions that
Australia’s interests are very directly affected by its regional location and the position
it occupies in relation to the global level of international politics. On the latter point
Australia sees itself as geographically distant from the major centres of power in the
North to whom it has traditionally looked for support. Interestingly, many of the
issues in North–South relations that are relevant to Australia are not construed as
North–South issues as such. Although there was the 1979 report on Australia and the
Third World (Australia, Committee on Australia’s Relations with the Third World,
1979), generally the emphasis has been on regional issues and global issues that are
relevant to Australia. This point was developed in relation to Australia’s location in
international politics generally, security issues and international economic issues. In
relation to the regional dimension, the Australian focus has been on developing
policies that contribute to resolving or ‘managing’ the issues that affect Australia most
directly. At the global level the Australian emphasis has also been on those issues seen
as affecting Australia most directly: international economic issues most particularly,
but also certain security issues that are often linked to Australia’s alliance relationship
with the US. Implicitly many aspects of both the regional issues and the global issues
are part of a North–South context, but that context has not been particularly
emphasised by Australia in dealing with those issues. This might simply reflect the way
Australia looks at the world, both regionally and globally, with ‘Global South’ not
prominent in the political discourse. The limited use of the term might also reflect the
very breadth of the term. If ‘practical’ approaches are preferred, a focus on the ‘Global
South’ might seem too broad. Giving attention to more specific regional and global
issues, albeit issues that might be construed as part of the North–South agenda, offers
better prospects for implementing the ‘practical realism’ favoured by Australians.

The author would like to thank John Langmore for comments on an earlier draft.

1. A recent study highlighting different meanings of the term ‘South’ is reported in Alden et al. (2010).
2. ‘Australia’ in this article is shorthand for Australian governments. The emphasis is on the policies
pursued by governments, both Liberal–National Coalition and Labor. Arguments occurring within
governments and the policy process generally are not given particular attention unless these features
have a very direct bearing on the policies that are pursued.
3. Note the comment by James Richardson that ‘Australian policy thinking for the most part endorses
liberal institutionalism’ (Richardson, 2007, p. 48).
4. See, further, Rudd (2004).
5. The chairman of the committee was Prof. Owen Harries.
6. Current members of the Cairns Group are Australia, Canada, New Zealand (from the North);
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan,
Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Uruguay (from the South). It might be noted
that the three Northern countries are ‘old’ Commonwealth members. Of the 16 Southern countries, 10
are from Latin America, four from Southeast Asia, one from South Asia and one from Africa.
374 D. McDougall

7. The original members were Australia, Argentina, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and Uruguay;
Brazil joined in 1997.
8. One difficulty in raising this issue with the UN Security Council was that the Solomons government
recognised the Republic of China (Taiwan) rather than the People’s Republic of China, one of the five
permanent members on the Security Council.
9. See, further, Spero and Hart (2010), Part III on ‘The North–South System’.
10. Note also Australia’s limited participation in debates at the UN about development and especially
finance for development. See Langmore (2005).

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