The hallmark of Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s eight years in office has been an unblinking orientation toward the United States. At one point, there was even talk of Australia acting as the U.S. “deputy sheriff” in East Asia. That outlook appears to be changing.

Mr. Howard has just delivered a speech that challenges many of the guiding principles of his government’s foreign policy. While it is over-simplistic to speak of a “reorientation” of Canberra’s policy, it does herald a rising appreciation of the complexities in Australia’s relations with the world and the increasingly important role Asia plays in them.

The U.S. has had few better friends than Mr. Howard. He has backed U.S. President George W. Bush in his major foreign policy adventures even when decisions — such as dispatching troops to Iraq — have not been popular at home. The pro-U.S. orientation was seen as the product of Mr. Howard’s own ideological leanings, as well as an attempt to differentiate himself from his predecessor Mr. Paul Keating, who felt Australia should tie its fortunes more closely to Asia.

At times, it seemed as though Mr. Howard was even going out of his way to snub Asia, such as last year when he declined to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, even though Japan, China and India had done so. Yet it appears his views are changing.

Earlier this year he declared that Australia’s “dominant interests” in the future would be in Asia. “This is our part of the world, this is the part of the world to which we most immediately relate, not only in a geographic sense but increasingly also in a strategic and economic sense.” In a speech delivered last week, Mr. Howard said, “History will have no bigger stadium this century than the Pacific rim.”

Mr. Howard is riding a front row seat. Last week, the prime minister hosted Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the third official visit by an Indonesian president in 30 years. This week, he hosts Mr. Abdullah Badawi, the first Malaysian prime minister to visit Australia since 1984. Later this month, Mr. Howard will make visits to Japan and China.

In his recent speech, Mr. Howard said “Australia has no greater friend in Asia than Japan.” He noted that Japan has been Australia’s largest export market for almost 40 years and a strategic partner for regional peace and prosperity. The two countries are fleshing out the Trade and Economic Framework Agreement that the two prime ministers signed in 2003. He applauded the work Japan has done with the U.S. and Australia to combat security threats and highlighted Tokyo’s efforts to play a larger role in the region and the world. His views are matched by Australians generally: A recent public opinion poll showed 84 percent with “positive feelings” toward Japan.

The change in Mr. Howard’s thinking reflects changes in the world. Relations with Indonesia have been rocky, but political instability in Jakarta has contributed to the drift in that bilateral relationship. Canberra’s response to the Bali bombings and the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami — pledging $770 million — have helped shape perceptions of Australia’s role in the region. Mr. Yudhoyono promises a more level-headed and balanced government. Similarly, the retirement of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir eliminates a powerful obstacle to improved relations between Canberra and Kuala Lumpur.

Relations with China will prove particularly tricky to manage. The relationship is pretty good, with Australia acting as a key supplier of natural resources. While Mr. Howard has been in office, bilateral trade has tripled and China is now Australia’s third-largest trading partner. The two countries are expected to begin negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement when Mr. Howard visits. Today, most Australians, like most Asians, see China as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

Mr. Howard dismisses the idea that his country must choose between the U.S. and China. He sees Australia in the middle, “continually identifying, and advocating to each, the shared strategic interests these great powers have in regional peace and prosperity.”

The idea that Australia must choose between Asia and the West is a false one. Historically and culturally, it has been a Western nation, but that is changing. Geography means that Australia must be attuned to developments in Asia and contribute in whatever way it can. Economically, Australia, like Japan, has global interests, trading around the world.

Its dispatch of military forces to Iraq is proof that it sees its security affected by developments that are thousands of kilometers away. Mr. Howard now appears ready to look for better balance in his foreign policy. His decision will serve his country well.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.