COMMONWEALTH HEADS OF GOVERNMENT REGIONAL MEETINGS: MALCOLM FRASER’S INDO-PACIFIC PROJECT
Auriol Weigold is a Visiting Fellow in the Faculty of Arts and Design at theUniversity of Canberra. The paper from which aspects of this Commentary are drawn, was written with the support of the Australian Prime Ministers Centre, Old Parliament House, Canberra (2011-12), entitled ‘Australia-India relations in insecure times: Malcolm Fraser’s engagement’. It was published in L Brennan & A Weigold (eds) Re-thinking India: Perceptions from Australia. Readworthy Publications, New Delhi, 2013, pp 1-25. Some aspects have been submitted for consideration as an opinion piece to the Journal of the Indian Ocean Region.
Bringing together his interest in establishing a close relationship with India and proposing an Australian maritime arc that effectively encompassed two oceans, Malcolm Fraser embarked on a process that put in place the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meetings (CHOGRMs) in collaboration with India. They brought together the leaders of emerging Pacific States with Fraser and India’s Prime Ministers, in Sydney, New Delhi and Suva in 1978, 1980 and 1982 respectively – adding an element to Australia’s ‘Indo-Pacific’ story.
While the charge that India has been Australia’s neglected neighbour has been widely accepted, arguably it was not the case when Fraser was Prime Minister, a time when he also came to the view that Australia’s maritime arc should extend from the Indian Ocean into the South West Pacific. The latter view, first expressed in his March 1970 Statement as Minister for Defence, revived the 1960s ‘Indo-Pacific Basin’ outlook referred to by Medcalf. (Medcalf, 2014).
At the same time, far from neglecting India, the annual Officials’ Talks held alternately in Canberra and New Delhi at Secretary level, formed the basis for the close relationship that developed after Fraser’s election as Prime Minister with Indian Prime Ministers Morarji Desai and Indira Gandhi, following her re-election in 1980. The broad-based Officials’ Talks addressed issues of regional interest, frequently the Indian Ocean across the aligned – non-aligned divide, but in the prevailing cooperative mood, discussions facilitated their early collaboration that reached out, as said, to Commonwealth members amongst Pacific Ocean states (NAA, 1967-1983).
This paper thus summarises Fraser’s trend towards a two-ocean view that engaged India’s and Australia’s Pacific interests in an unusually close bilateral relationship at Prime Ministerial level.
While not discussed below, it is worth nothing that disruptions to the bilateral relationship in the 1970s such as India’s Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Russia, Australia’s support for the development of the American base at Diego Garcia, India’s so-called ‘peaceful’ nuclear tests, and Prime Minister Gandhi’s State of Emergency were discussed at the annual Officials’ Talks (NAA 1971, 1974-5, 1977), and were not overlooked nor sidelined, nor did they distract from the bilateral cooperation being built. Trade and economic barriers that blocked progress in other aspects of the bilateral relationship are also not a part of this commentary.
The Officials’ Talks, put in place when Sir Arthur Tange was Australian High Commissioner to India between 1965 and 1969, were crucial to the two countries’ later cooperation on the CHOGRMs. On his return to Australia Tange became Secretary of Defence when Fraser was Minister, and worked with him again when elected Prime Minister until his own retirement in 1979. While in India he established lasting relations with ministers and senior public servants, and with Morarji Desai who became Prime Minister. Tange was present at the first Commonwealth Regional Meeting held in Sydney in 1978 (Edwards, 2006), attended by Desai.
Indian Ocean security and superpower rivalry, often in the context of Australian defence policy, was a frequent topic of discussion at the Officials’ Talks with outcomes recorded in their reports. As background, and well-documented, Tange and Fraser had similar views on self-reliance underpinning Australian defence strategy, an idea Tange regarded as central to Australian thinking (Edwards, 2006). Fraser recognized that beyond trade-driven stability, Britain’s withdrawal from its bases in Australia’s region, and uncertainty about commitments under the ANZUS Treaty following the 1969 ‘Guam’ or ‘Nixon’ doctrine, posed questions for long-held strategic assumptions. In his March 1970 Ministerial Statement Fraser articulated the maritime reach he envisaged for Australia and argued that it comprised the Indian and Pacific Oceans; that engagement in regional trade and aid demanded a contribution to military security for which Australia should be prepared, and that he wanted Australia to ‘play a meaningful part’ in the region’s future (CPD, 1970).
Continuing in the same vein, a Defence Report prepared some months later, in September 1970, referred to deployment in the region in which ‘Australia is a part’ (Def Rep, 1970), and two 1971 documents, The Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy and The Environment of Future Australian Military Operations, took forward Fraser’s and Tange’s ideas – the latter document ‘predicted’ that Australian operations would additionally encompass a broad maritime environment that included Indonesia, the then Malayan Peninsula and the Southwest Pacific Islands (Edwards, 2006), an Indo-Pacific reach although not named as such.
In an address to the Defend Australia Committee in November 1973 while in Opposition, Fraser pointed to conflict in Southeast Asia that could disrupt strategic links through the Straits of Malacca and canvassed the need for capability to ‘survey two oceans’ (Defend Australia Committee, 1973). This was an early recognition of possible events that might affect the ‘choke-points in our archipelagic North’ – an ongoing concern – whose significance was repeatedly stated by Tange as being of much greater importance than superpower naval presences in the Indian Ocean. (Edwards, 2006).
To recapitulate further, in 1976 Jim Killen, Fraser’s Defence Minister, tabled his White Paper, Australian Defence. It emphasized the need forself-reliance arguing that Australia’s defence should focus on its own maritime region – while not ruling out contributions to other operations. The White Paper in its entirety was seen by Paul Dibb ‘as a revolutionary breakthrough in independent Australian strategic thinking’ (Dibb, 2006). Labor Party Defence Minister Kim Beazley noted that his 1987 White Paper ‘explicitly attributed the concept of self-reliance to his predecessor’s 1976 Defence White Paper’ (Beazley, 2009), and referred for the first time specifically to the Australian Navy as a two ocean navy, demonstrating some continuity in defence direction in the Fraser and Hawke governments.
Possible future regional conflict as Fraser had envisaged it in 1973 was reassessed by him following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which he saw as a possible future threat to oil supplies traversing the Indian Ocean (as did the Indian Government), but he did not envisage an increased regional threat to Australia. This view was echoed in a Parliamentary Inquiry in 1980 that called for ‘continuing emphasis on improving our own self reliance within our region’ (Pitty, 2003). Australia increased its surveillance of the Indian Ocean and, on a visit to Washington early in 1980, Fraser offered port facilities in Western Australia for United States ships. (Ayers, 1987) another step towards a two-ocean view of Australian defence, but an offer not welcomed by India.
A constant focus of the annual Officials’ Talks between Australia and India was superpower navies and their bases in the Indian Ocean. It was a topic of discussion and disagreement, tempered with bilateral compromise, recognised as a conversation in which ‘Australia’s alignment and India’s non-alignment have cast them in a bridging role, to be exercised on the side of moderation in international politics’ (Seth 1979).
As example, at the 1971 Talks held in New Delhi, attended by T N Kaul, Indian Foreign Secretary and Keith Waller, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, India defined a base as any structure that supported a naval presence. In response to Waller’s query whether Indian Ocean states like India and Australia might have their own bases, the answer from India was in the affirmative (NAA, 1971), although the point was made that Australia’s use of its bases would not accord with India’s limits on foreign navies. Some years later, at the 1976 Talks, India was again critical of Australia’s support for America’s expansion of it base at Diego Garcia, leading to the then-familiar debate about superpower rivalry in the Indian Ocean. Tange, who was present, proposed that such rivalry was unlikely to be ignited by remarks by Australia and, arguably, with a ‘bridging role’ in mind, then Foreign Secretary Jagat Mehta noted that their countries’ cooperation on ship visits and staff training were not endangered by any ‘fundamental conceptual differences on the matters of alliances’ (NAA 1976 & Weigold 2013).
An Indo-Pacific conversation had also opened up at the 1971 Officials’ Talks, around the security, particularly economic, of developing island states in the South West Pacific. India had a special interest in Fiji, and both sided agreed that other small independent states, Commonwealth members as were Australia and India, also required support. India recorded that it would cooperate with any such initiatives (NAA, 1971). This appears to be the first proposed cooperation between the two countries, and started the path to the first CHOGRM, involving some dozen Pacific Island Heads of State, held seven years later.
Fraser’s election in 1975 and the resumption of Officials’ Talks in 1976 saw India express an interest in South East Asia before the discussion again focused on what might be undertaken as a collaborative bilateral venture in the South Pacific. The distribution of aid was floated as a start point. India noted that it was ‘groping for a useful role’ generally, and a wish to develop regional relationships was expressed and agreed to (NAA 1976).
Fraser, at his first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London in July 1977, raised the idea of a Regional Commonwealth Meeting. It was met less than enthusiastically by the Commonwealth’s Secretary-General Sonny (Shridath) Ramphal, concerned that regional meetings might become ‘power blocs’ damaging Commonwealth unity. Their conversation is recorded in Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs (Fraser & Simons, 2010) with Fraser’s view that small, emerging states ‘tended to be overlooked’, that ‘The head of government in Tonga might well feel inhibited in arguing with the British Prime Minister’, that ‘there was a tendency to overlook their concerns’. In subsequent discussion with Ramphal Fraser’s view that a forum to examine their specific issues as emerging economies gained agreement, with the keen support of Desai (NAA 1977)
In a remarkably short time-frame the first CHOGRM was held in Sydney in February 1978, chaired by Fraser and attended by the Prime Ministers of Fiji, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Tonga and Western Samoa, and the Presidents of Bangladesh, Nauru, and Sri Lanka. Their agenda was broad. Consultative Groups on trade and energy, coordinated respectively by Australia and India and Working Groups on drugs and terrorism by Singapore and Malaysia, were set up and illustrated the range of concerns, along with discussions on industrial and rural development and, inevitably, super power rivalry and disarmament (NAA 1978).
The Consultative and Working Groups reported at the CHOGRMs in New Delhi in 1980, chaired by Mrs Gandhi, where the leaders of the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Kiribati joined the Sydney group, and progress was evaluated again at the third meeting in Suva in 1982. There the shortage of trained manpower was recognized as a major as a major constraint on development, and the Working and Consultative groups agreed to examine options for training programs in their areas of responsibility. The complexity of maritime issues, raised at the New Delhi CHOGRM in a mainly Indian Ocean context, were extended at the Suva meeting where members’ regional expertise suggested the convening of a group to prepare a report as early as possible (CHOGRM Communiqué 1982). The Meeting’s communiqué also accepted with pleasure the Government of Papua New Guinea’s invitation to hold the next CHOGRM there in two years.
The meeting in 1984 was reduced to one day, held in conjunction with the opening of Papua New Guinea’s new Parliament building, despite members’ desire that CHOGRM continue as before – if on an irregular basis (Straits Times 1984). Fourteen leaders were present, including Mrs Gandhi within months of her death, and the new Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. Reservations about CHOGRM’s relevance had been expressed by the New Zealand Prime Minister and were supported by Hawke who terminated the meetings, arguing they duplicated the South Pacific Forum. As recorded by Hawke, the Heads of Government ‘read the last rites over Malcolm Fraser’s CHOGRMs’ (Hawke 1994), putting a stop to a network that embraced regional Commonwealth interests.
That the CHOGRM’s may be described as an Australian Indo-Pacific initiative has been demonstrated. That in addition to the Officials’ Talks the meetings were also a high point in the Australia-India bilateral relationship while Fraser was Prime Minister is recorded in reports and press releases particularly following the Sydney and New Delhi meetings, and Fraser’s visit to India as Desai’s guest in 1979. Mrs Gandhi also came to Melbourne for the CHOGM in 1981 and on to Canberra for the opening of India’s High Commission with Fraser. Both went to the Suva meeting in 1982 – some five prime ministerial meetings across five consecutive years.
To briefly conclude – the final communiqué in 1978 after the Sydney meeting was optimistic, despite the bomb scare at the Hilton Hotel where the formal meetings were held (which dominated local media reports), and it was agreed that the leaders would meet again in New Delhi in 1980 to ‘renew their conversations’ and review progress on the assigned tasks (NAA 1978).
A statement by Desai to the Indian Parliament on 24 February on his return from Australia was a strong endorsement of the CHOGRM. In summing up he expressed his approval for its functional approach to regional cooperation without subsuming the roles of other agencies. He also welcomed new India’s position as a ‘well-intentioned and responsible country in the Asian/Pacific area…’, and looked forward to the Delhi meeting in 1980 as ‘a worthy successor’ (NAA 1978). At a news conference in Singapore, Fraser said that ‘the first meeting in Sydney was an innovation that carried is own momentum’, but that the Delhi meeting had ‘cemented [a] regional grouping of permanent significance’ (NAA 1980). In his Ministerial Statement on 11 September, Fraser concluded that the Delhi meeting was a ‘further step in developing our relationship with India…too long neglected…’ (CPD 1980). A sentiment too often expressed in recent years.
 Morarji Desai’s visit to Australia was the first by an Indian Prime Minister since Mrs Gandhi’s in1968. Fraser visited India as Desai’s Republic Day guest in January 1979, and again in 1980 for the 2nd CHOGRM chaired by Mrs Gandhi. She also visited Australia during Fraser’s Prime Ministership, attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Australia in 1981, when Fraser took part in the opening ceremony for the Indian High Commission in Canberra. They met again at the 3rd CHOGRM held in Fiji in 1982. Such interaction between Australian and Indian Prime Ministers has not again occurred. Mr Desai, as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance had visited in March 1969 to attend the annual session of the Board of Governors of the Asian Development Bank. He was then aged seventy-three. NAA: A1836, 169/10/1/1 Part 2, India-Political Relations with Australia Consultations, 1967-69.
 The Officials’ Talks were delayed after Whitlam’s election in 1972 and were next held in Canberra in late February 1974. The focus shifted to cultural exchanges and India’s development plans, and a range of issues including the Indian argument that the Ocean should be a Zone of Peace. The Government supported the proposal but failure in its undertaking to act brought some discord. Grant, Bruce, 1982, Gods and Politicians: Politics as Culture – an Australian View of India. Penguin Books, Ringwood, p.49.
– Rory Medcalf, ‘In defence of the Indo-Pacific: Australia’s new strategic map’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 68, No 4, 2014, p.474
– National Archives of Australia (NAA) India-Political relations with Australia Consultations, 1967-1983.
– NAA: for example, A1838, 169/10/1/1, Fifth Consultative Meeting, August 1971; A1838, 169/10/1/1, Grant to Foreign Secretary, March 1974; A1831, 169/10/1/1, Seventh Consultative Meeting, 1975, A1838, 169/10/1/1, Eighth Consultative Meeting, 1976; Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), London, June 1977. Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s election in 1977 demonstrated the effectiveness of democracy in India.
– Peter Edwards, Arthur Tange: Last of the Mandarins. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2006, p.237
– Peter Edwards, Arthur Tange … 2006, pp. 147, 240
– Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (CPD) 1970, Ministerial Statement, House of Representatives, (HoR), Vol.66, 10 March, p.234
– Defence Report, 1970. Parliamentary Paper No. 171, 17 September, p.6
– Peter Edwards, Arthur Tange … p.193
– Defend Australia Committee, Melbourne, 1973. Address by the Hon Malcolm Fraser MP, Malcolm Fraser Archive, Box 107/8, 16 Nov, pp 2 & 21
– Peter Edwards, Arthur Tange… p.214
– Paul Dibb, ‘The Self-Reliant Defence of Australia: the History of an Idea’, Ch.1, p.15, The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre’s 40th Anniversary Seminar Series, 2006; at http://epress.anu.edu.au/
– Kim Beazley, ‘White Paper Then and Now: Returning to Self-Reliance as a Labor Leit-Motif’,
Security Challenges, Vol.5, No.4, Summer, 2009, p.60 www.securitychallenges.org.au/ArticlePDFs/vol5no4Beazley.pdf
– Roderic Pitty, ‘Strategic Engagement’, Facing North: A Century of Australian Engagement with Asia, Peter Edwards, & David Goldsworthy (eds), Vol.2: 1970s to 2000, 2003, pp 49-50
– Philip Ayers, Malcolm Fraser: a Biography. William Heinemann Australia, Richmond, Victoria, 1987, p.395
– S P Seth, ‘Fraser mends some old fences), media release held at NAA: A 1838, 169/10/11/2/7/1, 21 Feb 1979.
– NAA: A1838, 169/10/1/1 Part 6, Fifth Consultative Meeting, 1971, Paras 43 & 51
– NAA: A1836, 169/10/1/1/Part 12, Eighth Consultative Meeting, 1976, & Weigold, Auriol, 2013, ‘Australia-India Relations in insecure times: Malcolm Fraser’s engagement’, Re-thinking India: Perceptions from Australia. New Delhi, Readworthy, p.16
– NAA: A1838, 169/10/1/1 Part 6, Fifth Consultative Meeting, 1971
– NAA: A1838, 169/10/1/1, Part 12, Eighth Consultative Meeting, 1976, Paras 6,11, 38, 39 & 44(?)
– MFraser & M Simons, 2010, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs. Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, p.497
– NAA: A1838, 169/10/1/1 Part 13, Ninth Consultative Meeting, 1977. Para 44
– NAA: A1838, 625/13/5 Part 4. CHOGRM communiqué, 16 Feb 1978, p. 1
– CHOGRM Communiqué, 1982, Prime Minister, Fraser, Malcolm, Media Release, 14 October, p.6
– Straits Times, 8 & 6 August, 1984
– R J L Hawke, The Hawke Memoirs, Mandarin, Reed Books Australia, Melbourne, 1994, p.265
– NAA: A1838, 625/13/5 Part 4. CHOGRM communiqué, 16 Feb 1978, p.23
– NAA: A1838, 625/13/5, New Delhi/File 216/9/1, p.3
– NAA: Personal Papers of Prime Minister. File note, news conference in Singapore, 19 September 1980
– CPD 1980, Prime Minister’s Statement, HoR, Vol.119, 11 Sepember, pp 1201-1206, and A Weigold, ‘Australia-India Relations in insecure times: Malcolm Fraser’s engagement’, 2013, p.23