Australia and the Colombo Plan 1949-1957
23 May 2005
In January 1950, Commonwealth foreign ministers meeting in Colombo, Ceylon, recommended the creation of a scheme under which bilateral aid could flow to developing countries in South and Southeast Asia. Later dubbed 'the Colombo Plan', this bold initiative brought Asia and the West together at a time of great political and economic uncertainty. By 1954, the seven founding nations of Australia, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand, Pakistan and the United Kingdom had been joined by Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, the Philippines, the United States, Vietnam and Thailand.
Covering the period 1949 to 1957, this selection of 299 working papers, cablegrams, submissions, letters, minutes and reports, chosen primarily from the files of the Department of External Affairs, provides an absorbing account of Australia's role in the creation of the Colombo Plan and in the scheme's first six years of operation.
The Colombo Plan occupies a prominent place in the history of Australia's relations with Asia, where it is best remembered for sponsoring thousands of Asian students to study or train in Australian tertiary institutions. Yet, it reached into almost every aspect of foreign policy, from strategic planning and diplomatic initiatives, to economic and cultural engagement. Deeply grounded in the faith that improved living standards would foster political stability and prove a counter to communism in the region, these documents focus on the ideas generated by the Department External Affairs and the forceful diplomacy of one of Australia's preeminent foreign ministers, Percy Spender.
The Colombo Plan offers a useful prism through which to examine the changing nature of Australian relations with Asia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These documents reveal Australia's hope of using the aid program to involve the United States in regional affairs, cultivate diplomatic and commercial relations, assist the rehabilitation of Japan and play a part in the Cold War. Other documents show how Australian officials believed that increased personal contact with Asians would temper growing resentment of Australian immigration policy.
This volume deepens our understanding of foreign aid diplomacy and illuminates the humanitarian and self-interested motives that characterised Australia's early ventures into Asia.