As someone who moved “down under” relatively late in his life, I have always found mystifying the oft-repeated claim that Australia failed to engage with Asia during the early Cold War years. How could it possibly be—as the prevailing Australian academic wisdom would have us believe—that a country so close to Asia was able to overlook this region when its national interests were so inextricably bound to it? Why did it take Canberra so long to awaken to Asia's political, economic, and strategic importance and engage meaningfully with it?

Years spent researching Australia's involvement in Asia have not, in some ways, brought me any closer to solving this apparent puzzle. When weighed against hundreds of declassified Australian government files...

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