As a member of the British Commonwealth, Australia's foreign policy, for most of its history, centered around relations with Britain, the Commonwealth nations, the United States, and Western Europe. In the 1980s and 1990s, the focus of the government of Labor's Paul Keating shifted to Australia's neighbors in Asia, giving relations with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region greater attention.
Howard came to office promising to reverse that focus. During the 1996 campaign, he accused the Keating government of turning its back on Australia's old friends in Europe and North America. He pledged to rebuild the strong ties that had existed previously. Within hours of his victory, Howard dismissed that vision. He has since sought to reassure both his countrymen and governments in the region by pointing out that the desire to have close relations with Europe or the United States is not inconsistent with the continuation of deepening integration of Australia into Asia. Two-thirds of Australia's foreign trade is conducted with Asian countries, and Howard has pledged to boost political and economic links with its Asian neighbors. At the same time, however, he has stated that Australia would not sacrifice its "values and principles" simply for better trade relations with its neighbors.
Australia has maintained a close relationship with the west, America included. In 2002 Australia stepped in line with the United States and refused to ratify the 1992 Kyoto Protocol, a treaty aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Howard opposed binding timetables for the reduction of emissions and stated that Australia would only ratify the treaty if the United States did. To do otherwise, Howard claimed, would cost jobs and damage Australia's industry.
Relations between Australia and the nations of Southeast Asia have become increasingly important to Howard. His tax cut plans are based on assumptions about continued robust economic growth in Australia and the Southeast Asian region. Those assumptions were threatened by the regional economic crisis that began in 1997, but Australia appeared to avoid being affected. However, many Southeast Asian leaders see Australian economic intervention as one solution to their crisis. In light of this situation, the rise of One Nation (with its overtly anti-Asian message), coupled with calls for higher tariffs, has severely strained relations with Asia. Howard has made an effort to improve relations by distancing himself from remarks critical of human rights abuses in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations.