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Wednesday, 17 October 1984
Page: 1882


Senator HILL(5.17) —I am pleased to speak briefly to this report 'Australia and ASEAN: Challenges and Opportunities'. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to its content. The report is not sensational, and that is probably why to date it has received little publicity. It is a businesslike report and attempts to draw together knowledge on the development of the Association of South East Asian Nations in the last 16 years, to assess the state reached by the grouping and where it appears to be heading, and to interrelate Australia's interests and aspirations with that development. Thus, we were looking at the challenges and opportunities for Australia evident in the development of ASEAN. No matter whether we look from the point of view of Australia's foreign affairs and defence considerations or our economic and trade interests, ASEAN as a group of six mainly rapidly developing countries immediately to our north must be important.

In the light of that importance, what was so striking to the Committee was the lack of awareness and understanding of ASEAN in Australia. Just as important, but not so readily recognised, was the lack of awareness and understanding of Australia in ASEAN. Furthermore, ASEAN does not see us as being of the importance to the region that we sometimes tend to presume we are. From a trade point of view the figures indicate that the ASEAN countries are more important to us than we are to them. In that light, it appeared to the Committee that it would be worth while to work at the reality and not the myth of our relationship . I wish briefly to deal first with the matter of correcting false impressions and lack of understanding. The key to a better understanding which the Committee believes to be vitally important to Australia lies in education. Education in Asian studies, particularly at school level, we found to be inadequate. We agreed with the submission of the Asian Studies Association of Australia:

A central task of the Australian Government if it wishes to promote long-term, mature Australian-ASEAN relations must be an educational program in Australia about ASEAN countries.

The extent of teaching of ASEAN languages was particularly important; the Committee noted such teaching was neglected. The Committee noted also the rhetoric of the education authorities, but was of the view that it is now time for action, not just words. The fact that some tertiary colleges are beginning to increase the emphasis on business oriented Asian studies courses was noted with approval, as were the efforts of the ASEAN-Australia Business Council to promote awareness of the ASEAN region.

Apart from educational failings, the Committee was disappointed with the coverage of ASEAN affairs in the Australian media. Specialist reporters are few in number and only the sensational story appears to get published. If we cannot get coverage from the commercial media, the Committee's view is that it would like to see more serious reporting from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on ASEAN affairs.

With respect to ASEAN understanding of Australia, the extent of knowledge of Australian attitudes and aspirations is lamentable. That was made clear to the Committee by evidence received from a group of ASEAN journalists who were in Australia on an Australian Development Assistance Bureau sponsored seminar. As I understand it, that was the first of such seminars. The Committee's view is that such exchanges should continue and that there should be encouragement of ASEAN print media representatives to be resident in Australia. The Committee is of the view that we must also look to Radio Australia in relation to this matter. There is no doubt that Radio Australia performs a lot of worth-while work. However, in view of the appalling ignorance of Australia in ASEAN countries, the Committee raises the question of how successfully Radio Australia is promoting awareness of Australia in the ASEAN region.

A great deal of what understanding of Australia there is in ASEAN countries, although limited largely to Malaysia and Singapore, has come from returning students educated in Australia. The Committee is therefore disappointed to see opportunities limited by quotas. The Committee's view is that if fees are to increase it is important that a comprehensive system of scholarships be funded. The Committee does not want to see ASEAN students excluded because they are financially disadvantaged. However, the Committee is aware that for the other full fee paying students to come to Australia, which is desirable, the quality and relevance of Australian courses should be improved. This should be considered by Australian educational authorities, which should consult ASEAN needs and reactions. We tend to provide according to what we perceive are ASEAN needs rather than what ASEAN countries regard as their needs.

There has also been a tendency for the same attitudes to prevail in our approach to foreign relations with ASEAN. The error of the current Government's initiatives in Indo-China was not that the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr Hayden) was not genuine and it was not that the Government should not use Australia's good offices to explore ways of facilitating a settlement, but that the Government failed consistently to propound and explain to ASEAN what it was doing. It failed to consult adequately. It believed that because Indonesia was itself engaging in some bilateral exploration and negotiation with Vietnam, Indonesia would support Australia doing likewise. It learnt a lesson about ASEAN solidarity when Indonesia fell into the ASEAN line, leaving Australia swinging and desperately and too late attempting to explain its policy. We must, therefore, not presume to know what is in ASEAN's best interests. Paragraph 289 of the report in part reads:

The evidence does suggest, however, that if Australia wishes to take a consistent interest in the security of the Southeast Asian region overall, it will need to emphasise very clearly that in seeking to explore ways of enhancing prospects for regional security the cautious development of policies towards Indochina will not be pursued at the expense of long-term relations with ASEAN.

Where Australia has acted in consultation, such as in our contribution to the refugee problem in Indo-China, our contribution has been recognised and appreciated. The lessons of the need for careful consultation will be tested in two issues of current concern. The first is the five-power defence arrangements and Australia's Royal Australian Air Force involvement. As the Senate knows, there is some pressure from internal sources to withdraw. If our contribution is desired and if we are contributing to stability, as one senator I would be reluctant to advocate such withdrawal. But, in the context of this report, the advice that we give is again for adequate consultation and caution. Paragraph 2. 102 of the report states:

. . . any rapid contraction of Australia's involvement in FPDA might lead to concerns in some ASEAN countries about Australia's commitment to regional security at a time when it would appear to be in our interests to underline our continuing strong commitment to the security of ASEAN.

The second area of current interest is our relations with the ASEAN partner, Indonesia, and bilateral strains which have arisen over East Timor and, more latterly, Irian Jayan issues. ASEAN has supported Indonesia's position on East Timor and its solidarity may again show in relation to Irian Jaya. That does not mean that we should not speak out when we see abuses of human rights; we should. However, it does mean that the level of influence we can bring to bear for changes of policy will depend on the state of our relations with the whole of ASEAN. Our effectiveness will be a major diplomatic challenge requiring extensive and careful consultation.

The other area I will briefly mention is that of economic issues because, as we say in the report, 'the interaction between political and economic policies can be important in the ASEAN relationship'. The prospects for Australia-ASEAN two- way trade are good. However, trade imbalances and Australian market access are issues likely to be raised again by ASEAN countries as a group. As the group has enjoyed relative success and increasing influence when negotiating international trade issues of common interest, we should take particular note of that. Therefore, although we look in depth at the increased opportunities for Australia in the provision of commodities and food products, minerals and metals for industrial processing, machinery, technology for investment, and consultancy and financial services, if we are not to run into political barriers, we will have to be conscious that mutual benefits will result from freer two-way trade flows and that will call for sensible government initiatives.

A greater understanding of ASEAN is important to Australia's future relations with ASEAN, particularly in relation to the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead of us. I trust the Senate will find the report informative. I look forward to the Government's response. I take this opportunity to thank the staff of the Committee for their competence and diligence. I also register my appreciation of the contribution of my colleagues on the Committee.