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Asean-Australia: Creating a confident relationship

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16 OCTOBER 1991

The ASEAN countries comprise some of our most immediate regional neighbours,

but also some of our more neglected relationships. At the heart of Liberal/National

Coalition policy towards ASEAN, therefore, lies the recognition that we need to

devote more effort to building a basis for stronger ties and better mutual

understanding, through the development of comprehensive and productive links.

At present, the relationship might be described as underdeveloped. Mutual interests

need to be identified, mutual confidence and respect enhanced, and difficulties in the

relationship acknowledged and dealt with. In this way, a confident political,

economic and security relationship can be pursued.

I would, therefore, like to take this opportunity to touch briefly on a number of

recent issues which are of importance in the development of our relationship with

ASEAN. Specifically, I would like to focus on recent developments in ASEAN

economic thinking, and the impact of current security ideas on South East Asia.

Economic Issues

The economic performance of most of the ASEAN economies has been impressive.

Although Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia appear to be winding back

their economic growth rates, the fact remains that growth in ASEAN countries is

averaging around 6-7%, and higher in some nations. That sort of growth rate

presents numerous trade and investment opportunities for regional countries and

in particular for Australia.


Recent statistics indicate that trade with ASEAN countries makes up 10% of

Australia's total world trade. In the last year, this trade has increased 23%, from

$8 billion to $9.8 billion. Australian exports to ASEAN in the last five years have

trebled to $6.3 billion, and imports have doubled to $3.5 billion. We now have a

trade surplus with Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

However, Australia's share of the ASEAN market has remained fairly constant,

despite the level of economic growth in ASEAN countries. There are obviously

greater trade opportunities of which Australia has been unable to take advantage.

In addition, the growth in Australian trade with ASEAN has not been matched by

such a significant increase in Australian investment, and this is another area to

which greater attention must be devoted. There is also a need to harmonise a wide

range of commercial practices and standards throughout the region.

To these ends, the ASEAN-Australia Economic Cooperation Program, which

commenced under the Fraser Government and languished over the last eight years,

could be reinvigorated with the aim of establishing greater institutional cooperation

and providing more comprehensive data on available economic opportunities.

We also welcome the increased focus which ASEAN appears to be giving to economic

issues, and we support ASEAN in its stated commitment to international trade

liberalisation. In addition, trade liberalisation throughout the Asia-Pacific region

needs to be focused upon by all within the region. We need to resist the temptation

to adopt inward looking policies as a result of fears of the development of regional


blocs in Europe and North America. This, I am glad to say, does not appear to be

increasing within our Asian region, although a significant amount of protection still

exists and work needs to be done to progressively reduce this.

I was interested to note the results of the recent meeting of ASEAN Economic

Ministers in Kuala Lumpur on 7-8 October 1991. We, in the Opposition, have been

very concerned by the lack of definition of Prime Minister Mahathir's proposed East

Asian Economic Group (EAEG). It has not been at all clear to us that what was

being proposed was consistent with broader regional interests in trade liberalisation.

However, the communique from the Economic Ministers meeting described the

renamed East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC) as "GATT-consistent, compatible with

APEC" and designed to "expand intra-regional cooperation in East Asia" by

providing "the necessary collective approach".

We are still concerned, however, as to the rationale for such a caucus. ASEAN

obviously believes that East Asian interests are not being articulated clearly enough,

but important regional economies appear to be excluded from the caucus. The

Economic Ministers communique did not make clear which countries constitute East

Asia, so it is difficult to determine which nations will participate. However, Prime

Minister Mahathir's original idea did exclude the United States, Canada, New

Zealand and Australia.

In the interests of regional cooperation and unified positions, such as that being

attempted through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, it could


well be counterproductive to have such a regional split. Indeed, the original

rationale for APEC was the aim of giving the Asia-Pacific a greater coordinated

regional voice. I believe it would be useful for the region as a whole to be devoting

resources to make APEC more relevant to regional interests. APEC is yet to

produce much in the way of practical results. Effort needs to be devoted by APEC

to encouraging regional trade liberalisation, using practical measures aimed at useful

outcomes. ...... .... ..........

The development of trade blocs is a natural concern in today's global circumstances

with the increase of protectionist policies, and our reservations about the EAEC

must be understandable in this light. The Opposition would not like to see the

EAEC evolve into an inward-looking body, where countries such as Australia, with

a significant and growing relationship with ASEAN and East Asia, could be

disadvantaged. In the interests of regional confidence, it will be necessary to more

explicitly spell out what the EAEC will do, and especially its relationship with


The other important step which resulted from the Economic Ministers meeting was

of course the agreement to work towards an ASEAN free trade area in

manufactured products over the next 15 years. Given the acknowledged difficulties

ASEAN has had over expanding economic cooperation, this is particularly

significant, especially as such a variety of proposals were on the table.

Regional partners will, of course, want to know more about this course of action too.


The proposed signing of this agreement at the ASEAN heads of government summit

in Singapore in January 1992 will no doubt provide an opportunity to publicly

release the details. Given ASEAN's stated commitment to the GATT and efforts

towards a successful outcome from the Uruguay Round, we will be encouraged to see

a free trade area which does not result in discriminatory barriers erected against

third parties, or trade diversion. A free trade area which was not GATT-consistent

would be viewed with serious concern throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Security Issues

The other aspect on which I would like to comment is the differing perceptions

within our region regarding security matters.

I think we, throughout the Asia-Pacific region, need to recognise that there are

different approaches to issues such as democracy, human rights, security and the

environment. We need to recognise this as part of the reality of regional relations.

Indeed, Australia must not feel threatened by the new Asian assertiveness which is

becoming more apparent on these issues. Instead there must be constructive

attempts to work together to overcome the difficulties which will inevitably arise

from these differences.

One immediate area where differences in perceptions affect proposed action is

Burma. At the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference (PMC) in July, it was made

quite clear to the United States and Australia that Burma would be dealt with in an


Asian way, and that the proposed economic sanctions were not appropriate. Instead,

it has been proposed by ASEAN that the Philippines Minister for Foreign Affairs,

Mr Manglapus, visit Burma and encourage the ruling State Law and Order

Restoration Council (SLORC) to institute reform.

Bearing in mind differences in approach, I cannot, however, stress strongly enough

the need for urgent action to be taken to persuade the SLORC to hand over power

to the democratically elected representatives of the Burmese people. This week's

award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Aung San Suu Kyi focuses international attention

on the plight of democracy and its leaders in Burma. The Federal Opposition

supports ASEAN's intended efforts regarding Burma. We hope that the visit of Mr

Manglapus will take place soon, so that ASEAN can lend its considerable influence

to attempting to remedy the situation in Burma.

Burma provides an example of the sorts of security issues which are apparent in the

Asia-Pacific region. Most of these issues have to do with internal matters - be they

insurgencies, nationalist movements, political instability - or border disputes between

adjoining states. In the absence of superpower constraint and competition, which

was very obvious in the region during the Cold War, security problems will become

more apparent.

However, we do welcome the imminent settlement of one of the most difficult of the

region's security problems - Cambodia - although much still remains to be done in

term s of establishing an interim administration and the conduct of free and fair


elections. The difficulties inherent in this must not be underestimated and regional

states will have to be ready to meet this next challenge in the Cambodian process.

As a result of global changes, there is a lot of rethinking of fundamental security

approaches occurring in the Asia-Pacific and this must be encouraged. ASEAN

appears to be establishing such a process. The security conference on "ASEAN and

the Asia-Pacific Region" held in the Philippines in June this year, and sponsored by

the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

in Thailand, provided an opportunity to discuss security issues pertinent to ASEAN

and to provide inputs to the formulation of an ASEAN security position. I believe

th at there is another similar conference planned in Thailand in November.

In addition, the recent ASEAN PMC was also significant in the amount of attention

paid by ASEAN and its dialogue partners to security issues. The Opposition has

never supported Australia's Foreign Minister, Senator Evans, in his position that a

formal structure for security, a Conference on Security and Cooperation such as in

Europe, was appropriate to Asia. We have always said that European arrangements

could not be translated into the Asia-Pacific context. We have also said that we

must recognise the crucial role the United States, through its network of alliances

and friendships, has played in maintaining the security of the region.

It is becoming obvious, however, that the nations of the Asia-Pacific region will need

to take increased responsibility for security, and indeed, there are indications that

the region is willing to do this. However, this will be far from simple. The decision


of the Philippines Senate not to renew the US bases treaty will be the first test of

this and have implications for the region, as well as for the economy of the

Philippines. Regional states will have to be ready to assume a greater share of the

security burden. In some regional states, there appears to be an increased

willingness to become more formally involved with the US in security matters. The

United States still has an important role in the Asia-Pacific.

The discussion at the ASEAN PMC focused on regional possibilities for dealing with

security issues. The idea of using the PMC itself as a process through which to

address regional security issues was explored by Japan and Australia. This idea

needs to be approached carefully. ASEAN states do not cooperate extensively on

security matters, with Cambodia and a number of joint military exercises being the

major exceptions, although cooperation appears to be increasing. However, until

ASEAN has sorted out its own joint approach to security arrangements, it may be

premature to be exploring widening an ASEAN based forum to deal with greater

regional security. Yet region-wide communication on security issues obviously needs

to occur.


I have only briefly touched on a number of areas of current interest to Australia in

the context of our relations with ASEAN. There are, of course, a whole range of

areas which require concerted effort in order to create a confident relationship.


One of those areas, which has lessons for Australia's approach to other neighbours,

is the conduct of bilateral relations with Malaysia. The Opposition believes that the

issues causing friction in the relationship could have been better handled. The need

for Australia to better understand regional interests and priorities has not been

aided, or demonstrated, by the deterioration in Australia-Malaysia relations.

Australian expressions of concern on a whole number of sensitive issues must be

informed by an awareness of the values of the society to which they are directed.

Our interests in bilateral and regional relationships need to be clearly identified, and

then sensitively pursued.

We unashamedly believe that the economic interrelationship between Australia and

South East Asia will provide the foundation for a more mature relationship and the

key to better interaction. Differences in values are likely to continue to create

challenges, but through increased practical cooperation in the economic, political and

security areas, as well as educational exchanges and cultural activities, Australian

and ASEAN interests can be clearly identified with useful results for all.