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Change in Asia - an Australian perspective. Speech to the Asia Society, New York, USA, 28 September 1999

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Change In Asia - An Australian Perspective

Speech by the Hon Alexander Downer MP, Minister for Foreign Affairs, to the Asia Society

New York, USA, 28 September 1999

(Check Against Delivery)



Thank you Joe (Schneider, President of the American Australian Association); Excellencies; ladies and gentlemen.

Its a very great pleasure to be back in New York and to be able to address the Asia Society again.

East Asia "after the deluge"

I last spoke here just on two years ago. Asia, and East Asia in particular, has seen some spectacular changes in that time. Two years ago, the region's economic crisis was just getting under way, and no one could have guessed its full impact - of course we were concerned that it could have been greater than it turned out to be. Today, many of the consequences of the crisis are clear for all to see, while others - and I suspect some of the more significant - may take years before they manifest themselves.

The world today finds an East Asia that is fundamentally different from that of mid-1997. Although many of the economies in the region are now in recovery which is very good to see, growth is coming off a very low post-crisis base. It was an almighty fall from the days when Asia appeared to be all boom, and no bust. As an Indonesian colleague memorably told me, it was as if these economies had been subject to a drive-by shooting.

Turmoil in the economy has flowed through into other aspects of East Asian society. Regional security policy, once underpinned by strong and almost universal economic growth, has become that much more complicated - although, thankfully, we've not yet seen any specific adverse consequences of the economic crisis on the broader security front. And we have also seen the effects of the crisis in the political scene, with some remarkable transformations in countries where political change once seemed to take place with the same rapidity as water dripping on stone.

Australia's relations with key countries in Asia are, of course, pivotal in our foreign policy. In particular, Japan is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, our major trade partner, and a country with which, increasingly, we share common views on the major global and regional issues of the day. Japan is itself undergoing gradual change - some say too gradual - in its economic and financial governance. There are encouraging signs in the last two quarters that the Japanese economy has now emerged from recession. If sustained, Japan's return to positive growth will bring important benefits to rest of the region as it too emerges from the economic crisis.

Today, however, I want to concentrate on two countries in East Asia where changes currently under way will, in their own way, have a fundamentally important impact on the wider region. I refer to China and Indonesia. Both have significant roles in the regional, and beyond. Both are crucially important to Australia's foreign policy. The two are experiencing change in radically different ways, but how these societies evolve in the coming years will have a profound influence on the global foreign policy environment.


I turn first to the evolving role of China.

There has, perhaps, been no more heavily debated issue over recent years, particularly in this century, than how to engage with China. We have come a long way from the Cold War times when China was simply seen as one card to be played in a global strategic contest. After the historic decision to implement economic reform in the 1970s, China's economic growth has been accompanied by increasing influence in regional and global affairs. It is becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Coming to grips with China's role is made all the more difficult by the rapid pace of change in that country. What might be true about China today may well be irrelevant tomorrow, and almost certainly will be a few years from now. In many ways, Chinese society at the end of this century is as far removed from that of just 25 years ago as our own societies are from those of the last century. And there is still a long way to go.

Much of this change has been very beneficial - most obviously in the economy, but also in other areas of society. But, clearly, more progress needs to be made. And until that happens, the Chinese experience, in politics and in society, will remain vastly d ifferent from that in Australia or the United States.

So, what to do about those differences? It would be folly simply to ignore them, for they do exist, and they will have an impact on our policies and on our perceptions of each other. But it would be equally wrong to magnify them out of all proportion, and hold the entire relationship hostage to them.

What we need, I believe, is to approach our relationships with China with a very strong dose of realism. We must be level-headed about what we can achieve - and about what we can't. And we need to convey that clearly to our own domestic constituencies, so that unworkable expectations are not encouraged.

We must also strive for consistency and stability in our relationships. Of course, our policies must meet our national interests, and gain domestic support - but they must also be predictable. It is in no one's interests for contradictory messages and signals to be sent.

These are the considerations that have shaped our China policy in the years since our Government came to office in 1996, and indeed, in years before that. We have worked to build a relationship that is firmly based on the great complementarity of our economies. We seek to promote cooperation on the many issues where Australia shares common interests, and a similar outlook, with China. At the same time, where we do differ - be it over policies, or interests, or even values - the practical and straightforward approach we take towards the relationship as a whole allows us to treat those differences in an open and constructive manner. And that, in turn, means that we are more likely to come up with productive solutions to the problems that confront us.

The result of all our efforts is that Australia's relationship with China is now as productive, realistic and sustainable as it has been since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1972.

The truth is that there is no viable alternative to engagement with China. China contains one fifth of the world's population. Its economic power is significant and growing, as is its strategic influence in the East Asian region and around the world.

China deserves its place at the international table. It should be able to join in drafting the rules it is expected to abide by. No doubt the international scene, and global institutions, are changed by China's participation. But I dare say that China itself has changed, too, as it better understands how world institutions work. 

To use just one topical example: Australia strongly supports China's membership of the WTO, which we believe will strengthen the international trading system. The world will benefit from Chinese participation, and so will China. I warmly welcome, therefore, the progress that has been made between the United States and China recently on WTO accession, and hope that we may see speedy resolution of this issue.

I want to make two final points on engagement with China. The first is that China needs to be more directly engaged on the future security of our region. China has a legitimate right to be heard, and a valid contribution to make. But, likewise, China's regional neighbours want their interests to be respected. The issues involved will require sensitive handling, but also free, open and thorough discussion. In this regard, direct discussions between China and the United States will be vitally important, a subject to which I will return later in my remarks.

The second area where we need to engage more closely with China is in the area of governance, or "civil society". Change in China is bringing untold pressures on that country's institutions. The Chinese government recognizes the need for new social welfare structures, changes in their system of government, and a more predictable legal framework. Outside China, we also perceive the impact of change in China through such things as illegal immigration, the export of illicit drugs, and the rise in organised crime.

These are areas where the international community can make a real contribution to positive change in China. This is why Australia supports Chinese programs for public sector reform, why we have a human rights technical assistance programme, and why we are cooperating more closely with China in combatting illegal immigration. These are all areas where we can make a direct, and significant, contribution to modernisation and reform in China.


The second country I want to examine today is Indonesia.

No doubt the news on Indonesia in New York recently has been dominated by the troubles in East Timor, as it has dominated Australian reporting. I am pleased to be able to report to you that the peacekeeping force authorised by the UN Security Council to restore order in East Timor - the International Force in East Timor, or INTERFET - has now deployed throughout the territory, assisting with humanitarian relief operations and preparing the way for the formal UN peacekeeping force. INTERFET is continuing to uphold the Security Council's resolution on the peaceful settlement of the East Timor crisis - a resolution which, in its comprehensive nature and speed of adoption, owes much to constructive and resolute action by countries, including the United States.

I applaud the decision of President Habibie to seek help from the United Nations to quell the violence in East Timor. That was a courageous step, made at some domestic political cost - as was his initial decision to allow the East Timorese people a ballot to decide their own fate.

The appalling acts of violence we all witnessed on our television screens demanded a response. Once it became apparent that the Indonesian forces on the ground in East Timor either would or could not prevent the violence, concerted international action became imperative.

From the outset, we in Australia made it clear that we were prepared to take a leading role in the peacekeeping and humanitarian relief efforts - to ease the suffering of the East Timorese people, and to help heal this wound that has festered on the Indonesian body politic for 25 years. We didn't act to satisfy our own egos, or to flex our muscle - in fact, we would have preferred an entirely peaceful and orderly transition that would have made peacekeepers unnecessary. We acted because it was the right thing to do.

I, along with all Australians, naturally grieve for all the lives lost in East Timor. Australian soldiers, together with those of the United States and a number of other regional nations, are now on the ground in East Timor to ensure that the killing stops. And they are also there to ensure that the process of transition, began on 30 August when more than 425,000 brave East Timorese overwhelmingly voted for independence, is carried forward. If we cannot turn the clock back on all the suffering and death, we can at least ensure that democracy prevails.

Australia's interest in the East Timor issue is not, as some might think, divorced from our deep and abiding interest in seeing a strong, prosperous and democratic Indonesia - an Indonesia where human rights and freedoms are respected, and which is a strong and cooperative member of the international community.

And there has indeed been good progress in terms of the decolonisation of Indonesia on all those fronts. One of the greatest tragedies of the debacle in East Timor has been that it has overshadowed, and detracted from, the remarkable progress Indonesia itself has made towards freedom and democracy. This year Indonesia has seen its first truly democratic election in more than four decades, and later this year a new President will be elected. All of that would have been unimaginable when I last spoke to you.

There has been no greater supporter of Indonesia's democratic transformation than Australia. We have been at the forefront of international efforts to help ordinary Indonesians cope with the impact of the economic crisis. Indeed, Australia has demonstrated its goodwill towards Indonesia over many years, starting from our support for Indonesia's struggle to throw off its colonial shackles.

This year, Australia provided $15 million in assistance for the Indonesian elections, and sent a 25-person monitoring team. We've also provided funds for judicial training, and for Indonesia's National Human Rights Commission - the Komnas HAM. In fact, we have committed nearly $70 million over three years to the broad area of good governance in Indonesia, covering such things as technical assistance for the development of new laws to training of accountants, lawyers and administrators.

Clearly, the crisis i n East Timor has strained our ties. But Australia remains absolutely committed to the relationship, and to the belief that Indonesia will remain of crucial importance to Australia's long-term wellbeing just as Australia is crucial to Indonesia. Political passions may blow hot, or cold. But we didn't walk away from Indonesia when the economic crisis devastated its economy, and we are just as determined to ride out the political storms that East Timor may bring. 

We remain committed to constructive and cooperative relations with Indonesia. I believe that our ties can only grow stronger as the Indonesian people make their long walk to democracy and freedom. And I also believe that our ties will also strengthen now that East Timor, which has for so long dominated Australian public perceptions of Indonesia, is removed from the equation.

The role of the United States

In my remarks on China, I mentioned the crucial role of the United States in engaging China. May I also acknowledge the important part played by your country in resolving the humanitarian crisis in East Timor. The moral suasion exercised by the US Government, and the important practical contributions that you offered to the peacekeeping forces, made all the difference when the settlement to end the violence on the island was being forged.

As events around our region over recent years - including the crisis in East Timor - have demonstrated, the scale of US economic and strategic interests in Asia has increased rather than diminished since the end of the Second World War. Australia, together with many like-minded countries in our region, regards the continued strategic engagement of the United States as vital for stability in Asia.

There are observers who say that with the end of the cold war, alliances have ceased to be relevant. From Australia's perspective, the reverse is true. We have found ANZUS, the Australia-US alliance, to be more valuable in this time of enormous change in East Asia. Australia is one of the United States's closest intelligence partners. We see eye-to-eye on most strategic issues, and have a common stake in the future prosperity and stability of the Asia-Pacific region. But most importantly of all, we share so many values and ideals.

That is why we continue to value our alliance highly, and give such strong support to the United States' commitment to our region. And that is why our Government made the revitalisation of Australia's alliance with the United States one of our top priorities after our election in 1996.


Ladies and gentlemen, the past two years in our region have been, in the words of the Chinese curse, "interesting times". But while we have seen much damage and suffering come out of the economic and political upheavals, and serious problems remain unresolved, there has also been much good.

We've seen Indonesia start down the road to democracy. We stand at the threshold of the birth of an independent East Timor. We see evolution and change in China - most of it for the better - and an opportunity for that country's positive involvement in regional and global affairs.

For Australia's part, we have also seen many positives. Our sound economic and social policies have allowed us to ride out the East Asian crisis successfully, with growth rates amongst the highest in the world. We have a much more optimistic community, with a growing sense of confidence in our future. And we have firmly marked our international role, as a unique country on Asia's doorstep, with a strong European heritage and close links with the United States, and with very close links, including geographical links, to Asia.

So I look forward to the next century with confidence. Confidence in the broad direction of developments in our region. Confidence in the United States, in its commitment, capabilities and friendship. And confidence in Australia's ability to deal with the new challenges that will undoubtedly come our way.




jy  1999-10-27  08:28