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Australia and Asia: where next?

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Australia And Asia: Where Next?

Laurie Brereton - Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs

Address - Asia-Australia Institute - University of NSW - 19 July 2000

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Professor John Niland, Professor Stephen Fitzgerald, Wal King, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great pleasure to give this lecture, kindly arranged by the University of New South Wales' Asia-Australia Institute and supported very generously by one of Australia's leading companies, Leighton's. This is a timely opportunity to speak about some important issues, in this case about Australia's engagement with Asia.

This is the fifth year of the Howard Government. It is my fifth year as Labor's foreign policy spokesperson. I have now served in this role as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs for a longer period than any of my predecessors on either side of politics.

Now, being the longest serving Shadow Foreign Minister is something of a dubious distinction. Being Foreign Minister would be infinitely preferable. But these years have given me excellent opportunities for consultations, in Jakarta four times, in New Delhi three times, in Beijing, Seoul, Washington, Moscow and London, and a whole host of other places. And one of the most important benefits of Opposition is that you have the extra time to reflect critically on the past, to deal with difficult issues, as I have had to do in the case of Labor's East Timor policy, and to look to the future, to think about Australia's place in the world and our long-term national interests.

In all probability we are about fifteen months from the next federal election. My task is to ensure that Labor is fully prepared, and well positioned to deal with our country's foreign policy agenda should the electorate entrust us with the responsibility of government. And my focus tonight is on the longer-term -- on the broad challenges we will undoubtedly face as we engage with Asia in the next decade and beyond.

My Party will hold its National Conference in Hobart at the end of this month. There, we will debate and adopt Labor's National Platform to serve as our policy framework in the lead-up to next year's election. The Platform, together with Conference Resolutions, will set the broad framework for foreign policy under a Beazley Labor Government.

It will be our key statement of political and policy intent. It is a document about principles, about commitments and about fundamental priorities.

The draft Platform I will take to the Conference both continues and strengthens key elements of Labor's foreign policy tradition -- especially our wholehearted commitment to engagement with Asia.

The draft platform reaffirms: "Labor considers that no more important foreign policy issue faces Australia than advancing our engagement with Asia. Australia is inextricably linked with Asia. We contribute to both the security and prosperity of Asia, just as the region profoundly contributes to Australia's prosperity and security. Labor is unapologetically committed to our nation's future with Asia."

Let me say tonight that our focus on Asia is not exclusive, but it's our judgment that to protect and advance our long-term security and economic prosperity, closer engagement with our neighbours must be our highest foreign policy priority.

Our draft highlights the fact that renewed Asian economic growth presents Australia with critical opportunities to advance our interests. As a consequence Australia will have to make greater efforts and work with imagination to maintain our relative influence. For our part, we will commit Labor in government, to broaden and deepen our Asian linkages at all levels, including seeking participation in, or association with, emerging East Asian regional fora.

More than a decade on from Ross Garnaut's path-breaking report Australia and the North-East Asian Ascendancy, which urged Australia to do its utmost to embrace Asia, one might have thought that my Party's commitments to deepen this engagement would be unexceptional. But this is not so. For while the next federal election will almost certainly be decided on domestic policy issues, it will involve a clear choice as to the future foreign policy direction our country takes. We are, I contend, at a crossroads in our foreign policy and a strategic perspective is vital.

John Howard came to power in 1996 offering Australians the proposition that there is no need to choose between our history and our geography. At one level Howard suggested Australia could draw strength and comfort from our historical relationships with Europe and the United States while enjoying the advantages of proximity to a dynamic Asia. At a deeper level this mantra implies an absence of social or cultural affinity with Asia, merely a geographical relationship, and a presumption that no special effort or adjustment is required in advancing regional relationships.

Now, in the fifth year of this Howard Government, we can take an extended look at the reality of its engagement with Asia. And it hasn't been very impressive. Indeed it's arguable that no recent Australian Government has been so little engaged or concerned about how Australia is perceived and regarded by our neighbours.

Be it the unilateral cancellation of DIFF aid programs, the slashing of our foreign aid effort to a historic low, the wrecking of Radio Australia and the fire-sale of its main transmitter to a Christian fundamentalist broadcaster, the deliberately ambiguous response to Pauline Hanson's One Nation, the mean-spirited approach to indigenous reconciliation, or John Howard's strident opposition to an Australian Republic, there has been a consistent disregard for how our neighbours perceive and regard us. Time and time again, the Howard Government has by accident or design reinforced Asian perceptions of the insular, White Australia of old.

And where do we stand today? The events of 1998 and 1999 -- the experience of Asia's economic crisis and Australia's efforts in bringing peace to East Timor - has seen a significant repositioning of Australian policy toward Asia. It's a repositioning noticed both at home and abroad with the Howard Government boasting economic and military prowess as a basis for enhanced regional influence.

Much has been said and written about the "Howard Doctrine" in which our Prime Minister accepted the suggestion that Australia should serve as a regional "Deputy" for the United States. Of course, the "doctrine" was immediately subjected to intense criticism and quickly and unceremoniously abandoned. Indeed in the case of the Solomon Islands crisis, the

Government swung full circle with its rejection of a desperate request for police assistance, throwing up their hands saying nothing could be done and then that it was too late to do anything.

But policy confusion and ad hoc adjustments should not obscure the trend. The Government's overall realignment has continued with a pointed rejection of any possibility of Australia pursuing special relationships with Asian countries, its deliberate stressing of Australia's cultural separateness from Asia, and a heavy emphasis on the importance of military capability as a foundation for regional influence. The key proposition appears to be this: Australia should only engage with Asia on our own terms -- that we are different and separate from Asia and that Asia must accept us as we are.

As this Institute's own Stephen Fitzgerald has observed, there has been a coded and not-so-coded message drawing a line between us and them, between being Australian and being Asian. … [It] says we will do nothing in or with Asia that requires adjustment on our part. It implies absolute value and moral superiority. It ignores a history of Australian attitudes in Asia associated with White Australia. … It says we have a right to lead them, Asians, but we are not one of them, and do not want to be.


I don't need to tell you tonight that this approach has been and continues to be profoundly counterproductive. Time and again the Howard Government emphasises areas of contrast between Australia and our Asian neighbours. No one should underestimate the long-term damage to Asian perceptions of us. Our Government has fuelled deep-seated suspicions about Australia's attitudes and objectives, most notably in Indonesia, but elsewhere too. And it has failed to understand fundamental regional trends, trends with profound implications for our nation and our Asian relations.

After a two-year interregnum, East Asia has returned to economic growth. Indicators have progressively returned to their pre-crisis levels. Regional stock markets made major recoveries and foreign investment is now returning. Indeed last year East Asia again became the world's fastest growing region.

Of course, it remains to be seen how sustainable the recovery will be. We know that East Asia remains susceptible to any US economic downturn or a stalling of growth in Japan. Protectionist tendencies in other major economies would be quite unhelpful. Nor is the return to growth uniform. We are seeing a significant gap between the major economies of Northeast Asia and some of those of Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, especially, the combination of political uncertainty and increasing resistance to reform raises real concerns about the prospects for sustained recovery. Overall, however, there are good grounds for optimism that the economies of East Asia will continue their recovery. And no one should under estimate our region's huge economic potential.

The resumption of economic growth has considerable implications for Australia's regional standing. Ten years ago, only one East Asian economy - Japan - was larger than Australia. By 1995 this number had risen to three - Japan, China and South Korea. Korea's position slipped with the recession and Australia's GNP still amounts to around 80 percent of all the ASEAN nations combined. But the current relativities won't stay as they are.

What really matters is what lies ahead, not just this year, or next year, but through the next

decade and beyond.

By 2010, ASEAN's five largest economies may well amount to more than twice that of Australia. Australia will continue to enjoy great advantages, especially in the new economy based on advanced technology and information systems. But overall size does count. And further afield, China's continuing economic development promises to be the single biggest factor in the strategic transformation of our region.

This will be a very different regional environment for us. The resumption of Asia's economic growth will present us with critical opportunities to advance our prosperity and security. It will also present fundamental challenges as economic relativities shift and strategic and diplomatic adjustments follow.

Three years ago, the Howard Government's Foreign Policy White Paper noted the implications of Asia's economic growth for our relative standing:

In terms of economic size, and technological and industrial sophistication, Australia will remain a significant regional country. However, the gap in these areas with industrialising East Asia will narrow over the next fifteen years. … Australia will be able to rely less on its strategic and economic weight in the region to achieve its policy objectives.


Similar conclusions were expressed in Defence's 1997 Strategic Review and again in this year's Defence Green Paper. According to the latter, the resumption of economic growth in East Asia will inevitably impact on "our potential to play an influential strategic role in the region" and raises "a longer-term question about our relative strategic weight".

Growing economic capacity is certain to be accompanied by renewed regional confidence. It will be accompanied by increased regional assertiveness. Australia will need to work very hard and creatively to maintain and enhance our influence. More than ever Australia will have to rely on skilful diplomacy and sustained political engagement.

In this regard, the Howard Government's focus, indeed preoccupation, with defence expenditure and equipment acquisition is all too narrow. Necessary as some of this may be, new military capabilities do not automatically translate into regional influence or capacity to pursue our national interests. One of the more disquietening features of the present debate on defence policy is the fact that it is being conducted by the Government in a diplomatic vacuum and with little real consideration of Australia's broad engagement with our region, a region undergoing rapid change.

Quietly, without fanfare, we are seeing the beginnings of a process of regionalisation in East Asia -- the emergence of an East Asian community. Last November, the leaders of ASEAN, China, Japan, and South Korea met in Manila and adopted their major joint declaration on East Asia cooperation. For many of the participants, ASEAN+3 is an opportunity to project "an Asian point of view to the rest of the world".

This process is still in its early days, and the differences in outlook among key players -Japan and China - are such that it is likely to be quite protracted. Nonetheless the shared experience of economic crisis has given rise to strong scepticism about "Western" institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund. There's a new appreciation of the importance of regional cooperation to overcome economic difficulties and enhance East Asia's voice in global forums. And there's growing interest in exploring policy solutions and

institutional arrangements that emphasise regional interests and approaches.

At the initiative of South Korea's Kim Dae-jung, an East Asia Vision Group is exploring ways of promoting deeper economic and political cooperation across the region. New issues and ideas, notably the concept of an Asian Monetary Fund, are now on the regional agenda.

It remains to be seen whether these changes in regional sentiment and outlook will result in effective, long-term policy outcomes and processes. But the trend of increasing regional integration is already clear. 55 percent of all East Asian trade is with other East Asian countries, compared to only 30 percent in 1996. The emergence of an East Asian community - a cooperative linking of Northeast and Southeast Asia -- has potentially profound implications for Australia; for how we relate to our region, for how we pursue our national interests.

The Howard Government has had very little to say about these developments -- very little indeed. We are not involved, and the Government doesn't at this stage appear to be at all interested.

This lack of engagement is all the more striking when one recalls the Government's earlier statements in relation to Australian participation in the Asia-Europe Summit Meetings. In Opposition, the Coalition declared ASEM participation to be a critical test of Australia's engagement with Asia. They said Australian exclusion from ASEM would be "a diplomatic disaster" and a "humiliation". Subsequently, the Howard Government made participation in ASEM a key foreign policy objective. In November 1996, Foreign Minister Downer told this Institute: "A prolonged exclusion from ASEM would … seem at odds with our place in the region. … We are working actively to build support for the proposal that Australia should be part of an expanded ASEM membership". In 1997, he declared Australian membership of ASEM, to be not a matter of if, but a matter of when.

Three years on, Australia remains outside ASEM. When ASEM meets in Seoul later this year, Australia won't be there. But you don't hear any more from the Government about this. At a recent Senate Committee hearing, DFAT acknowledged the Government has given up on ASEM, saying "It is not an issue in which we are engaged in active diplomacy." The Government previously hailed South Korea's support for Australia's participation, but John Howard didn't bother to raise the issue when he saw Kim Dae-jung in Seoul in May.

More to the point, the Government has sent the message that we don't need to, indeed don't want to, deepen our involvement in regional forums. The Government has said nothing of substance about the concept of an Asian Monetary Fund. While acknowledging that the emergence of ASEAN+3 is "potentially significant", DFAT has confirmed that the question of Australian participation or association has not been pursued by Prime Minister Howard or Foreign Minister Downer in their regional meetings. And East Asia appears to be getting the message that the Howard Government just isn't interested. Australia simply isn't on the ASEAN+3 agenda.

Of course, Australia is a member of APEC as well as the ASEAN Regional Security Forum. We are also engaged with ASEAN through the AFTA-CER Linkage. But these aren't necessarily the vehicles of choice for the process of Northeast and Southeast Asian integration and cooperation. Over time we are running an increased risk that we won't find a seat at the key forums of an emerging East Asia community. We risk being increasingly


This risk is compounded by the Government's preparedness to allow our relations with Indonesia drift to their lowest ebb since the Konfrontasi of the early 1960s. The election of President Abdurrahman Wahid last October offered a historic opportunity for Australia to build a new relationship with a new democratic Indonesia. It's an opportunity the Howard Government is allowing to slip away.

Indonesia's democracy deserves Australia's strongest possible support. This has not been forthcoming and our Prime Minister remains more concerned with the domestic political game of which leader visits the other first. Indonesian observers have certainly noticed that John Howard has found time to meet the Queen three times these past twelve months, but Indonesia's first democratically elected President only once, and then only on the sidelines of a State Funeral in Japan.

Our Government has failed to lend wholehearted support to Indonesia's democratic transition. This policy failure has serious implications, not only for the health of one of our most important bilateral relationships, but also our wider regional engagement.

Foreign Minister Downer claimed last week that ASEAN+3 is not an "Indonesia-related" issue. This may be so, but one should note the stated desire of Indonesia's Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab to forge partnerships with China, India and other East Asian countries to balance Western influence in international fora. Foreign Minister Shihab has called for an Asian caucus in international affairs: and identified ASEAN+3 as "the main components" of this grouping. Australia simply isn't in the picture. It would be a diplomatic disaster for us if in the future Indonesia were to emerge as an opponent of Australian involvement in key regional fora.

The emergence of an East Asian community is still in its infancy. Moves to achieve an effective grouping will be fraught with practical difficulty, not least the significant social, political and cultural differences. The longstanding Southeast Asian mistrust of China will likely remain an obstacle to regional integration.

That said, the trend toward Asian regional integration is likely to be one of the most important developments for Australian foreign policy over the next two decades. Many of the things Australia has long taken for granted in our international environment may no longer hold.

This is where Australia's foreign policy debate needs to be - about how we engage and contribute to an increasingly confident and assertive region, about how we maintain and enhance our influence in the context of renewed economic growth and moves toward East Asian integration. These are big questions. They require very careful consideration and a strategic perspective.

Several things are already clear. Australia's response to these developments must not see us withdraw or emphasise a sense of separateness from our neighbours. Such an approach will prove most counterproductive. Highlighting differences will only suggest an acknowledgment on our part that we have no place and thus should carry no real influence in Asia. Our friends are already getting the message that under John Howard's Government, Australia just isn't interested.

In the longer term, a policy of aloofness plays into the hands of our political and strategic competitors. It will reinforce some regional sentiment that potentially marginalises Australia in regional affairs. This could prove disastrous for us in an environment where our relative strategic and economic weight will over time be significantly less than we enjoy today.

We must acknowledge that the task of deepening engagement with Asia, especially in seeking to participate in or associate ourselves with emerging regional forums, will not be easy. Much damage to our standing has already been done. We must also recognise that some of our neighbours are likely to continue a lack of enthusiasm for our participation or association. Australian will need skilful diplomacy, wholehearted political engagement, and the help of our regional friends to secure our place at the table in East Asia.

We will have to think creatively about how we can build on established relationships and forge new ties in Asia. We will have to be clever and innovative about how we pursue our strong support for universal human rights, and how we contribute to regional cooperation in the areas of sustainable development and environmental protection. We need to think very carefully in our approach to sensitive regional security issues. In this regard the Howard Government's all too quick endorsement of the proposed US National Missile Defence scheme has demonstrated scant regard for the risks NMD runs of triggering an Asian nuclear arms race, with China and India expanding their strategic nuclear arsenals. This week the Howard Government sent this latest negative message to our Asian neighbours.

Australia will have to put a great deal of effort into our public diplomacy to rebuild the image of our country as an open, tolerant, technologically advanced society eager to engage our friends and neighbours. We will also have to work much harder than we have in the past in carrying the Australian public with us. Foreign policy cannot be pursued in isolation from the broad sweep of public opinion and we must be much better at convincing Australians that Asia is critical to Australia's future prosperity and security. We must convey a very clear understanding of the benefits, indeed the absolutely vital nature of our engagement with Asia. Amongst other things, this will require a substantial commitment in the field of education including the work of bodies such as this Institute.

Labor believes Australia's pursuit of closer engagement with Asia is of fundamental importance. This should rightly be Australia's number one foreign policy priority. We must make a wholehearted commitment to engagement with Asia and in Asia. This is the great foreign policy challenge for us. If we don't meet it, we risk missing the tide to the great detriment of our national interests.

Here, I repeat, next year's federal election will afford a clear choice between an insular Government inclined to stand aloof from Asia, and an Opposition committed to pursue closer engagement, no ifs, no buts. It will be a choice between a Prime Minister who looks at Asia without enthusiasm or ambition and a Beazley-led Labor Government committed to pull out all the stops to build a new future for our country with Asia. It will be a choice between progressive marginalisation on one hand and wholehearted engagement on the other.

In respect of one absolutely vital relationship, I think it true to say it will take a Labor Government to build new and positive ties with the new Indonesia. Increasingly I find a wide cross-section of my Indonesian interlocutors agree with me about this.

Labor is determined to put our country back on track, to repair and restore Australia's standing and influence in Asia. Having spent these last few years in the foreign policy shadows, getting ready for the challenges of government, nothing could afford me more satisfaction than to devote all my energy and determination in undertaking this historic task.

Thank you.

Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.