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Speech: Australia's Close Engagement with Asia


[Speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer at the Murdoch University Asia Research Centre, Perth]

It is my honour and pleasure this evening to deliver the Inaugural Hasluck Asia Oration. I commend Murdoch University for its initiative in establishing the Hasluck Asia Oration as an annual event, designed to assist the Centre's purpose to work towards enhancing Australia's understanding of its Asian environment and its capacity to deal effectively with the region. This objective is one that, I believe, would have captured Sir Paul's imagination and support.

There are two quite distinct links I feel I have with Paul Hasluck. The first is that Sir Paul and my father were both '49ers – that is, people who were first elected to the Federal parliament in December 1949 when Menzies won his first decisive victory against Labor. Sir Paul was elected as Member for Curtin, my father as Member for Angas in South Australia. Both men served together in the Menzies Cabinet between 1958 and 1963 and formed a strong personal bond.

My father always expressed great admiration for Sir Paul's intellect and his integrity. Indeed, with some trepidation I will let you into a family secret. After the 1963 election, my father chose to accept a diplomatic posting rather than to continue the gruelling work of being a Cabinet Minister. He used to say he would have remained in Cabinet if he could have eventually become the Foreign Minister but he always felt that Hasluck would justifiably get the job instead. He was, of course, right.

Paul Hasluck served with great distinction in Coalition Governments during the 1950s and 1960s. He became a Minister just two years after entering the House of Representatives as the Minister for Territories – a post he held for a remarkable 12 years.

Hasluck was a great favourite of Menzies. Menzies admired his intellect, his judgement and his wit. Few today would realise Sir Paul had an expansive sense of humour. Sitting next to my father in Cabinet, Sir Paul would often fill in the long hours by sketching his colleagues with great verisimilitude.

I know Menzies was deeply disappointed when Paul Hasluck failed to win the Liberal leadership after the death of Harold Holt. So too were many of Hasluck's former colleagues such as my father. Without in any way wishing to be disrespectful to John Gorton, it must be said that Paul Hasluck was the greatest Prime Minister Australia never had. After Holt, many in the Parliamentary Liberal Party said they wanted to build a new image for the Party. Hasluck as Leader would be too much in the image of Menzies. For me, and no doubt for many of you, that criticism of Hasluck was in a sense a very great compliment. For the rest, I will say no more.

The second and more obvious link I have with Sir Paul is as one of his successors. Sir Paul Hasluck and I are among the small group of Australian Foreign Ministers who were at an earlier stage career diplomats.


Sir Paul Hasluck became Australia's Minister for External Affairs in 1964 and held the position until becoming Governor General in 1969. Historians will remember this period of Australian diplomacy for our entry into the Vietnam War, the establishment of modern Malaysia and the advent of the Soeharto era in Indonesia. Tonight, I do not wish to dwell on these events.

But I do want to explain that Sir Paul Hasluck was one of many Australians in public life who had an extensive knowledge of Asia. Not for Hasluck the artificial zeal of the recent convert.

In 1938, he and his wife made a three month journey to what are now the sovereign nations of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as to the independent Kingdom of Siam, now Thailand. From Sir Paul's account in his autobiography Mucking About, it is evident that the initial impulse to travel there grew out of his interest in early Dutch exploration of the coast of Western Australia out of the then Dutch East Indies. But, once he was committed to the project, Sir Paul prepared himself by assiduous reading on a wider scale and, in his own words, "broke through a hedge of ignorance into a new and wonderful field of history". Amongst many adventures during their journey, Sir Paul, encouraged by his wife, visited the great religious edifices at Borobodur in Java, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

As Sir Paul wrote many years later: "The novelty was not that we took a holiday trip to our Near North, but that we made a voyage into the history of Asia". He saw the journey as "the start of a growing interest in the earlier civilisations and hence of a new conception of the time-scale of history and the discovery of new relationships between events and of new correspondence of ideas in the story of mankind". It was also "the start of a new outlook on the relationship between Australia and Asia and of the place of Asia in the world".

Sir Paul understood that Australian engagement with our region was the sine qua non of Australian foreign policy. He was always practical and realistic in the way he both assessed trends and developed policy. And he understood that "modern Australia is neither isolated nor isolationist".


In recent years one of the more fatuous debates about Australian foreign policy has been to question the degree of commitment successive governments have had to our region. Yet, looking at the record tells a story. When Spender was Foreign Minister he established the visionary Colombo Plan; Casey expanded our diplomatic representation in the region significantly and dealt with the Malayan emergency; Hasluck with Vietnam; Whitlam and Fraser built relations with China; Hawke helped establish APEC; Evans contributed to the peace settlement in Cambodia; and the Howard Government has helped the people of East Timor to achieve independence and peace, supported the IMF packages for Thailand, Korea and Indonesia during the financial crisis, sent Youth Ambassadors to Asia, established the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Forum, brought peace to Bougainville, built a network of security dialogues with our neighbours and is working towards a free trade agreement with ASEAN.

Today we know our neighbourhood is: the South Pacific where we are trying to bring peace and stability back to the Solomon Islands and Fiji; North and South East Asia where so much of our trade goes and our security lies; and the Indian Ocean where we are, after a pause, building a new and exciting relationship with India.

Too many commentators in Australia judge that if we have a disagreement with a regional country we must have done something wrong and that we are failing within our region.

This is absurd.

We are not wrong because some Indonesians are unhappy with us for restoring peace to East Timor, or because India detonates nuclear devices, or someone wants us to weaken our quarantine policies. Those commentators need to develop a good deal more national self-respect and self-confidence commensurate with our role as a significant regional power. They need to understand that Australia's interests and its values will not always be the same as others and accommodation is not always an appropriate response.

There also needs to be more debate about how the Asia-Pacific region actually works and where the political weight in the region lies. All politics, be it domestic or international, is based on the successful exercise of power.

Paul Hasluck's clear understanding of power serves us today as an important reminder that Australian foreign policy must be based not on dreamy idealism, but on a clear-headed understanding of the power structures of the Asia-Pacific region. It is insufficient for Australian foreign policy makers simply to assert our priority lies in our own region. We need to understand the weight of various regional powers and how the interrelationships between those powers affect the underlying security of the region.

I have often said that for all the crises in the region in the past three years, the region has remained essentially stable because the power balance has remained stable.

By that I mean the balance between the great powers of China, Japan and the United States has not changed. If it were to change, then the pressure points in the region could indeed become very painful. The United States, through its engagement in the Western Pacific, plays a particularly important role in balancing and containing potential rivalries.

What this means in practice will become clear if we look at three security issues of concern to the region. First, there is the Korean Peninsula. The uneasy peace on the Korean Peninsula has remained in place because the solid commitment of the United States - its deterrent against any resort to force - has remained unwavering. America has persistently maintained a military deployment in South Korea which has made it possible for South Korean President Kim Dae Jung to pursue his policy of rapprochement (known as the sunshine policy) which in turn has paved the way for the recent leaders' summit between North and South.

Secondly, there is the tension between Beijing and Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. Had the United States not played the role it has played over the past four years it is hard to believe conflict would have been avoided.

Thirdly, there is the South China Sea where a number of countries – ASEAN nations and China - have competing claims. Once more the security architecture of the region has kept up the pressure for a diplomatic solution which is slowly emerging in the form of a regional Code of Conduct.

One could add to this list the relationship between China and Japan, one the fastest growing great power in the region, the other an economy responsible for around 70% of the Western Pacific's economic output. If the United States security treaty relationship with Japan had foundered, then it is quite likely that we would have seen the emergence of strategic competition between China and Japan, including an arms race - possibly even a nuclear arms race. That obviously would have been profoundly destabilising throughout the region.

If Paul Hasluck were alive today he would have understood these points. Unfortunately, too few in Australia do.

Where, then, does that leave our own alliance relationship with the United States?

First and foremost, it helps cement the U.S. into the security architecture of the region.

Secondly, it gives Australia a much greater weight – some may even say relevance – in regional security issues. We have played a small part in bringing peace to the Korean peninsula through assistance to KEDO (the Korean peninsula Energy Development Organisation) and our recent decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with North Korea helped to bring North Korea out of isolation and into the mainstream of regional affairs. It has given us more weight in helping with the development of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea and encouraging a dialogue between Beijing and Taipei.

Thirdly, we carry substantially more weight in Washington in regional affairs – and beyond – than would otherwise be the case.

What is more, because of our close ties with the U.S., we also carry substantially more weight throughout the region than we would without ANZUS.

It needs to be understood that we do pay a price for the ANZUS alliance.

Some argue that our policy of engagement with Asia could be pursued more effectively without ANZUS. The argument goes that we could develop a new regional force of middle powers with many of the ASEAN countries to provide a counterweight to China and Japan. This would have the benefit of integrating us more intimately with our neighbours and avoiding the occasional irritants we have with China on U.S.-related security issues.

The problem with this arrangement is that it would, ipso facto, weaken the role of the U.S. in regional affairs which in turn would destabilise the power balance of the Western Pacific.

Secondly, it makes a fairly heroic assumption about the degree of unity and cohesion amongst ASEAN nations in the domain of security.

There are also those who argue that the presence of joint facilities with the U.S., such as Pine Gap, would inevitably mean we would be identified as partisan should the Americans get into serious military conflict in the region. The more alarmist proponents of this view say that Pine Gap makes Australia a nuclear target.

Most recently, the Federal Opposition has said that, if the U.S. were to develop a National Missile Defence System to shoot down missiles heading to America from rogue states, then it would refuse to allow Pine Gap to be used to identify the offending missiles.

This is a quite extraordinary statement. In government, the Labor Party rightly allowed the Joint Facilities to be used to identify Scud missiles from Iraq heading for Israel and Saudi Arabia. Now they say they would turn Pine Gap off if a missile were heading for the U.S. and the U.S. had the capacity to shoot down the missile. But if the U.S. could do nothing about it that would be okay!

I can't for the life of me believe the U.S. would keep Pine Gap going and maintain ANZUS if that were Australia's policy.

It exposes a simple truism of Labor Party policy; Labor has always been half hearted about ANZUS, as was clear when Mr Hayden supported the Cain Government's desire to ban U.S. ship visits.

None of this is to suggest that there are not many other arms to our security which supplement but can never replace our ties with the U.S..

We have developed a web of security ties throughout the Asia-Pacific region. We value highly the recently reinforced Five Power Defence Agreement with Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

In government, we have built up a series of security dialogues with China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. I intend to develop a security relationship with India over the next twelve months. And although our security arrangement with Indonesia has been abrogated over East Timor – thereby demonstrating the inherent frailty of the Keating treaty – as Indonesian democracy consolidates and our ties inevitably recover we will certainly rebuild more mature and practical security links.

We have so-called closer defence relations with our neighbour New Zealand and work hand in hand in the spirit of ANZAC with the Kiwis in East Timor, Bougainville and the Pacific.

We have a security treaty with Papua New Guinea.

We are also one of the most active participants in the ASEAN Regional Forum which brings together the countries of the Asia-Pacific and the European Union in an evolving security dialogue for the region.

These links are important and help to consolidate our own national security and the security of our neighbours. They cannot be seen as a substitute for our link into the great power politics of the region through our alliance with the United States of America. It would not say much for the practical common sense of Australian policymakers if we decided to downgrade our intimate relationship with the region's and the world's richest and most powerful nation!


Sir Paul Hasluck's career was distinguished in many ways, but I have wanted to emphasise his contribution towards Australia's legacy of close engagement with Asia. His involvement with the region reflected more than just doing his duty in the important public offices he held which brought him contact there, for his interest in Asia was genuine, personal and of long standing.

It is, of course, nonsense to suggest, as some have tried to do, that Australia and Australians somehow only really discovered Asia in the last ten or twenty years. Sir Paul's career stands forever as eloquent testimony against such a ludicrous proposition.

Australia's long history of close and deepening engagement with Asia will be the subject of my Department's contribution to the commemoration of the centenary of Australian federation next year. It will take the form of an historical study that my Department has commissioned on Australia's relations with Asia over the past century. I am confident that Sir Paul would have welcomed this project as an appropriate means for his old Department to commemorate this important milestone in our nation's history.

One can expect, of course, that Sir Paul's own important role in the story of Australia's relations with Asia will be featured in this publication. The record and memory of his contribution - in this publication, in his own writings, and in the continuing commemoration of the Hasluck Asia Oration - will all help to establish definitively the fact that Australia has an enduring and overwhelmingly positive and productive legacy of close engagement with the Asian region.


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