Australia and the World: On Amity and Co-operation

In preceeding weeks we have looked closely at Australian community views as a basis for reconsidering the assessment of our national interests with which future Australian policies should be closely linked.

In coming editions we will be surveying the attitudes of our regional neighbours towards Australia. We are fortunate to be able to present the following recent interview James Gallaway had with Kishore Mahbubani a highly respected Singaporian observer as the first in this series.

If he’s perplexed by Australia’s problems with whether it would or would not sign ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Co-operation and take a seat at the East Asian Summit in December, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s veteran diplomat, clearly sees no value in letting us know about it.

‘This is all a part of the up and down nature of the debate in Australia,’ Mahbubani said, speaking from his office as Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

‘In Asia we like to focus on the big picture,’ he said, ‘It’s very difficult for us to focus on the internal debate in Australia. There are many ups and downs that no one can follow.’

Indeed. When last week’s East Asian Forum concluded in Vientiane, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, finally committed Australia to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) and sang about it on the final night using Elvis Presley’s ‘It’s now or never’, rewording the lines to:

‘Only yesterday TAC did not rate, and just in time, I’ve changed my mind … it’s great.’

Until the forum, Australia had rejected the TAC, favouring the concept of pre-emptive strikes in the region. Now that Australia has decided to sign, Alexander Downer is playing down earlier reservations, saying that signing up does not compromise Australia’s right to self-defence.

Big decisions and bigger issues concern Mahbubani, particularly the United States’ relationship with China, which he says will have an ‘enormous’ effect on ASEAN where ‘it is definitely true that Australia has a related role.’

As he explained, this year, in a lecture that was part of the Alfred Deakin Innovation series , Mahbubani believes that ‘Australia has an important role maintaining a close relationship with both the US and China and that this relationship is asset for both in the way that it helps to keep the relationship on a straight track.’

The East Asia Summit, which is being described as ASEAN plus six (China, Japan, Korea, India, New Zealand and Australia), is not, according to Mahbubani, the death of APEC.

‘Paradoxically,’ he says, ‘I believe it will boost it. When APEC was formed Japan showed great reluctance because the US was not involved.’

He cites a speech made by former US Secretary of State, James Baker’s to the Asian Society in New York in 1989 when Mahbubani was finishing his first term as Singapore’s ambassador to the UN. This speech is often referred to as the starting point for APEC’s formation, though it had been proposed by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke in Seoul earlier that year. In any case, Mahbubani believes that ‘this Asian summit will also draw the US in — the roles are complementary. This is not a zero sum game.’

‘The China/US relationship is a very complex one,’ he adds, ‘Both sides must move to understand each other. Both sides realize they have a vested interest in doing so. Trade and economic dependence has never been higher.’

Other than its role in maintaining a close relationship between China and the US, Mahbubani believes Australia is heading in the right direction in Asia now describing the relationship between John Howard and Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as good as that of Keating and Suharto.

‘I think it is clear to all sides of the Australian establishment that Australia’s future is in Asia. Whether Indonesia succeeds is crucial to Australia as both countries are literally joined at the hip,’ he said.

And, he says, it is this that is of more consequence than difficulties over signing the TAC because the ‘rest of the world will be watching the big decisions Australia makes rather than focusing on your internal debate.’

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