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Australia and South East Asia

Dinner address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University, to AusAid ANU Distinguished Alumni attending Policy Choices for Vietnam Conference, Canberra, 29 November 2012

Nearly 45 years ago, in 1968, when I was a young student in my early 20s, on my way to Europe to take up a scholarship at Oxford,  I made a long trip through Asia, and in particular South East Asia, spending quite a bit of time in particular in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It was my first trip to the region and it made an indelible impression on me for a whole variety of reasons, profoundly influencing, in fact, my approach – when later in life I became Foreign Minister – to how Australia should conduct its foreign relations.

The story of Australia’s relationship with Asia for most of our existence, has been one of tension between our history and our geography. History – the perception of ourselves as a transplanted European outpost – was very much still in the ascendant at the time I was travelling. It was not until the 1970s that the reality finally struck home that this was the region with which we needed to primarily engage to guarantee our prosperity; in which we had to find our security, with others in the region and not against them; and through engagement with which at a personal, social and cultural level we could much enrich our national life.

I guess it was my generation that really started that transition:

– first as students in the 1960s, raging as we did against the White Australia immigration policy which had shamed us for so long, against the Vietnam War which represented such a fundamental failure to understand the nature of the transition that was occurring in the region, which was far more about national pride and identity than it was ever about communism

– and then as adult professionals in government or politics or business or academia being deeply involved with all that followed over the next three decades, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, with the emergence from international pariah status of China, the creation and expansion of ASEAN, the emergence of strong and growing economies throughout East Asia, and all the opportunities and challenges for engagement, economic and political and strategic and social and cultural that came with that.

That process of engagement that has of course continued apace as the Asian Century has come upon us, creating all the challenges for Australian policy identified in the recent White Paper that have to be addressed by the current generation of policymakers  and those that will follow.

As one of those who was rather visibly involved as a member of what I’ve called the transitional generation, let me describe three experiences I had during that trip back in 1968 that did profoundly shape the outlook I brought to my later role in government.

Vietnam. Out of some crazy spirit of adventure I found myself in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam war. There was no tourist infrastructure whatever, even for a downmarket backpacker. I hitched a ride into the city and finally found a cheap hotel,  where it became immediately clear from the condition of my room that it had recently had a lot of short-time occupants with not much cleaning in between. As I was wondering what had got myself into, I heard a commotion on the landing outside. Opening the door I confronted the dreadful sight of a drunken GI beating a young Vietnamese woman with a broom as she fled screaming downstairs.

The whole sickening cameo – the squalor of the place combined with the brutality of the conduct – seemed to me to summarise in an instant – in a way  that I’d never fully grasped in my days of campus demonstrating – everything that was wrong about that war: not least the inability of the West to comprehend that it was much more about a struggle for human dignity than anything to do with ideology or great power realpolitik. It made me deeply reluctant to accept that any great power had the right to lord it over anyone else, outside the framework of a UN rule-based international order. It made me deeply uncomfortable with the idea of “sheriffs”, and even more with the notion of  Australia as anyone’s “deputy sheriff”.

Indonesia.  Ambling around the Bandung University campus I fell into conversation with a young student, on his way to an English language class, which he invited me to attend. The guest for that day was an American missionary, who proved to have decidedly conservative views with which I took robust issue, much to the amusement of the class. Afterwards my new student friend and a group of his friends took me  off to relive the day over a long evening of beer and frogs legs.

Nearly 25 years later – visiting Jakarta as Foreign Minister – I paid an official call on the Secretary-General of the governing party, Golkar. Entering his office, I looked at him, and he looked at me – and we said almost simultaneously, Bandung!

This encounter with Sarwono Kusumaatmadja, recreating a  friendship that became highly relevant to both of us in our official roles, taught me as clearly as anything could have the  huge importance of developing cross-cultural personal relationships, however fleeting they may seem at the time, in our younger years; the huge importance of travel and reciprocal study programs (of the kind that led the present Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natelagawa to study here at ANU, and to help support himself throwing the Canberra Times over front fences each morning); and the particular importances of developing relationships in a systematic way – aided by by language learning – which makes these experiences so much richer and more intense – as is one of the central themes of the White Paper.

Cambodia.  In 1968 I also spent a few fantastic days in Cambodia.  Staying in a very down-market hotel near the Central Market (but this time clean and without GIs), I  drank beer and ate noodles in student hangouts, and took a wild ride in a share-taxi up to Siem Riep – scattering pigs, chickens and children in villages along the way– to confront the majesty of Angkor Wat.

Just the kind of thing I’d been doing in Indonesia, and indeed in a lot of other places I travelled through on that trip. But there was one big difference. In later life I kept on running into a number of those young men and women I had met not just in Indonesia but  in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Nepal or Afghanistan – or if not the same people, people exactly like them.

But I never again met any of the young Cambodians I had spent time with, or any of their contemporaries. The sad and horrible truth is that they all died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge – executed outright as middle class enemies of the state, or worked to death through malnutrition or disease out in the fields.

As the horror of the genocide unfolded, and then the protracted misery of the civil war which followed it, I made a pledge to myself that if I could ever do anything for the wonderfully kind people of this country to relieve some of that misery then I would certainly try hard to make a difference. The opportunity to do so came after I became Australian foreign minister in 1988. And of the various things I managed to achieve in the nearly eight years I held the position, nothing has given me more pleasure and pride than the contribution it is generally acknowledged that Australia made to the Paris peace agreement concluded in 1991 .  I should mention to the distinguished Vietnamese alumni here tonight that the very first senior official with whom we tested out  the Australia peace plan  was the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, Nguyen Co Thach, who became a close colleague and friend as we worked our way through that incredibly complex and difficult process.


Thought I want to leave you relates not so much with the bigger question of how Australia shoulld relate to Asia as a whole – and in particular the two giants China and India ­­– in the decades ahead, but how we should prioritise our relationship with  the countries of South East Asia. 

A report was released this week by an Asialink Commission entitled  Third Way: The United States, China and Leveraging Southeast Asia, to which I wrote a Foreword. It makes what I think is a compelling argument: that in the present evolving and uncertain geostrategic environment, Australia would be wise to be a little less overwhelmingly preoccupied with the U.S. and China, and to become rather more focused on consolidating our position closer to home by developing stronger, closer and more multidimensional relationships with ASEAN and its key member countries.

The argument is essentially that Australia would be more comfortably placed to navigate a course between our superpower military ally and our emerging-superpower major economic partner if we had a stronger identity as a strategic and economic partner with our South East Asian neighbours, and could shrug off once and for all the lingering perception around Asia that we see one of our central roles in the region as playing  ‘deputy sheriff’ to the U.S.

What the report proposes is really a natural continuation of the kind of role that Australia was building with ASEAN – and especially Indonesia – during the Hawke-Keating governments, but which diminished somewhat during the Howard years and has not yet fully recovered under Prime Ministers Rudd and Gillard.

It certainly is preaching to the converted in my case. As Foreign Minister from 1988 to 1996 – the period in which we played a key partnership role in such initiatives as the creation of APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum, and negotiating peace in Cambodia – I had no counterparts anywhere in the world with whom I felt more close and comfortable than my ASEAN colleagues, despite the multitude of cultural and historical factors notionally dividing us.

I remember in particular one occasion during a break in a big Jakarta meeting on Cambodia when, looking for a quiet place in which to make a phone call, I inadvertently stumbled into a room where half a dozen ASEAN ministers were chatting over coffee: my profuse apologies were overborne by calls to stay and join them, with one colleague saying, memorably, ‘Come on in. You’re one of us.’

I think that on issues of current policy importance for Australia, like taking forward the Bali Process to put in place once and for all effective regional processing of asylum seekers, life would be a little easier if we could recreate something like that sentiment.

Any significant move to consolidate and strengthen – institutionally and personally – our relationship with South East Asia, and to make this a clearer and stronger element in the overall narrative of our foreign policy, certainly need not and should not come at the expense, as this report makes clear, of our established relationships with the U.S. and China, and Japan and South Korea, or of neglecting the need to rapidly further develop our relationship with India.

 It is a matter simply of recognizing that in the world as it is, and is becoming, nothing is static; that all of us need as many close friendships as we can; and that for Australia there is much to be gained, and nothing to be lost, by making much more of the friendships we already have with our immediate northern neighbours.

There is no better way in my judgement to build and consolidate those friendships than to support our students studying in each other’s countries. Tonight we celebrate the achievements of one such group of South East Asian students who were absolutely delighted to have studying with us here at ANU, and are even more delighted to see here now back on campus as such distinguished ANU alumni.

Thank you for the opportunity to meet you and share some of my thoughts and experiences with you. It has been a pleasure and privilege for me, and I hope we can have many more such exchanges in the future.