Region: Is Australia Losing Engagement?


Professor Hal Hill

Australiaˇ¦s connections to Southeast Asia are in danger of weakening. The region of 500 million people is far more important to the world than Australia is. Indeed, Australiaˇ¦s influence in and knowledge of Southeast Asia during the past three decades was often what made it of interest to the rest of the world.

Areas where Australia shows signs of weakening include:

„h There is a semi-permanent chill in Australiaˇ¦s official relations with Malaysia, in spite of extensive people-to-people contacts. This in turn obstructs many formal initiatives with ASEAN. „h Singapore, the quintessential city-state, with foreign reserves not far short of Australiaˇ¦s total external debt, doesnˇ¦t need Australia as a go-between. „h Australia has mostly good relations with the Philippines and Thailand. But owing to history and geography, they will never be exceptionally close to Australia.

Indonesia is critical to Australiaˇ¦s ties with the region. To the extent that the bilateral relationship with Australia is derailed, Australia is of less interest to the world. Since 1997, these ties have been sorely strained. Such an outcome was perhaps inevitable, especially in the wake of Australiaˇ¦s intervention in East Timor in 1999. But most Australians do not appreciate the emotions that were inflamed against them in that year, and that still smoulder.

From the top down, Australian political leaders appear more comfortable in London and Washington than in any Southeast Asian capital. Much the same also applies to the upper echelons of the Federal bureaucracy. If Australia seeks deep engagement with the region, might not one expect at least one Cabinet member or department Secretary to speak a Southeast Asian language, for example?

Australians canˇ¦t do much about their small size and the ˇĄtyranny of distanceˇ¦. But they can at least: „h Get on with managing the Australian economy as well as possible, remembering also that there is still a sizeable unfinished reform agenda. „h Position Australia in this hemisphere as a model of economic prosperity, with well-functioning institutions, social tolerance, and generosity to poorer neighbours. These, more than Australiansˇ¦ propensity to lecture their neighbours (especially at difficult or sensitive times for them), are the keys to cultivating good regional and international relations. „h Be more aware of the remaining 99 per cent of the world economy, and of the fact that, except on the rarest of occasions, it pays only the slightest attention to Australia.

[A longer version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times on 24 June 2002]

WATCHPOINT: Australians will need to develop a realistic perspective on their role in the world, and on their own challenges.


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