REPORTER: CHRIS HAMMER
Alexander Downer arrives in Bangkok`s Shangri-la Hotel for fours days of intense
In the next few days, he`ll meet with 19 foreign ministers or their
equivalents, either round the conference table or in a series of rapid-fire one-on-one
In opposition, Mr Downer was critical of Labor`s Asia-centric foreign policy. This is a
chance for us to tag along and see for ourselves if he`s changed the substance as well
as the style of Australian diplomacy.
The head of Foreign Affairs, Ashton Calvert and senior officer Gillian Bird have travelled
from Canberra for the meeting. Bangkok-based Ambassador Bill Fisher and Embassy
First Secretary Luke Williams have helped lay the ground work. Travelling with the
Minister is his political chief of staff, Gil Patterson. It`s the first time the delegation has
been together in one room, and with a lot of sensitive material to get through, Alexander
Downer is keen to lose our camera crew.
Around the middle of each year, the 10 foreign ministers from the ASEAN countries of
South-East Asia hold their annual conference. Immediately afterwards, their
counterparts from Australia and eight other countries, plus the European Union, join
them for an acronym-riddled series of meetings centred on the ASEAN PMC, and the
But forget about the acronyms – they`re not important. What`s important is that every
foreign minister in East Asia is here, plus the Indians, the Americans, the Russians and
the Europeans. If he puts his mind to it, Alexander Downer can achieve more here in a
couple of days than in half-a-dozen foreign trips put together.
Can I just ask you, this suite of meetings – how important are they to Australia?
ALEXANDER DOWNER, AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER: They are
important. I would say along with our participation in the United Nations General
Assembly, these are the most important multi-lateral meetings we attend every year.
REPORTER: And this year a little bit more important than normal, being the first
one since East Timor?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: No, I wouldn`t say necessarily so, given that the Interfet
intervention was back in September – well, from September, late September onwards.
So a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then.
East Timor was a matter of substance, but more often than not, it`s been Australian
words, not actions, that have irritated Asian governments. There`s the perennial spats
with Malaysia`s Dr Mahathir, John Howard declaring Australia the “strongman of Asia”,
and then “America`s deputy”; and there was the failure to condemn Pauline Hanson.
concern over everything from Pauline Hanson to East Timor. This time around, China`s
nose is out of joint, because Australia has voiced support for America`s proposed
missile defence system.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think when you look at Australia`s engagement with
Asia, as I do obviously every day of my life, you have it understand that inevitably, there
are issues that arise which are points of disagreement with one country here or one
Australia is a significant power, Australia is a significant country, so there are times
when we will have differences with countries, and we will articulate our differences. And
I don`t think there`s any need in Australia for people to feel that somehow if we have a
difference of view with any country in Asia, then that`s a failure of our engagement with
Asia. That `s a component of our engagement with Asia.
To balance things up, of course, it`s always worth letting the Americans know that
Australian support should be acknowledged – such are the mechanics of modern
diplomacy. And this year, Alexander Downer is chuffed to be able to spend
considerable time with US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – certainly a lot more
time than the assembled media.
Out at the Bangkok `Post` newspaper, editor Pichai Chuensuksawadi is a keen
observer of Australian-Asian relations. Highly critical of the Howard government`s
treatment of Pauline Hanson, he now says Australia`s relationship with the region is
back on track.
PICHAI CHUENSUKSAWADI, BANGKOK `POST` EDITOR: The Hanson thing
caused quite a stir here, but that has subsided, in my view. Your involvement in East
Timor, that caused problems with certain individual countries, but countries I think learn
to come to terms with differences within relations.
REPORTER: And of course, the reaction to East Timor wasn`t all negative?
PICHAI CHENSUKSAWADI: No. I think personally, and in a number of countries
in the region, Australia did the right thing. There was a problem in East Timor, a serious
problem. In my view, ASEAN was not prepared and could not take the lead in resolving
that problem, because the way it is set up, becasue it does not want to interfere
with internal matters of another country. Australia did the right thing by taking that lead,
and unfortunately, it upset a number of individual countries in ASEAN.
REPORTER: Do you enjoy these conferences?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: I find them pretty interesting. Enjoy? They`re hard work. I
get home to Adelaide pretty tired after doing these sort of conferences. Look, I just think
they`re very worthwhile.
REPORTER: The personal links – you`ve been Foreign Minister for more than four
years – you must have built up quite a network. That must be incredibly useful?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yeah, obviously I know a lot of the foreign ministers.
They change quite a lot, because they change every so often. But some of them I know
extremely well, who have been foreign ministers themselves three or four or even more
years, so it`s obviously very useful.
You come to know them, they become your friends in many cases – obviously not in all
cases, it`s like any human relationship. In many cases they do, and that obviously helps
the national interest by the way.
One counterpart Alexander Downer is still getting to know is Indonesia`s new
Foreign Minister, Alwi Shihab. It`s these one-on-one meetings – `bilaterals`, as they`re
known – held around the periphery of the plenary sessions, where much of the real
diplomatic work is done. And once the pleasantries are dispensed with, there`s no
prizes for guessing one of the main agenda items for this meeting – East Timor.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: In relation to the immediate issue of East Timor, he gave
me an undertaking that Indonesia would be more rigorous in trying to disarm the militias
and ensure that they`re disbanded. But importantly, he also said that Indonesia very
urgently wanted to see the repatriation to East Timor of all those people
in the refugee camps in West Timor who want to go back to East Timor.
REPORTER: Well, the Indonesians have said that before, of course. Do you think
they can deliver?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Well, I think… I mean, we`ll have to wait and see.
At most, there`s half a dozen Australian journalists covering these meetings. But
there`s hundreds of Asian journalists, and Australian foreign ministers have a reputation
for frankness that guarantees Downer gets a good turn-up to his daily press
conferences. Today he`s even more in demand, because events are unfolding in Fiji.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: I am delighted that the Fijian military authorities have put
Mr Speight and a number of others into detention.
REPORTER: How important is it in this ASEAN context? How do other countries
see Australia when it comes to the South Pacific? Is that something they look for
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes, I think as far as the South Pacific is concerned,
Australia and also New Zealand are seen to be the countries with the greatest
engagement there, as we obviously are, and the greatest interest. We take the lead on
discussions in those issues.
REPORTER: So today, people have been interested to hear from you about
what`s happening in Fiji?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes, I think that`s fair enough.
REPORTER: And of seeking opinions on such things as sanctions, that sort of
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yes. I mean, the ASEAN countries don`t have a very
heavy focus on the Pacific Island countries, frankly, with the exception of Malaysia.
which has some interests there. Otherwise they don`t have a lot of particular interest in
the South Pacific.
Nevertheless, we see it as important to bring our concerns about those issues to a
forum like this so that the concerns are properly internationalised. We don`t want them
to be just domestic.
Like many of these regular international meetings, there`s no one issue dominating
the agenda here in Bangkok. That leaves the news media struggling for a headline, and
can create the overall impression that not much is being achieved here.
But what`s really happening behind closed doors here is the incremental progress
towards a new regional order. And the constant danger for a country like Australia,
sitting on the edge of Asia, is that we may be left out in the cold.
According to some commentators, this is a picture of Alexander Downer being left out in
the cold. He`s found time in an otherwise hectic schedule to travel across Bangkok to
address a sparsely attended meeting of the Australia-Thai Business Chamber.
There`s an element of make-work here. For while Mr Downer talks to businesspeople,
back at ASEAN central, one of the critical developments of the four-day diplomacy-fest
is taking place – a meeting of the new ASEAN Plus 3 group; that is, a meeting of the 10
South-East Asian countries, together with Japan, China, and South Korea.
This group is gathering momentum and Australia is not included. It`s the realisation, 10
years later, of the East Asian Caucus originally proposed by Australia`s regional
nemesis, Malaysia`s Dr Mahathir, which was so vociferously opposed by Paul Keating
and Gareth Evans.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Our view when we came to government was that it`s not
really in Australia`s interest to resist the establishment of what`s become known as
ASEAN Plus 3 – that`s good for the region. Inevitably, Australia wasn`t going to be
in it at the beginning, and there isn`t any way Australia could have muscled its way into
But as time goes on and depending on how ASEAN Plus 3 develops – and there are big
question marks about that – it`s not an unrealistic for Australia to become member of it. I
think that very much could happen as time goes on.
REPORTER: Is it something you`re actively pursuing?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Look, obviously we`d join it if we were asked to join it.
The Bangkok `Post` has been monitoring regional developments, and the editor
agrees ASEAN Plus 3 is Mahathir`s East Asian Caucus reincarnated.
PICHAI CHUENSUKSAWADI: Definitely it is. When Dr Mahathir raised this issue
many, many years ago, I think it was an idea way before its time. ASEAN and individual
ASEAN countries and Japan were not prepared to accept it. I think over the years, it`s
become more acceptable. I think the economic crisis certainly fueled that process, and
now it`s going to be a process which will stay, I think.
REPORTER: So what do you think of that perception that Australia has been
PICHAI CHUENSUKSAWADI: No, no. I don`t think that`s the way it should be
interpreted. You will see a number of countries in the region who do not view Australia
as part of ASEAN, or as part of…it should not be in any formal grouping, in that sense.
But there are other countries who feel that, why not? Why not expand it?
REPORTER: What`s changed over the years to make it work now, when it
PICHAI CHUENSUKSAWADI: Japan. Japan has always has been against it.
Back at the main game, Alexander Downer is due to meet his Japanese
counterpart. He`s being briefed by his departmental head and former ambassador to
Japan, Ashton Calvert.
ASHTON CALVERT, FOREIGN AFFAIRS DEPARTMENT: The other thing in that
connection, Minister, is we`ve being trying step by step to encourage Japan to be a little
more confident in itself with peacekeeping, and I think the more credible the
contribution they make in that regard, the better their credentials for the permanent seat
on the Security Council.
Recently, Japan has become more diplomatically assertive. Its support for ASEAN
Plus 3 is part of a wider campaign for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
ASHTON CALVERT: A good moment to reiterate our standard line on supporting
their membership of the UN security council.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: It may be an important thing to do, to make it clear we do
support the Japanese.
In return, at some future time, Australia will look for Japanese support as we seek
to become even further integrated into Asia – perhaps to move into the fledgling ASEAN
Plus 3 group, perhaps to move out of the European bloc in the United Nations and into
a new East Asian-Pacific bloc.
ASHTON CALVERT: We very much hope we can someday restructure the
electoral groupings in the United Nations and get us out of the WEAL and into
something which is focused on Asia and the Pacific.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: They may be quite supportive of a kind of East Asia-West
A call of nature means Alexander Downer is momentarily delayed for his meeting
with his Japanese counterpart, but apart from that, the meeting goes well.
Once upon a time, Alexander Downer was scathing about Paul Keating`s “big picture”
and Gareth Evans`s engagement with Asia. And yet Ashton Calvert, who was PM
Keating`s personal Foreign Affairs adviser, now heads Alexander Downer`s own
department. The government has changed, but our diplomats are still pursuing
remarkably similar goals – greater economic and diplomatic integration into the region.
Look, obviously there`s the formal parts of these meetings, but then there`s all these
bilateral meetings. What`s the value in them?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: The bilateral meetings are an opportunity, in a rather
formal way actually, with officials present, to run through issues that you might have
with another country. It`s also, though, an opportunity to push a broader agenda…
REPORTER: Float an idea?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Push it along. There are two broader issues we`re
promoting more through the bilateral meetings than through the plenary meetings this
year. One of those is a free trade agreement between the Australia and the ASEAN
countries, and the other is an HIV-AIDS initiative to try to build a regional approach to
addressing HIV-AIDS. It`s a sensitive issue to talk about publicly. Not in our culture –
that`s not a problem. We`ve talked about it very openly.
REPORTER: You`re meeting with the Burmese foreign minister now – is that one
of the issues for this meeting?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Yeah, uh-huh.
While AIDS is high on the agenda for this meeting with Burma, it`s the other
Australian initiative, an ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade zone, that the
Government hopes will bring real benefits to Australians within 10 years.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: From my discussions with the foreign ministers during
the course of this meeting, they overwhelming share that view. There was no exception
to that view.
REPORTER: So it`s going to happen?
ALEXANDER DOWNER: I think the economic relationship between ASEAN and
Australia and New Zealand is going to grow pretty rapidly in the years ahead.
An undisputed highlight of the Bangkok meetings is the presence for the first time
of the North Korean Foreign Minister. It`s an opportunity for Australia and other regional
powers to start building bridges with what until very recently was routinely referred to as
a “rogue state”. And it`s this sort of diplomatic evolution that has seen Alexander
Downer change his mind about how diplomacy can best be conducted.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: If peace broke down on the Korean Peninsula, it would
be a catastrophe for Australia. It would cost jobs, it would cost national income. If
there`s a good relationship between the powers in the region and North Korea, if there`s
progress towards peace on the Korean Peninsula, that`s good for Australia.
When Alexander Downer became Foreign Minister, the new Coalition Government
was critical of Labor`s Asia-dominated foreign policy. Yet four years on, the substance
of the diplomatic agenda remains largely the same, even if Howard and Downer are
less initiative-driven than their predecessors.
And Downer himself has changed – initially he promised greater emphasis on bilateral
relationships, criticising Gareth Evans`s infatuation with multilateral gatherings like the
ASEAN Regional Forum. Now, at his fifth ARF meeting, he sees their value.
ALEXANDER DOWNER: Having participated now in five meetings of the ASEAN
Regional Forum, five of seven meetings that have ever taken place, I can say to you
that it`s not a cure-all, but it is a very good institution for providing a growing sense of
community in the Asia-Pacific region. I guess that doesn`t sound much. But it is much.
I can say from experience – it matters a lot. So I came to the ARF more skeptical of the
ARF than I am today. I think more of it today than I did back in 1996, when I first trotted
off to a meeting in Jakarta, not really knowing what it would be like.
The ASEAN meetings barely rate a mention in the Australian media. Fair enough –
progress here is incremental. But ever so slowly, a new regional order is coalescing.
And if the rhetoric of Alexander Downer and the Coalition Government sometimes
differs from that of their predecessors, the aim remains largely the same – to ensure
Australia is part of the emerging regional community.