Inside Australian diplomacy

REPORTER: CHRIS HAMMER

Alexander Downer arrives in Bangkok`s Shangri-la Hotel for fours days of intense

diplomatic effort.

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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

meetings.

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

ARF.

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

country there.

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

leadership on?

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

thing?

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

it.

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

squeezed out.

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

wouldn`t then?

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

Pacific grouping.

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.