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Australia And Asia: New Partnerships, New Directions – Speech by Simon Crean

Hard To Stand Tall When You’re Always On Your Knees: Crean

The Opposition Leader, Simon Crean, has delivered his first major speech on Australian foreign policy since assuming the Labor leadership late last year.

CreanIn the speech, Crean characterised the Howard government’s foreign policy as the “boastful swagger of the ‘deputy sheriff'” and argued that “for too long the Howard Government has behaved as though we have no choice in foreign policy.”

Crean said: “Australia needs a new plan for regional engagement. And we need to build a new partnership with the international community. This direction needs to be built around three important partnerships: a new partnership with China, stronger institutional partnerships in the region, and re-building our position as a good international citizen through better global partnerships.”

Crean said the Howard government does nothing to offer a more independent view of the world: “The government believes we are exclusively tied to a reactive foreign policy agenda – one that defers to our ‘great and powerful friends’.. On the key questions of strategic policy, such as the current war against terrorism, Labor unapologetically stands with the US-led coalition because this is a struggle that affects us all. However, support for the war on terrorism and other areas of co-operation with the US does not mean that this country’s foreign policy should be a pale shadow of America’s.

“Howard says we can still stand tall in the eyes of the world. But it’s hard to stand tall when you’re always on your knees.”

Text of speech by the Leader of the Opposition, Simon Crean, as part of The Baker and McKenzie Australia In Asia Series.

Australia And Asia: New Partnerships, New Directions

Professor Stephen FitzGerald

Members of the Asia-Australia Institute

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

In the five months since becoming the Opposition Leader I have delivered a number of speeches setting out Labor directions on issues such as modernizing the parliament, modernizing the Labor Party, developing a comprehensive immigration, population and refugee policy, and supporting paid maternity leave and improvements to the living wage for working families.

The direction I want to spell out tonight is a foreign policy of engagement with the Asian region.

Australia needs a new plan for regional engagement.

And we need to build a new partnership with the international community.

It’s an important statement about the direction in which I want to lead the Party.

This direction needs to be built around three important partnerships.

  • A new partnership with China.
  • Stronger institutional partnerships in the region.
  • And re-building our position as a good international citizen through better global partnerships.

A policy of engagement requires leadership, both at home and abroad.

Not the boastful swagger of the ‘deputy sheriff’, but a true leadership that seeks out new opportunities and new partnerships for mutual long-term benefits.

For too long the Howard Government has behaved as though we have no choice in foreign policy.

The government believes we are exclusively tied to a reactive foreign policy agenda – one that defers to our ‘great and powerful friends’ – but does nothing to foster the real strength of our international position or offer a more independent view of the world.

On the key questions of strategic policy, such as the current war against terrorism, Labor unapologetically stands with the US-led coalition because this is a struggle that affects us all.

However, support for the war on terrorism and other areas of co-operation with the US does not mean that this country’s foreign policy should be a pale shadow of America’s.

Howard says we can still stand tall in the eyes of the world. But it’s hard to stand tall when you’re always on your knees.

Mr Howard claims that our international reputation has never been higher.

Who’s he kidding?

You only have to look at international media reports over recent years and more recently speak to Australians who have travelled abroad to understand how low our reputation has sunk.

John Howard is in denial.

A New Proposal for China

Thirty-one years ago another Labor leader saw the growing importance of China in the region and decided to lead an ALP delegation to Beijing – a delegation that included a young Stephen FitzGerald as an adviser.

Contrary to the criticism from the Liberal government at the time – including McMahon’s famous line that Gough Whitlam had been played by the Chinese ‘like a fisherman plays a trout’ – his 1971 visit as Leader of the Opposition was instrumental in laying the groundwork for a stronger and more durable relationship between Australia and China.

He saw the future and did not resile from arguing for the case for the diplomatic recognition of China.

Two days later, when news broke that Henry Kissinger was in Beijing at the same time to negotiate US recognition of China – McMahon must have felt the sting of the fish hook in his own cheek.

Gough Whitlam was prepared to take on that leadership role. It was the Labor way and a correct call. If the conservatives had won office in 1972, we would have been followers not leaders.

That leadership is still talked about by the Chinese leadership today. And there remains a huge depth of goodwill towards Australia as a consequence.

It has been conveyed strongly to me in the various meetings I have had in recent weeks with Foreign Minister Tang and the head of Shangdong Province, Mr Wu Guanzheng.

We need to build on that goodwill and take new initiatives to modernise the bilateral relationship.

Just as the 1971 visit set a new course for Australia’s regional engagement policy, I will be taking a new proposal to China next week on Labor’s plans for a closer partnership between Australia and China.

Upon winning office – a Labor government will move to secure an agreement with China on closer economic, political and trade relations.

Our objective will be the negotiation of an Australia/China treaty similar to the agreement on friendship and co-operation that we signed with Japan in 1976.

The 1976 Nara Treaty was significant because it opened up a dialogue and a better cultural understanding between the two countries.

As China opens up to the world and joins the international community as the newest member of the World Trade Organization, the time is right for a similar initiative with China.

This would be a vehicle for better government-to-government relations that would in turn improve the prospects for Australian and Chinese businesses.

The business communities in Australia and China should use this opportunity of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with China to secure stronger ties. I will be arguing strongly in China for projects such as the Liquid Natural Gas contract for Guangdong province and the opportunities for Australian business to be involved in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

There is no doubt that China’s size, economic growth and strategic weight means that it will become even more important to its neighbours and to the region in the years ahead.

And it remains a basic axiom of international politics that if we have good relations with our neighbours and with the region, our security interests and our economic prospects are enhanced.

For these reasons it is important we set down some clear strategies for building up the relationship now.

My proposal to the Chinese sets out, in broad terms, the benefits that can accrue to both sides as a result of China’s rapid growth and increasing integration into the regional and global economy.

Although we see opportunities to extend and enhance our bilateral links with China, this won’t be at the exclusion of other countries in the region any more than it was in the early 1970s.

My proposal recognizes the importance of the Australia-China relationship. It renews and reinvigorates that relationship for its own importance and for the signal it gives.

Under a Labor government, Australia will pursue the enhancement of relations with China in the context of building an overall set of bilateral and multilateral relations in the region in order to build on the foundations of the WTO framework.

Australia-China relations will be a key building block – the application of a bilateral mechanism to enhance regional and international structures.

Building partnerships in the Region

The direct benefits to Australia of regional engagement are well known.

But they are worth repeating because they tell the story in the most unambiguous terms.

Over one million Australian jobs now depend on exports – and sixty per cent of our exports go to Asian markets.

In tabloid terms, ‘trade with Asia delivers Aussie jobs’.

Moreover, Asia is home to our largest trading partner (Japan), our most rapidly growing economic partner (China) and seven of our top ten markets.

But under a new Labor government, our regional engagement policy will need to be recreated and not just resumed.

Australia must be willing to take the lead in seeking new partnerships and new forms of engagement.

We need to recapture some of the independence, activism and leadership that marked the foreign policy achievements of previous Labor governments.

It will be about modernising the things that Labor has done well in the past.

Under previous Labor governments, Australia’s middle power diplomacy – a diplomatic style that emphasises building coalitions of like-minded countries to achieve specific outcomes – had given us a greater degree of influence in the region and the world.

Our work on the Cairns Group of agricultural traders, which negotiated better outcomes for agriculture in the Uruguay Round of the GATT negotiations, is exactly the kind of creative diplomacy that middle-sized countries must engage in if they are to have their voices heard.

Australia’s other major initiatives, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, the Cambodian Peace Plan and the Chemical Weapons Convention, were widely recognised as positive contributions to the economic and security architecture of the region.

But the case for regional engagement needs to be constantly re-made.

There are several steps that a Labor government will take to improve and enhance the quality of our engagement with the region.

First, Australia’s problems in its relations and standing in Asia under the Howard Government have stemmed from poorly conceived and ineptly coordinated policies. So a clear set of priorities and the presentation of a more consistent and coherent image to the region is needed.

A new Australian government should make a serious intellectual commitment to regional engagement as a cornerstone of our foreign policy.

This commitment should be made at the highest levels of state-to-state relations. It should be a key priority for the Prime Minister.

And we need to articulate this policy through closer personal contact with regional leaders.

Australia’s relations with Indonesia are a revealing example of the importance of close personal relationships.

As our largest neighbour and a country with key economic and strategic interests for Australia, the Australia-Indonesia relationship cannot be successfully maintained unless there is a high level of understanding and sophistication that goes with close and continuing engagement.

Likewise, Singapore is a country of great importance to Australia in terms of regional co-operation.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and I have already held discussions on where our two countries should be positioned to meet the challenges that face the region in the next ten to twenty years.

I will be visiting Jakarta, Singapore and other regional capitals within the next twelve to eighteen months to hold further discussions on these important matters.

Second, Australia must work to broaden the terms of engagement with Asia.

There are a number of issues, sometimes referred to as ‘third agenda issues’, which are highly important to regional countries and on which Australia has good skills, experience and ideas to offer.

Australian expertise in dealing with problems such as food security, water scarcity and alternative energy sources is much needed in the region.

If the events of September 11 demonstrate one thing, it is that threats to the security of individuals are now more diverse and less predictable.

In addition to the traditional security agenda of nation-states, Asian leaders are increasingly defining security by reference to a broader range of concerns that include terrorism alongside trans-national crime, disease and ethnic or religious violence.

Countries such as South Korea and Japan have been at the forefront of debates about how – in this new threat environment – states must employ a comprehensive approach to security policy that includes environmental, humanitarian and social responses.

Australia should be more closely engaged in these debates in order to shape and direct a regional response to this new ‘human security’ agenda.

Broadening the terms of regional engagement should also include expanding the range of contacts beyond the senior ministers usually involved.

If some interested Members of Parliament – both State and Federal – were willing to take on the task of developing contacts with one Asian country, such as Peter Cook’s interest in China or the long-standing interest that Tim Fischer had in Thailand – then Australia’s networks could gradually be deepened in ways that are likely to bring benefits to both sides.

Such linkages are often well established in the academic field – such as the various Alumni associations in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. I will do more to expand these types of networks to include politicians, business leaders and community groups.

Third, Australian diplomacy will need to be flexible and sufficiently independent enough to meet the challenges of future regional integration.

Australia must be prepared to help define, and if necessary, lead the development of the new economic and security architecture as it emerges in the region.

Under a more active leadership in the past, Australia played this role by giving regional institutions greater strength through initiatives such as the Bogor Declaration of APEC leaders.

Under my leadership, Australia would be doing much more to rejuvenate the APEC forum and to promote the goal of open regionalism. This should be done in tandem with seeking to establish the new round of WTO negotiations.

In the wake of the Asian financial crisis, new patterns of regional co-operation have emerged.

At least five new groupings or dialogues have been proposed since 1996.

These include the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), the ASEAN plus Three dialogue, President Wahid’s idea for a ‘West Pacific’ forum, a proposed meeting of Asia-Pacific Defence ministers and, most recently, Prime Minister Koizumi’s proposal for closer East Asian economic co-operation.

Although the process of regional institutional building is still in a state of flux, Australia needs the flexibility to pursue as many avenues as possible.

Some of these arrangements and proposals have included Australia from the start.

Other proposals represent an interest in East Asian-focused co-operation that Australia might not easily or readily gain formal membership.

One of the strengths that Australia can bring to the table in terms of defining the new institutional architecture is our close and enduring security relationship with the United States.

But Australia must ensure that we make an independent assessment of where our national interests lie and should not appear to reflexively support US policy stances on all matters of regional importance.

If Australia is pursuing a serious engagement policy with Asia, it is likely to have some policy views that differ from those prevailing in Washington.

It is crucial for Australia to have an independently derived and carefully argued Asia policy. I believe it will enhance our standing in Asia and in the US.

Washington will clearly assign a higher value to an informed rather than a compliant ally.

Engagement must also be about Asia and the Pacific.

In the mid-1990s we undertook a fundamental shift in foreign policy orientation towards the Pacific Island countries.

At that time, we recognised that the combination of population growth, environmental degradation and the fragility of economic and political institutions meant that change was needed in how Australia approached the region and, in particular, how we delivered sustainable outcomes on both trade and aid.

The subsequent conflicts in the Solomon Islands and Fiji have only underscored the need for this type of comprehensive, multi-layered approach.

Instead, we get from this government short-term political fixes such as the ‘Pacific Solution’ to deal with asylum seekers – the legality of which, for countries like Papua New Guinea, has yet to be determined.

We should not underestimate the damage that this policy has done to our long-term interests in promoting good governance and sustainable development in the South Pacific region.

Building better Global Partnerships

Australia has had a proud history of building global partnerships to tackle global problems.

But under the Howard Government, Australia has gone from being a leader in brokering global solutions on issues as diverse as human rights, the environment and arms control to being missing in action.

We can’t influence global agendas if we haven’t got a seat at the table. After failing six years ago, the Howard Government still hasn’t managed to get Australia back on to the UN Security Council; it has downgraded our contacts with the International Labour Organization and has only now just managed to get us a seat at the Commission on Human Rights.

The problem is that Australia is not seen as an indispensable country to any of these institutions because we are seen as having limited interest in multilateral frameworks.

But for some of the most important global issues confronting Australia – such as people smuggling and asylum seekers – building international frameworks is the only way to go.

I have called for this approach several times, but despite the Government saying it is interested in a lasting solution, they didn’t get more countries to sign the 1967 Refugees Protocol at the Bali Conference and they didn’t even have this issue on the CHOGM agenda.

Australia can be tough on border protection and compassionate at the same time.

Australians are rightly offended by the notion of ‘queue jumping’, by the suggestion that people aren’t getting an equal and fair go. But it is obvious to all Australians who watch the nightly news that in countries embroiled in conflicts, orderly refugee queues do not really exist. We must help create them as well as tackle the problem of people smuggling and refugee movements at their source.

To do this we must honour our international treaty obligations and work to get others to support multilateral solutions.

We need leadership to get us back to the table.

Being a good international citizen is the right way to go – it’s the Labor way. It is in our national interest and it builds respect.

The environment is a good example of the need to build global partnerships to tackle global problems. And it is not only the environment that suffers when we fail to find global solutions.

Australian companies are already involved in exporting to a growing international market for environmental goods and services. Our exports are currently worth about $1 billion a year and expected to grow by 30 per cent over the next decade.

Australian industry has a competitive advantage when it comes to environmental markets. Our technical expertise, our experience with local environmental challenges, the structure of our economy and our proximity to Asia provides us with opportunities that have not been recognized by the Howard Government.

Organizations such as Australian Business Ltd are already working with local companies in India, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and China on a range of new technologies – including waste-water treatment, sustainable energy, soil mapping and automotive-emission controls – to assist with growing concerns in the region about environmental degradation.

But our access to new environmental markets will be limited if we continue to play the spoiler role in environmental negotiations.

The Howard Government’s reluctance to ratify the Kyoto Protocol is putting Australian companies at a disadvantage.

Failure to ratify the Protocol means that Australia will be unable to participate in global emissions trading and unable to gain credit for emission reductions achieved in partnership with developing countries or other industrialized nations.

This could cost Australia millions of dollars in lost overseas investment opportunities and local jobs as companies move their operations offshore.

Australia cannot afford to simply opt-out of these important international agreements.

A Labor government will immediately ratify the Kyoto Protocol to tackle climate change, to protect our natural assets, to support growing industries such as tourism and environmental exports and to ensure a sustainable future for our traditional value-added industries like coal and gas.

Coal and gas are important sources of power for electricity generation, and will remain vital into the future. It is in finding cleaner and more efficient ways of using these along with other fuel sources, that Australia can maintain its competitive advantage and secure Australian jobs while at the same time reducing greenhouse emissions.

Labor takes our international responsibilities very seriously. It is in our self-interest that we do so because we ourselves depend on the international system.

Finding an effective solution to the current cycle of violence in the Middle East must begin with the UN Security Council resolutions and the various proposals for a peace settlement.

At present there is no trust. There is nothing to negotiate. It is a stalemate.

The framework for peace in the Middle East through international cooperation does exist, but it exists through the international community and cooperation between the two parties.

The same principle needs to be applied to finding a solution to the problem posed by Iraq – and its refusal to abide by the standards of the international community.

Earlier today I released a statement that sets out Labor’s policy approach to the question of possible military action against Iraq as part of the war on terrorism.

Our Shadow Cabinet considered this last week and has determined our approach.

Fundamental to Labor’s approach is the recognition that the United Nations has a crucial role to play in determining what next steps should be taken on Iraq.

It is our view that the case has not yet been made as would warrant a direct and immediate attack on Iraq.

In the absence of any credible information that links Saddam Hussein to the September 11 terrorist bombings or indicates a rapid increase in his ability to use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, the international community must continue to work through the UN mechanisms that are in place to deal with Iraq.

Labor believes that before any decision is made concerning Australian involvement in, or support for, military action against Iraq three steps need to be taken.

First, the Government must provide the Opposition with a full briefing on the evidence from all relevant domestic agencies.

Second, discussions must be held between John Howard and myself on an appropriate course of action.

And third, Parliament should be recalled as a matter of urgency to debate and determine the matter.

The Australian people expect strong bipartisan support before major military commitments are made.


It has become popular in narratives of Australia’s post-World War II history to view foreign policy as one area of broad agreement between the major political parties.

But the Howard Government’s decision to shift foreign policy away from the processes of regional engagement and to focus exclusively on bilateralism has undermined 50 years of bipartisanship in this country.

Australia’s middle power diplomacy under Labor, which emphasised building a broad consensus of ideas and interests, had given us a place at the negotiating table, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, the retreat from that leadership role has damaged our political stocks and has relegated Australia to a secondary player on the international stage.

With bilateralism as its only policy tool, the Howard government has been excluded from the emerging dynamism of regional integration.

Being an active, independent country engaged in the region and the world is about making choices.

Governments can choose to employ their diplomatic resources in certain ways. At the end of the day, Australia will always need to be engaged.

But whether or not that engagement is pursued in a positive and constructive way depends ultimately on what governments in Canberra seek to do with it.

Building a strong partnership with China, Asia and the rest of the world is the way forward.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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