Tackling problems together

  • Letters
  • Monday, 21 Apr 2003


LAST month, the Australian Government released its second White Paper on Australian foreign and trade policy. 

Called Advancing the National Interest, it sets out the government’s strategies for advancing the security and prosperity of Australians in a rapidly changing world. 

Certainly, the world has changed a lot since the launch of Australia’s first White Paper in 1997.  

Back then we focused much more on how Australia would respond to the challenges of economic globalisation. 

Today we find ourselves grappling with what our Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, has called the increasing globalisation of security threats. 

Global terrorism is one of these threats. 

The horrifying bombings in Bali last year made all of us more acutely aware of our vulnerability to this menace.  

Terrorists are not open to negotiation. 

Terrorists acting in the name of Islam seek to overthrow moderate Islamic governments. And they oppose the tolerant message of one of the world’s great religions. 

The persistent efforts of countries like Iraq and North Korea to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons – and the means to deliver them – also threaten global security. 

Even worse would be a situation where terrorists had access to these weapons. 

Other trans-national threats include people smuggling, drug trafficking and the spread of communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS. 

Malaysian readers will not be surprised to learn that the White Paper states clearly that maintaining a productive interplay between close engagement with Asia on the one hand, and the basic Western makeup of Australian society and its institutions and our wider international associations on the other, has always been – and remains – at the heart of our foreign policy. 

The White Paper very clearly sets out the importance of Australia’s Asian links. 

Close engagement with Asia is an abiding priority for Australia. 

Asia’s economic, particularly trade, importance to Australia is clear. 

Bilateral trade with Malaysia, for example, was over RM16bil last year (and grew 200% over the past decade).  

Also valuable are the strategic interests we share with various regional partners, including Malaysia with whom we co-operate in defence training, joint exercises and military dialogues.  

Australia is also one of Malaysia’s partners in the Five Power Defence Arrangement. 

Co-operation with countries in our region to combat threats such as terrorism, people smuggling and narcotics trafficking is important for Australia’s security, and we are very well served by the close collaboration between the Australian and Malaysian police forces. 

Regional people-to-people links are also important – decades of substantial educational links, cultural exchanges and tourism underpin the deep personal involvement between Australians and Malaysians. 

We can say confidently that Australia matters to its Asian partners. 

The success of the joint Indonesia-Australia investigation into the Bali bombings showed what we can contribute to each other.  

Our contribution to the development of human resources in Asia is substantial. For example, over 100,000 Malaysians are alumni of Australian educational institutions – and 25,000 Malaysian students are currently studying Australian courses. 

The White Paper does not rank Australia’s international relations. The United States is, of course, important to us, as it is to our partners in Asia. 

The United States is the global superpower, and this is reflected in the White Paper. 

The White Paper has, however, focused on Australia’s interests, rather than a priori rankings of relationships. 

Our substantial interests with the various countries of Asia determine the links we seek to build with them. 

Australia’s interests are global as well as regional. Thus the White Paper provides a comprehensive treatment of Australia’s international links in all regions of the world. 

Self evidently, we rely on links with many countries to achieve our foreign policy and trade goals. 

And as economic globalisation proceeds, and at a time when we face serious global threats to our security, we will increasingly find ourselves considering foreign and trade policy in terms of co-operating with a wide range of countries on specific issues. We do this already in a range of forums. 

The White Paper deals at some length with the question of East Asian integration. 

It confirms that Australia would be pleased to be involved in the Asean+3 process, but recognises that our participation is a matter for those countries to decide.  

In any case, Australia’s practical contribution to regional co-operation is already considerable. 

Our counter-terrorism co-operation is a notable example of this. 

So, too, are the trade and economic agreements we seek to negotiate with regional countries – the various proposals form an ambitious programme of regional economic integration.  

Australia has just signed a free trade agreement with Singapore and is negotiating an agreement with Thailand.  

We are also pursuing trade and economic agreements with Japan, China and Korea. 

The government’s trade policy agenda – the most ambitious in Australia’s history – will focus on multilateral liberalisation, but use regional and bilateral negotiations to compete with and stimulate multilateral negotiations in a policy that our Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, has called competitive liberalisation. 

The White Paper also reconfirms that the welfare of Australians travelling abroad will remain of the highest priority for the Australian Government. 

Terrorism increases the risks to the more than one million Australians overseas at any one time. The government will continue its efforts to improve consular services. 

  • James Wise is Australia’s High Commissioner to Malaysia. The full text of the White Paper is available at the Australian High Commission’s website at www.australia.org.my

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