Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 08:55 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 08:55 | SYDNEY

Australia is Asian at the summit


Graeme Dobell

26 June 2009 09:59

A diplomatic quest that takes 14 years to reach the summit deserves a salute. So a small round of applause, please, for Australia’s achievement in getting a seat at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). Australia will become part of the Asian team at the 8th ASEM summit in Brussels next year.

ASEM happens every two years. For Asia, it ranks well below the annual gatherings of the East Asia Summit (EAS) and APEC. So the funny thing about getting to the top of the ASEM mountain is that it’s really a case of conquering one of the lower peaks. Still, the symbolism of Australia lining up on the Asia side obviously matters. There’ll be a moment of quiet triumph for Australia’s leaders and diplomats in sitting on the Asian side to deal with Europe. For these purposes, Australia is now Asian.

Ah, but history can be messy. Australia’s Prime Minister could use this first ASEM summit to lobby the European leaders for votes in support of Australia’s quest for a seat on the UN Security Council. Whatever its Asian hankerings, Australia is still categorised as belonging to Europe when running in UN races.

When the ASEM process was being born in 1995, Singapore promised that Australia would be a founding member on the Asian side. That position was backed by Japan and, to a lesser extent, by Indonesia. But Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad proved a stronger player in ‘95 than he had been in 1989-90 when he’d been unable to persuade the rest of ASEAN that APEC should be strangled at birth.

Mahathir wielded the veto against Australia and it stuck. Neither Singapore nor Indonesia were prepared to confront Malaysia on Australia’s behalf. Japan refused to say ‘boo’ to Mahathir. This was an example of the diplomatic funk Tokyo fell into in the 1990s to mirror its economic afflictions.

The crunch moment for Australia came at the annual gathering of Asia Pacific foreign ministers hosted by ASEAN in 1995. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, turned up at the Brunei meeting waving a copy of a new map he’d commissioned: the East Asian Hemisphere. Prominent at the southern end of the hemisphere was Australia. 

Australia belonged on the Asian team, Evans argued, on grounds of geography as well as for an intricate web of economic, diplomatic and military reasons. Then there was the time shown on Oz clocks: ‘We are closer to [Asia] than anyone else, and longitudinally we share broadly the same time zones as East Asia‘. When asked about the East Asian Hemisphere, the Malaysian Foreign Minister gave a snort that might have been a laugh: ‘If I look at a map I will immediately say that Australia is not part of Asia.' The Malaysian view won. ASEM went ahead without Australia.

In March, 1996, the first ASEM summit took place in Bangkok. On the same weekend, Australia’s voters discarded Labor and elected the Howard Government. One piece of the Labor inheritance that the Coalition persevered with was the effort to join ASEM and, later, the East Asia Summit. The blockages imposed by the Mahathir veto in the 1990s have been removed or healed, and Australia is present at the EAS and ASEM; the Australia-New Zealand-ASEAN free trade agreement has been created too. 

The continuing challenge is to do something with the tools so laboriously created. ASEM has been notable for being little noticed. It suffers from the problem of any effort to engage with Europe: the interesting fights and the real energy in the European experiment are devoted to internal issues.

Apart from issuing invitations to Australia and Russia, the ASEM Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Hanoi didn’t get much done. One reason was the lack of European heavies on hand to do any pushing. An old Hong Hong hand, Philip Bowring (once editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review) wrote an op-ed from Hanoi headed ‘Where’s Europe?’ Bowring said the no-show by European ministers for ASEM in Hanoi and ASEAN talks in Phnom Penh would have been laughable but for the loss of face for the Asian hosts.

Having spent 14 years getting to the ASEM table, Australia will be a more diligent attendee than some Europeans. ASEM should rank ahead of that other peak event that comes around every two years — the Commonwealth summit.

Photo by flickr user l@mie, used under a Creative Commons license.