Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 08:37 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 26 Sep 2018 | 08:37 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: Ignoring Asia?

9 August 2011 09:31

Richard Broinowski writes:

Geoff Miller did your readers a valuable service by taking Michael Wesley to task over inaccurate assertions he made in There Goes the Neighbourhood. Certainly no Australian official,  least of all those in its foreign service, has ignored the world, or Asia, 'as time lurches forward to Australia's north' (sic). Relations with the United States and the United Nations have been important (with the regrettable exception of Australia’s negativity towards the UN during the Howard years). But in the last four decades of the twentieth century, and the first of the twenty first, as much or more sweat and effort was put into improving bilateral relations with Asian countries as it has on our great and powerful friend, or the United Nations.

Geoff gave a number of examples of bilateral policy initiatives in which Australian diplomats had a hand in initiating or developing with ministers. One of the most effective was the consultative machinery on Japan, the result of a report commissioned by the Whitlam government, prepared by Ken Myer, and executed by a secretariat in Foreign Affairs for Commonwealth departments and business CEOs, mainly during the Fraser years. It had the extraordinary effect of frustrating Japanese trading houses  — always better coordinated than Australian companies — from getting lower than market prices for Australian commodities by trading one Australian State or mining company off against another.

Another important bilateral initiative not mentioned by Geoff was towards Vietnam, specifically how to build back post-Indochinese war relations after Fraser had frozen them after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979. Foreign Affairs came up with four initiatives which the new Foreign Minister, Bill Hayden, adopted in 1983 and instructed the Hanoi post to execute: the first three were to start an aid program, re-stimulate bilateral trade, and finish all the bilateral business left hanging at the end of the Vietnam War, such as having an investigation into the effects of Agent Orange on Australian troops, conducting an MIA mission, and returning legal title over Australian diplomatic property in Saigon to the Hanoi government.

The fourth initiative was to re-establish sufficient trust among Hanoi's leaders so that they would talk to us about their intentions in Cambodia, mainly, when they would get out. The then Foreign Minister, the urbane and articulate Nguyen Co Thach, gave us some candid and accurate advice which stopped those in Canberra in their tracks who believed Vietnam was there to stay. By and large our goals were met, and the bilateral relationship has prospered very much as a result.

I sometimes think that Michael Wesley, never a foreign affairs practitioner, gives too much credit to ONA, and too little to diplomats in the field, in moving our important bilateral relations in Asia forward. His grasp of the history of Australian diplomacy is somewhat selective.