The 50th anniversary of the formation of the Association of South East Asian Nations is upon us. It’s an organisation that started with five countries but now has 10 and is the world’s No. 4 trading block, which Australia, during one of its many wide-eyed-OMG-what-a-great-business-opportunity-shit-all-these people-are-right-on-our-doorstep-Asia-is-the-future Groundhog Day moments (every government since Gough Whitlam’s has had them) once, very sensibly, wanted to join. In the wash-up, the south-east Asians — there are new about 700 million of them, give or take — decided to say “no whiteys allowed”.
In the interim, the ASEAN block has become, in toto, Australia’s No. 2 two-way trade partner after China — ahead of the US, Japan and South Korea. Asia was and remains Australia’s future — notwithstanding the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, an awful waste of taxpayer funds, pandering to the Anglo-Aussie rump.
The Australian consulate in Bangkok is Thailand’s busiest. And finally, last Friday, the same government that thinks nothing of handing Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports $30 million for a non-existent women’s sports deal opened an overdue consulate on Phuket.
It was opened by the nation’s Armani-clad Prime Minister-in-waiting, deputy Liberal leader and Foreign Minister Julie “maybe this time” Bishop. And here, folks, is the rub: Australia’s singular contribution on the ground in south-east Asia — to what is a pretty significant occasion involving the block of countries that nervously sits between China, Japan and Australia — was a speech given by Bishop the previous day in Bangkok.
To say it was a damp squib is to be derogatory to squibs. You may be shocked to learn there was not a skerrick of original thought or news in it.
“I began my day with an early morning run through Lumphini Park and I joined hundreds it seems of local people embracing brisk exercise not just the physical and mental but also the spiritual and it reminded me again how the Thai people are able to bring such balance into their lives,” Bishop said. “I then paid my respects at the Grand Palace, expressing the condolences of the Prime Minister, the government and the people of Australia on the passing of your beloved monarch, His Majesty King Ramos IX.”
She followed with a classic laundry list speech, singling out herself twice, yet she could not, on a corrected copy (not available on her website but here, exclusively) even get the late King Rama IX’s name right.
Bishop’s office clearly knew what a squib this was for her because, most certainly, it did not want it reported on that day, or indeed the next in Crikey because it took them a full 24 hours to send out the transcript, despite repeated requests.
Your correspondent had planned to be there but a case of Bangkok belly stopped us in our tracks. In a fabulously Kafkaesque moment, freshly minted DFAT functionary Peta Donald, previously of the ABC, who had been flown to Bangkok for not one, not two, but five days (my guess is up the front), emailed, after a very long email silence, late that evening, “you could have had a copy if you had been there”, despite knowing full well that I was ill.
Bishop’s Thailand in-and-out was perfunctory and non-eventful. Yet it was still one of the increasingly rare visits to any south-east Asian nation — apart from Indonesia or Singapore or a regional summit — made by an Australian prime minister or cabinet minister. Turnbull has been to summits, Indonesia and Singapore (visits to the former are driven by fear, visits to the latter fear and greed). Tony Abbott went to summits, Indonesia and Singapore, as well as to Malaysia and Vietnam (driven by the now Trumped Trans-Pacific Partnership). Julia Gillard went to summits and, well, you get the drill. The last Australian prime minister to go to Thailand was John Howard for a summit about 20 years ago. Kevin Rudd went to Myanmar to get his picture snapped with Aung San Suu Kyi (but not as many times as Bob Carr did) and funnily enough, since reality has bitten there, the visits have stopped.
We wanted to have a list for you but after four days of promising to help and promising they were working on the list, Bishop’s department abruptly said that all ministerial travel was on the public record. Really.
Bishop has popped into Thailand twice in five years and here and there, mainly to summits, giving the same sort of bland-on-bland speech. On this trip, she promised bravely to urge Thailand’s military junta to hold elections. It’s the same thing she said last time, failing to mention growing media censorship and tough lese majeste laws (defaming the monarchy). I can’t write any more about the nasty 13-year-long civil war in the south that is easily the region’s worst. But what’s 8000 lives been friends, huh? Perhaps she doesn’t know.
Summits aside, the powers that try to be in Canberra don’t give a tinker’s cuss about south-east Asia, and when they do it’s generally driven by fear – the Indonesian bit is easy, it’s a breeding ground for “terror”, and Singapore is the only First World country in the region, so the one-party city state and Australia are increasingly clinging to each other for dear life. Compare this to all the fawning and visiting to the region’s biggest abuser of human rights (no contest) China and a worthy continued focus on Japan.
Yet individually, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam are all top 15 trading partners. The Philippines, Vietnam and even Indonesia and the first two are in the top 10 investors in Australia. Indonesia and Vietnam are climbing up the list. Many of Australia’s largest retail companies outsource non-core business processes like information technology, accounting and telephone sales to these countries.
South-east Asia has also become Australia’s “holiday playground” with more than 1 million Aussies packing up the togs and heading to Indonesia — sorry, Bali — each year, and more than 900,000 doing the same to Phuket in southern Thailand. Tourist numbers to Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia — well name any ASEAN country apart from no-booze Brunei (where the diving is nice) — are on the up. South-east Asian tourist — and student — numbers to Australia continue to climb.
Despite all this, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo has been to only … you guessed it: Singapore and Indonesia (he’s been to London a lot and New York, Paris and Brazil, though). In fact, the only time that any Australian cabinet minister, including the PM, has been outside an international confab (ASEAN summits, East Asia summits, APEC summits, Summat bloody summits) or a capital city in south-east Asia — and please correct me if I have missed one — was the grandly styled Six Nation talks in the northern province of Sulawesi close to the junction of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippine province of Mindanao, where Islamic State-linked gangsters with human shields have been battling the country’s army for more than two months.
Despite constant whingeing and moaning from DFAT (and apologies to the handful of very good Australian ambassadors in the region) about the lack of Australian correspondents on the ground in the region to cover the government’s brave occasional forays to south-east Asian five star hotels, journalists trekking to this pretty remote destination were treated once more with disdain (The offending ministers this time were Messrs Brandis and Keenan). They were left sitting outside the building where the talks they had been begged to cover, at great expense, were being held until an exasperated local fixer got lippy and got them in — on a different floor. Ah, transparency.
Some readers will recall the Six Nations talks that, about a decade ago, were going to hose down North Korean nuclear program. They have stopped. If I were a betting man, I’d wager that these six nations gabfests will have roughly the same efficacy.
So happy birthday, ASEAN (well, Singapore and Indonesia, at least).