Scott Morrison and Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
Scott Morrison (right) and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam.

Australian governments have always been fond of talking up our Asian “neighbours”, “old friends”, “good friends”. But their track record of walking the talk is frankly embarrassing. At the highest level, Canberra has all but ignored its south-east and south Asian neighbours — except Indonesia, Singapore and India — for decades and, in some cases, 50 years or more.

This represents a potentially significant problem for Australia, especially strategically, given the US-Australia-Japan alliance’s chief rival China — as well as other regional mid-sized powers like Japan and South Korea — has taken the time to be neighbourly and friendly. China’s leader Xi Jinping and his No. 2 Li Keqiang are regular visitors to the capitals of even mid-sized countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia’s shocking track record was inadvertently underscored by Scott Morrison’s surprise bilateral visit to Vietnam last week — the first by an Australian PM in 25 years. The last such visit was by Paul Keating was in 1994, the PM whose foresight on the importance of Asian countries being Australia’s friends and neighbours, not just transactional trading partners, has been unmatched since.

It’s not just Vietnam, a country that has clearly been a rising south-east Asian power economically and strategically for the past decade. The same treatment has been meted out to pretty much every other one of our much ballyhooed, publicly praised friends in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — and further west, as well. ASEAN collectively is Australia’s second-largest trading partner, after China.

Thailand, the second-biggest ASEAN economy after Indonesia, has not received a standalone prime ministerial visit since 1998, when John Howard visited. This is despite Thailand being Australia’s 1oth-largest trading partner (it now makes more cars for Australia than any other country) and the second-most popular Asian holiday destination for Australians after Indonesia (driven by Bali).

The Philippines, which ranks as the No. 4 ASEAN economy, has likewise not been graced by an Australian PM visit outside the summit season for 16 years, when John Howard visited in 2003.

Malaysia, ASEAN’s No. 3 economy and Australia’s No. 11 trading partner, has fared quite a bit better, with Tony Abbott making a visit in August 2014, but this was an outlier and a lightening visit only due to the missing airliner MH17, which Australia had been searching for.

The smaller countries in the region have been basically ignored and forgotten. Myanmar has not had a standalone visit by an Australian PM since Gough Whitlam visited in 1974. For Laos it was also Whitlam in 1975, and for Cambodia it was Paul Keating, way back in 1992.

Even Timor-Leste — a country that Australia helped to gain its freedom from its Indonesia between 1999-2002 — has been ignored by prime ministers since Kevin Rudd visited in 2008, no doubt embarrassed by Australia’s now torn-up treaty, thanks to the UN’s Permanent Arbitration Court. The 2004 treaty robbed the tiny nation of undersea oil reserves and was later followed in 2012 by allegations the Howard government spied on the Timorese cabinet office during treaty negotiations. Scott Morrison will visit Dili this week to ratify a new treaty that gives Timor-Leste a greater share of oil and gas revenues.

Yes, the summits — ASEAN, the East Asia Summit and the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation — present an opportunity to see other leaders. But everyone there is pretty much angling for the big guys — US, China and Japan — and trying to grab a photo op with them. The bilaterals are pushed to the sidelines, are rushed, and only a handful of other leaders can be met. Plus, summit visitors tend not to see much of the country they are in beyond the airports, hotels and function centres — and maybe a quick spin around in a bus.

Australia’s former ambassador to China Geoff Raby, who held the job from 2007-2011 used to insist visiting cabinet ministers take a trip somewhere apart from Beijing or Shanghai. It’s something German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in the habit of doing as well.

Looking at the sorry list of neglect, undoing so much far-sighted work by Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating in particular, there is both an enormous amount of work to do and a sense that the obsession with China — now, as it was always going to, unravelling before our eyes — has come at a mighty cost for our ties with countries that, despite it all, still value us more than China.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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