Bilateral relations with Asia have Liberal roots
BOTH the Liberal and Labor parties have reached out to our Asian neighbours at different times in different ways. However, the idea that it was Labor that first reached out to Asia misrepresents the historical facts.
The conservative side of politics has a track record of offering a hands-across-the-water approach to our geopolitical neighbourhood.
External affairs minister John Latham’s groundbreaking trip to Asia in 1934, for example, was a milestone, along with Percy Spender’s far-sighted Colombo Plan, and Robert Menzies’ coining of the term the Near North to replace the term the Far East. It’s worth acknowledging that the Australian Liberal Party and its predecessors saw the opportunities and importance of building bridges in our region.
In August 1962, prime minister Menzies hosted an official visit to Australia by King Bhumibol of Thailand.
In his address at a banquet dinner in honour of the king at Parliament House, Menzies, seconded by the acting leader of the federal Labor Party opposition, Gough Whitlam, stressed the crucial relationship between Thailand and Australia. In particular Menzies stressed the political and economic importance to Australia of Thailand, which was known as Siam until 1949.
In his reply, King Bhumibol congratulated Menzies for understanding that the notion of the Far East made sense only from the point of view of Europe, not from Australia. He was delighted that Australia was aware that “our country is not the Far East, it is the Near North”.
For the king, who is still alive and revered in Thailand, this awareness made Australia and Thailand much closer and, indeed, was a driver of an increasing number of Thai students coming to Australia. Hoping that our closer relationship would continue to improve, King Bhumibol explained that this meant “not only more students coming here but that there will be more Australians coming to our country, so that we can understand each other better with knowledge and understanding – and real knowledge, not the knowledge of hearsay”.
Since Menzies hosted the king of Thailand’s visit, our relationship has continued to grow in the economic, political and strategic realms. This includes highly significant people-to-people links, with nearly a million Australians visiting Thailand every year and the value of two-way trade with Thailand last year exceeding $18 billion. Thailand, the second largest economy in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and with a population of 69.52 million, is our sixth largest trading partner.
The Liberal member for Menzies’ blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong, Josh Frydenberg, made this clear last month when he addressed the Bangkok Dialogue on the Rule of Law. Frydenberg, who is Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, puts it thus: “Thailand is not just important politically but is a critical economic partner for Australia and presents important future fiscal and economic opportunities for Australian businesses and corporations.”
Thailand’s first female prime minister, Shinawatra Yingluck of the Pheu Thai Party, came to power in the 2011 general election. She visited Australia in May last year to mark the 60th anniversary of our diplomatic relations, established in 1952 under the Menzies government. The visit resulted in a joint communique announcing initiatives to increase bilateral co-operation in the areas of education, trade, disaster management, energy, food safety, security, and regional and global affairs.
As a sign of the importance Thailand attaches to our long-established bilateral relations, the king’s granddaughter, Princess Bajrakitiyabha, also visited Australia, in August last year, to further celebrate the anniversary.
Yingluck is the sister of convicted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a coup in 2006 following corruption allegations.
Yingluck is facing large-scale street protests in Bangkok and elsewhere in the country from volatile anti-government forces. Most protesters are strong supporters of the opposition Democrat Party, which claims that the Prime Minister is a mere proxy for her brother.
However, neither the present political turmoil in Thailand, nor indeed the ebb and flow of politics within our other Near North neighbours, including Indonesia, should distract us from the importance of our bilateral relations with the countries of Asia.
Thanks to Menzies, and his political predecessors and successors, most nations in our Near North now see us as their southern neighbours. It is a north-south relationship and a Liberal legacy that is being honoured by Tony Abbott from the very outset of his Coalition government.
Ross Fitzgerald, emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University, is the author of 36 books.
The Weekend Australian, December 14-15, 2013, INQUIRER p 15