PM's new Asia approach pays dividends: academic

Wednesday, 6 April 2005

Prime Minister John Howard's new attitude towards Asia is already paying dividends - but Australia still needs to be very careful in building diplomatic relations with its neighbours, according to a leading Asian Studies academic.

Professor Purnendra Jain, from the University of Adelaide's Centre for Asian Studies, says the visit of Indonesian President Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been a successful start to a month of critical relationship building with some of Australia's most important Asian partners.

"Prime Minister Howard's cooperative attitude and his acknowledgement of Asia's importance for Australia is a clear departure from his earlier disregard of - and indeed arrogance towards - Asia," Professor Jain says.

"This attitude is now paying dividends, as we have seen with the current visit of Dr Yudhoyono. The cooperative announcements from earlier this week have opened a new chapter in our previously troubled relations with Indonesia."

Another landmark development will occur later this week with the first visit of a Malaysian Prime Minister to Australia for two decades. Professor Jain says the visit of Abdullah Badawi will give Mr Howard the chance to improve relations with Malaysia, another country which has had a troubled relationship with Australia.

"Since Abdullah Badawi came to office in late 2003, the bitterness in the relationship of the Mahathir era seems to have dissipated," Professor Jain says. "Mahathir was a great critic of Australia and campaigned successfully for Australia's exclusion from regional groupings.

"Going by the tone of the Indonesian President and Prime Minister Badawi's conciliatory stance towards Australia, there is hope for Australia to be invited to the first East Asian summit meeting to be hosted by Malaysia in December."

Later this month Mr Howard travels to China and Japan, with discussions about potential free trade agreements with both countries likely to be prominent.

"Australia's position in Asia has improved significantly in recent months, as a result of both external circumstances and Mr Howard's change of attitude," Professor Jain says.

"However, to further strengthen the current goodwill and increasing cooperation, it is essential that Mr Howard and other high-profile public figures shun making "pre-emptive" statements or acting as a regional "deputy-sheriff" - any such diplomatic blunder will easily turn our relations with Asia backwards."


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Professor Purnendra Jain
Professor of Asian Studies
Centre for Asian Studies
The University of Adelaide
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