The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia


Address by the Hon Alexander Downer, Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the launch of the Australia in Asia Series at Mural Hall, Parliament House Canberra on Thursday, 23 May 1996.

I am delighted to launch Comparing Cultures, the first volume in the Australia In Asia Series.

I particularly welcome the ways the book thoroughly examines how Australia can more fully engage with Asia.

This is a vital task for Australia and is the highest foreign policy priority of this Government.

In one sense, this Government's commitment to Asia is nothing new. Over four decades ago, my predecessor Richard Casey said that Australia's own special role lay in South East Asia and that consequently Australia's foreign policy would be largely but not exclusively concerned with the Asian region.

Casey's words today find support not only within Australia but also from our Asian neighbours. During my recent visit to Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand, Australia's commitment to the region was thoroughly endorsed by those three countries. They, along with the Philippines, publicly supported Australia's presence at the next Asia Europe Summit meetings. Only last week, the Foreign Minister of Vietnam expressed his warm support for Australian involvement in the region, appreciation for the new Government's actions to date and sympathy for our involvement in the next ASEM meetings and other regional groups.

Needless to day, I am delighted that these Asian countries have given such an overwhelmingly positive response to the new Australian Government as an active player in regional affairs.

The task of increasing Australia's engagement with the region is, as Comparing Cultures makes abundantly clear, a complex and subtle task. The book's sophisticated analysis of concepts such as human rights and national security, its analysis of the varied "Asian" understandings of the role of the media, government and the basic ethical rules of business ethics, reveals that such common terms disclose a variety of widely different meanings. Indeed the different meanings various cultures attached to these terms shows even the concept of "Asia" can only loosely describe a region which is much more a complex entity than a monolithic whole.

Asia's complexity should only serve to heighten Australia's determination to be more sensitive to these cultural differences and, in so doing, more effective in forging relations with other Asian countries. This is true for an academic seeking to develop educational links between universities, for business people seeking to increase trade and investment, and, dare I say, for Foreign Ministers as well.

Comparing Cultures will also prove invaluable not only for the truths it makes clear about the complexity of various cultures found within Asia but also for the flaws it exposes in certain theories which are often held about Asia.

Professor Bourke, in the foreword to the work, rejects the idea that there is dramatic and rapid convergence of value systems in Asia. I agree with his thesis that it is an error to mistake development for convergence. Indeed I argued last year that the suggestion that a powerful process of cultural homogenisation is occuring in the region as a result of regional economic growth is a stylised thesis which ignores the indomitable evidence of independent culture and national identity.

I also agree with the authors of Comparing Cultures who reject the thesis of clashing civilisations proposed by Samuel Huntington. This theory wrongly suggests that the fault lines along which future conflict will run will be those between different cultures and regions.

This theory ignores the fact that it is the state, rather than culture or civilisation, which continues to be the primary locus of power and identification.

It is the state that is the primary source of political power. Despite, the influence of transnational corporations and international capital flows, it is the state that remains the primary economic unit.

This realist approach sets the theoretical framework in and through which Australia approaches its engagment with Asia. The meeting point for Australia with the region is through the building up of common interests with other countries, interests which are forged together by sensitive appreciation of the cultural differences of other nations and by a hard headed reckoning of common interests and ties.

This is why this Government is so committed to restoring a proper focus on bilateral relations as the basis of its foreign policy. It is in working to improve country to country relations that Australia will become even more connected to Asian countries. Already, this commitment is clearly evident in this Government's foreign policy actions and the reaction of Asian countries is a sure sign of its success.

But Australia does not simply relate to Asian countries on a country to country basis. Through belonging to and being committed to the development of regional fora such as APEC and ARF, Australia seeks to develop a culture of cooperation, a collective of regional nations which are joined by common security and economic interests and increasingly bonded together by a culture of increased cooperation.

I find, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, that shaping Australia's engagement with Asia is an exciting task.

So, too, do the contributors of Comparing Cultures, who I understand met together for days at a time and co-authored its chapters. It is this spirit of common endeavour and commitment to this important task which is so evident in this book.

This work is rich testament to the vitality of the process of Australia's engagement with Asia which Richard Casey foresaw over forty years ago.

The insights and words of a Foreign Minister mean little without the active cooperation and enthusiasm of Australians who build up the people to people links which form the core of any country's relations with another.

I hope this book will draw others to reflect at depth on what Australia's relationship with Asia means and spur them into similar action.