SCOTT BEVAN: Senator Bob Carr, it's the first time we've spoken since your new role, congratulations on becoming Australia's Foreign Minister.
BOB CARR: Thank you Scott, I'm happy to talk to you any time.
SCOTT BEVAN: Why Cambodia, Vietnam and Singapore as your first official trip?
BOB CARR: I think to underscore the importance of ASEAN to Australia. These nations, taken as a block, are our second biggest trading partner. They are partners in all sorts of ways as we plan a better future. And ASEAN has been a tremendous success story. Back at the end of the Vietnam War, no one projecting ahead 40 years could have expected South-East Asia to be presenting such a number of successful narratives as it now is.
I was in Vietnam and witnessed terrific achievements, many of them made with the help of Australians. I was in Cambodia and saw a country once riven by civil war, now reconciled and focusing on social improvement, lifting one per cent of the population out of poverty every year. And of course in Singapore, seeing the effortless integration of the Singaporean and Australian economies in a way that we always wanted.
SCOTT BEVAN: Minister, how have you confronted the view, and answered the impression in South-East Asia, that Australia has been literally, increasingly overlooking the region, with the country's focus on China instead?
BOB CARR: I think there was some relief that the new Foreign Minister, on his first overseas trip, came to this region. I think that sent a message, that sent an implicit message that we're not guilty of overlooking the region. I'm not sure that that impression ever gained currency, but I've detected no suggestion that it has.
ASEAN is a terrific success story. At every opportunity I've spoken about the centrality of ASEAN to our thinking about the region. And again, no one who was thinking about the future of South-East Asia at the time the Vietnam War was coming to an end, say 1975, 1976, could have expected South-East Asia today to be presenting so many stories of success.
SCOTT BEVAN: But do you think…
BOB CARR: And in Cambodia, the first of the countries I visited…
SCOTT BEVAN: I was going to say do you think, though, that the impression is there that Australia perhaps in recent years, hasn't been looking at what you call those stories of success; that instead we have been courting and focusing on China, perhaps at the expense of our relations with the nations throughout ASEAN?
BOB CARR: Oh, Scott, I don't think that's the impression. There's our involvement in the East Asia Summit, with ASEAN at the core of that regional architecture, and our work in getting America and Russia involved in that summit, there's our engagement in the G20, which has enabled us to be more useful as a partner in South East Asia. I've detected nowhere any impression that we've taken our eye off this region.
In Singapore today, for example, talking to Australian business leaders, I was informed by our High Commissioner that we've got a ten per cent increase each year in the Australian population in Singapore. There are 25,000 Australians who live here. There are one million Australians who visit each year. The stories of Australian businesses expanding in Singapore, of Australian businesspeople basing themselves here to do business in Indonesia or in Cambodia, these stories are now numerous. And no one in Singapore has raised with me a suggestion that we've been too focused on China, because they can see every day the happy integration of Australian business with that of Singapore. In fact someone said to me today Singaporeans think of Australia as an extension of Singapore, and Australians think of Singapore as an extension of Australia.
Let me give you another example that stuck in my mind. The Prime Minister of Cambodia Hun Sen said to me Australians have got white skin but they think like Asians. Now, that comment suggests that we have been remarkably successful in integrating ourselves into this region.
SCOTT BEVAN: Minister, one issue being discussed on your tour is Burma. Aung Sung Suu Kyi has come out saying that the by-elections to be held there this weekend can't be considered genuinely free and fair. We've had the case of two Australian parliamentary observers being refused visas. Others there have been deported, other potential observers. How confident are you that the by-elections in Burma this weekend will be free and fair?
BOB CARR: Well let's see how they're conducted. Let's look at the views of the election observers and let's talk to the opposition after the election is held. Any concerns expressed by Aung Sung Suu Kyi and other opposition figures is taken seriously by us. We continue to be in contact with figures of the opposition, as we're in contact with the government and our friends in ASEAN.
We hope the elections can be certified as authentic and genuine. There's no doubt there's been progress in Burma: the release of over 400 political prisoners, the introduction of new labour laws developed in participation with the ILO, other signs of progress.
My impression that has been confirmed in this visit to South-East Asia is that the reforms are irreversible. That is the view of people I've spoken to in Vietnam, Cambodia and in Singapore. Let's hope that that is the case. We've got observers on the ground who are qualified to make that assessment, and let's suspend judgement until the last vote is in and a proper assessment can be made.
SCOTT BEVAN: But there is still a long way to go, you must concede. There are still hundreds of political prisoners to be released, there are still conflicts going on between ethnic minorities and the government; a long way to go.
BOB CARR: I think the message I've had from our partners in ASEAN is this: the changes are irreversible, there have been some big steps made, for example resolving I think nine of those insurgencies involving ethnic groups, ethnic communities. That is seen by our partners as being significant, and we've got to encourage the Government of Burma to make more progress and to make that progress convincing, to make it authentic.
So let's give them encouragement, let's continue to hold on to that stick of the sanctions that remain in place. And we are dedicated and we're hopeful of being able to peel back the sanctions as further progress is made and certified as authentic by the opposition, with whom we'll continue to be in contact.
SCOTT BEVAN: Minister, with your time in Cambodia, you walked amid the remains of the dreadful history there on the killing fields and Australia has contributed more money to the Khmer Rouge trials, taking this country's commitment to just over $18 million. Yet given key judges have resigned over apparent Cambodian political interference at the trials, how confident are you that justice can be done and that the Cambodian people can feel as though they can see justice being done?
BOB CARR: Well I went into that court for a short period and I looked at the courtroom, which is seen from the observers' gallery, a big observers' gallery behind glass. I saw the man called Duch — who's got a life sentence, he was the chief jailer of the Khmer Rouge regime — in the witness box. He was giving evidence against the notorious former head of state, Khieu Samphan, and from his position, as the person who carried out the tortures and executions and has been found guilty, he was laying out evidence sought by the prosecution against the former Khmer Rouge head of state.
In that public gallery, listening on earphones to the discourse in the courtroom was a large body of Cambodian schoolchildren. And I spoke to a big group of them, 16 year olds, boys and girls in their school uniforms who were learning about the tragic history of their own country. One boy said that he had lost his four grandparents during the period 1975 to 1979. Others gave similar confirmation of the terror inflicted by the Khmer Rouge afflicting the Cambodian people in those tragic years.
I'm persuaded that this is a country coming to terms with its past, watching a trial that is taking place under joint auspices: the Government of Cambodia, but the international community as well.
So I think Cambodians would be in no doubt that the perpetrators of monstrous crimes against humanity are being brought to justice in this process. And nonetheless, we reiterated our message to ministers in the Cambodian Government that the independence of the judicial process must continue to be respected.
SCOTT BEVAN: In regard to North Korea and its plan to push on with what's believed to be a missile test, as you have travelled through the region, what sort of opportunity have you had to further consider and to discuss a regional response to this issue?
BOB CARR: I spoke about it with the Prime Minister of Singapore today. He certainly shares our concerns, fresh back from the summit on nuclear security in South Korea with all the opportunities that existed there to talk about North Korea with Singapore's partners, including our Prime Minister, and I will be taking an opportunity over the next week to work further on this.
We want to continue to underline the message that we've sent to North Korea — that this is a breach of undertakings they've given in the context of two Security Council resolutions. Now we share the concern of all in the region about this and we hope that those in a position to bring pressure on North Korea will continue to work at that task, while recognising that there's much evidence that North Korea resists such pressure.
SCOTT BEVAN: Minister, when you say over the next week you'll be working on this, what will be the nature of that over the coming week?
BOB CARR: Well a week ago I discussed this very issue with Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State, and as a result of those discussions I think we've got an opportunity as Australians to raise it with others in the region, underlining our involvement with them and seeing that we miss no opportunity to send that message to North Korea, a hard task but we've got no alternative but to persist with it.
SCOTT BEVAN: Minister from this first initial trip, what have you learnt about what Australia can do better to engage with the region and with the so-called Asian Century?
BOB CARR: I think we've got to keep talking and we've got to present more persuasive arguments to some in South-East Asia that opening up markets, admitting foreign capital, providing a predictable setting for foreign capital is the way to lift their living standards and off the back of that, we're going to have more opportunities for private sector business investment in a way that will benefit their people.
I think being in Singapore is a reminder of the benefits that can flow from relatively open economies. And in Cambodia and Vietnam I pressed the argument that economic reform invites investment and rising living standards.
There is a warning about the possibility of countries in the region being caught in what might be described as a middle-income trap, that is of not maximising opportunities for economic growth that takes them beyond where they are now. There'll be economic growth but just conceivably not at the rates that express the full potential. And I'm more and more struck that Australia is able to have a fruitful dialogue along these lines.
SCOTT BEVAN: Well Minister I look forward to…
BOB CARR: Beyond that, I think a very strong — sorry, I was just going to say Scott, a very strong impression is the effectiveness of Australian aid in Cambodia and Vietnam where it's definitely appreciated by those governments.
SCOTT BEVAN: Minister, I'm looking forward to having many more fruitful discussions with yourself and I thank you for talking with us tonight from Singapore.
BOB CARR: My pleasure Scott, any time.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555