Australian Commonwealth Coat of Arms

Speech to the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce

Bangkok, 3 July 2008


Mr Shane Torr, President of the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce; Khun Dong-chai, President of Loxley Public Company Limited; Khun Nong-noot, Director-General, Department of American and South-Pacific Affairs, AustCham Directors, members and guests.  

Thank you, Shane, for that introduction, and for inviting me to address the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce today. 

I’m conscious that this is the oldest Australian Chamber of Commerce in the ASEAN region, and second oldest overseas Australian Chamber.

I appreciate very much the work you’ve done over the years, building up commercial relations between Thailand and Australia.

And I’m reliably informed that the AustCham Australia Day ball is the best show in town.

In the development of any bilateral relationship, contacts between governments and their ministers clearly play an important role. 

But it’s the deeper, people-to-people contacts on which relations between countries, between societies, are really built.

These relations are embodied in the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Australians living in Thailand at any one time, and in the Australian companies that have important commercial interests in Bangkok and other centres. 

Not to mention the 650,000 or more Australians who visit this country every year, and the approximately 85,000 Thais who visited Australia last year. 

This travel boom, concentrated in the youth market, is in part a consequence of cut-price flights being offered by airlines such as Australia’s Jetstar, which now flies to destinations like Phuket.

In addition to the ebb and flow of tourists, many young Thais pay their own way to study in Australia: in 2007, some 19,000 of them enrolled in Australian courses, making us the largest overseas study destination for Thais.  

They take back with them not only a good education, but a better understanding of what makes Australia as a society work.

These people to people relations are also embodied in the work of people like Sister Joan Evans from the Western Australian Congregation of Presentation Sisters, who works with children in the slum area of Klong Toei.  I will be meeting her later today and I know this Chamber has been of great support to her and her work. 

The bilateral framework

I referred at the outset to the importance of maintaining and developing close, high level government-to-government contacts.

I’m pleased to have the opportunity to meet with my counterpart, Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama, and with other senior government figures like Deputy Prime Minister Sahas Banditkul, who I saw at the recent FAO food conference in Rome, to reaffirm Australia’s commitment to an important relationship.

Earlier this year, Australia warmly welcomed the formation of the newly-elected Thai government, sworn in by His Majesty the King in February. 

Australia was very encouraged to see the return of parliamentary democracy in the Kingdom.

My visit is the first official bilateral visit by an Australian Minister since the reestablishment of democracy.

It is testimony to Australia’s support for democracy in Thailand.

We’re fortunate to have a strong, mature relationship with Thailand, and, I’m happy to say, one that includes strong links to the Thai Royal Family. 

The network of our relations is impressive.

We cooperate across a range of areas that, despite their importance, are widely under-appreciated. 

They include law enforcement, counter-terrorism, education, security, migration and tourism.

And, of course, trade, and that’s been going well.

Thailand has become our eighth largest trading partner.  It’s one of only five countries with whom we have a Free Trade Agreement. 

The Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) has boosted bilateral merchandise trade from $6.8 billion in 2004 to over $12.3 billion in 2007.

Australian investment, which in 2006 stood at $1.1 billion, is more modest, as are services exports, valued at only $692 million in 2006.

Australian companies are genuinely interested in investing in Thailand’s finance, construction, legal and education services sectors, despite significant regulatory barriers. 

We’re working with the new Thai government on taking forward what’s known as the ‘Inbuilt Agenda’ in our Free Trade Agreement, so that new chapters can be developed covering services, investment, business mobility, competition and government procurement. 

We’re also seeking consultations on enhanced market access. 

And we’ve have had initial positive indications from the Thai government about making progress in this area.

One of the areas in which we cooperate increasingly closely is law enforcement and police work. 

The relationship our respective police forces have built up is a highly productive one.  I will have a chance to see some of the results of that first hand when I visit the Thai Police Bomb Data Centre tomorrow.

We continue to work together on areas that are central to Australia’s national interest, including combating drug trafficking, people smuggling, and other forms of transnational crime, and counter-terrorism. 

Together with our own immigration authorities, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) is working with the Thai government on travel document and identity fraud and airport interdiction. 

This is part of a broader strategy of cooperation and capacity building on border security across the region.

For Thailand, the AFP is now one of its largest and most effective law enforcement partners.

The warm ties our police forces enjoy are mirrored in our defence relationship.

We have long enjoyed close ties to the Royal Thai Armed Forces.  Australia is now Thailand’s second largest defence partner after the United States. 

Our defence forces participate in joint bilateral and multilateral exercises such as the annual Cobra Gold program.  The ADF makes use of its access to Thai bases during these exercises. 

This kind of interaction has led to good levels of interoperability and a range of other productive military exchanges, including on counter-terrorism. 

Many Thai officers train in Australia. Indeed, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince is a graduate of Royal Military College, Duntroon. 

Let me acknowledge here that the understanding born of joint training is reflected in a shared commitment to regional stability and military professionalism. 

Thailand made an important and timely contribution to the original international peacekeeping force in East Timor, something deeply appreciated by Australia.

Australia has a strong interest in Thailand’s stability and economic development. 

For the past few decades Thailand has been at the centre of political, security and economic developments in South East Asia, a region of primary interest to Australia.

Thailand is a close security ally of the United States, as is Australia. 

We regard our alliance with the United States as indispensable, just as we regard the United States engagement as essential to maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

The regional and global agenda

Earlier today I spoke to the recently appointed ASEAN Secretary-General - the former Thai Foreign Minister - Dr Surin Pitsuwan about Australia’s enthusiasm to do more in the Asia-Pacific region.

ASEAN is the oldest of the Asian regional organisations.  We value its work highly.  It’s served as a model of how regional cooperation and dialogue can be built. 

In 1974, we became ASEAN’s first dialogue partner, and we have invested considerable effort in building this partnership ever since. 

Together with New Zealand, we’re currently negotiating a comprehensive ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, to add to the bilateral FTAs already in place or being negotiated or explored. 

I’ll be seeking the Thai Government’s support in advancing these free trade negotiations.

As I told Dr Surin, we’ve committed ourselves to deepening Australia’s engagement with this region as a whole. 

This is one of the key principles of our foreign policy.

In Thailand, we have a real partner in our work. 

Thailand was a founding member of ASEAN and we also cooperate closely with our Thai colleagues in the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit.

Thailand is a member of APEC, the region’s primary high-level grouping, as well as an active participant in the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters with whom we work so closely in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade liberalisation context.

These are all issues I look forward to discussing with Foreign Minister Noppadon tomorrow.

Thailand’s role as Chair of ASEAN from August 2008 makes it a key player in regional deliberations on issues of importance to Australia. 

As ASEAN Chair, Thailand is scheduled to host the next East Asian Summit (EAS) in December 2008. 

The EAS is a major regional forum that has the potential to make a significant contribution to East Asian community building.

Thailand will also play an important role within ASEAN on critical regional issues such as Burma.  We’re very concerned about the lack of political progress in Burma, and regard the recent constitutional referendum process as fundamentally flawed.

Australia was very disturbed by the Burmese regime’s reluctance to accept international assistance in response to the humanitarian tragedy caused by Cyclone Nargis, and remains ready to assist the relief and reconstruction effort.

We commend the ongoing good work of ASEAN and the United Nations in helping alleviate the suffering of the people of Burma. 

We’re very interested in Thailand’s views on, and its diplomatic role in, the evolution of regional architecture, including the East Asia Summit.  The question of regional architecture is very much an issue of our times.

Australia has had close and extensive engagement in our region for many decades.

Australia has a responsibility to work with our friends in the region to ensure we are collectively well-placed to advance our common interests and respond to any challenges ahead.

It’s that reasoning that underpins Prime Minister Rudd’s recent initiative about an Asia Pacific community.

The Asia Pacific initiative encourages a regional debate about where we want to be in 2020, and begins a discussion about how best to prepare for the regional and global challenges ahead – security and transnational challenges as well as economic opportunities.

This will take time, but we very much look forward to listening to our regional neighbours and beginning this important debate.

Our relationship with Thailand embraces not only bilateral ties but also the challenge of shaping effective regional approaches both within our region itself and internationally.

Let me conclude by thanking Ambassador Bill Paterson for all the work he’s done to advance the bilateral relationship and to build strong links between the Embassy and the Australian business community here.

Barely a day after his arrival in Thailand at the end of 2004, Ambassador Paterson personally took charge of Australia’s response to the Boxing Day Tsunami and the terrible damage and suffering it caused. 

Bill and his team represented the face of Australian friendship at a time of great need to others in our region.

More generally, the work of our Embassy here in Bangkok reflects our own commitment to ensuring the broad, deep relations we enjoy with Thailand continue to develop in ways that benefit us both.

And I know we can continue to rely on this Chamber in that endeavour.

I wish you and your members every success.