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A ‘good neighbour’ policy

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Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr chose Cambodia as his first official overseas trip since his March 2 appointment to the top foreign policy job.

The Australian Labor Party politician, former journalist and longtime premier of New South Wales sat down on Monday evening with the Post’s Stuart Alan Becker and discussed Australia’s relationship with Cambodia, the emergence of China and the  challenges that lie ahead for his country.

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You’ve only been foreign minister a short time. Does your posting signal any sort of shift in Australian foreign policy? 

Australian foreign policy is very sound and, in view of Australia’s national interest, it projects us as a creative middle path. There’s no need for lurching in a different direction. There’s a need for continuity.

With regard to Cambodia, we’ve seen some investment in the Toll railway project [via overseas aid program AusAid] and other projects: Do you expect Australia to continue to fund railway developments in Cambodia and what’s your feeling about the future of Australian engagement here?
I think our engagement will grow. The Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen, has a very cordial view of Australia. I remember one minister saying that Australians may have white skin — but that’s less and less true, as our population has Asianised — but we think like Asians. That’s a very great compliment, because we are working hard to adapt to a century that will be dominated by Asia.

This year, Cambodia chairs ASEAN.  What should Cambodia be hoping to achieve during this time in the spotlight? How does Australia view the ASEAN alliance?  

ASEAN launched itself in a public way in 1976 and Australia has been there from the very start. I give no advice to Cambodia’s prime minister: He is a wise and experienced figure. He has brought peace to Cambodia and delivered economic growth. He’s seen civil rights respected, and Cambodia has got a robust economy. This man is a respected statesman. I am sure he and my prime minister, Julia Gillard, will get on very well later in the year when they meet.

Is there any danger that ASEAN could produce a negative homogenising effect,  like fast-food franchises sweeping across all 10 nations, or members being  treated identically by global corporations rather than as individuals?

In the wake of the Vietnam War, the way forward for Southeast Asia lay in regional cooperation, and it arrived in the form of ASEAN and has been a huge achievement. Australia is honoured to be an ASEAN dialogue partner: Australia was ASEAN’s first dialogue partner.

Australia’s biggest trading partner is China, a country of 1.3 billion, more than 50 times the population of your country.  What are the future challenges to this relationship?

We want to engage with China in its totality.  I recognise that the story of China is the largest drama in the 20th century.  When the dust settles, the Chinese revolution has been an extraordinary achievement. The country went from being occupied and exploited by foreigners, divided by civil war, devastated by cruel foreign invasions. China expelled foreign invasion, united itself, and then as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s policy, China has achieved a phenomenal economic transformation. We want to expand our relationship well beyond the trade and investment agenda, and we look forward to China assuming more and more global responsibilities and leadership.

What are the key challenges facing Australia going forward?

Australia’s No 1 challenge is coping with this phenomenal resources boom, which has seen us provide the raw material that partly fuels the huge urbanisation of China and, increasingly, other developing nations, but also as the supplier of food stuffs to populations that have increasingly got middle class tastes and desires. We want to be an efficient supplier, and I think the productivity improvements in the Australian economy in the last 20 years have enabled us to do that. ... In my role, I’ll be emphasising that it is in our interest to be good global citizens – like the de-mining initiatives we’re helping to fund in this beautiful country, or the support of health officials that are working hard to prevent avoidable blindness. Australians are honoured to be allowed to give training and finance. That’s Australia being a good neighbour.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stuart Alan Becker at stuart.becker@phnompenhpost.com

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