Watch on mobile

Introduction: Australia then and now

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s always a pleasure to be in Singapore and it’s an honour to deliver a Fullerton lecture.

Australia’s connection with Singapore is longstanding.

Almost 40 years ago, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew hosted a state dinner for Australia’s Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam.

On that occasion Lee spoke approvingly of Australia’s ‘decisive break with the White Australia policy’, of renewed engagement with Asia and Africa, and for recognition of Australia’s indigenous people.

He said: ‘You have waved away the aura of racial superiority of the white peoples, a belief which the passage of time has made not only untenable, but unnecessarily offensive.’

And he ventured Australia’s position was ‘unlikely to be altered’.

Ever astute, Lee’s analysis was right.

Picture these two contrasting images of Australia then and now:

Australia pre-1970s – insular, overwhelmingly European and committed to the White Australia Policy, anxious about its neighbourhood, saddened by the decline of the old Empire and economically protectionist.

Australia now – globally engaged, focused on Asia, enmeshed in the forums of the region, self consciously multicultural, confident of its place in our neighbourhood, and a free trader. 

Around one in four Australians (24.6%) was born overseas. More than 40 per cent (43.1%) have a parent or parents who were born outside Australia.

Of 23 million Australians, 1.7 million were born in Asia.

And the two largest nationalities in Australia’s current migration program are Chinese and Indians.

So while our cultural heritage is that of Europe and America, and English is the dominant language, Australia’s economic and social links now extend to all parts of the world.

Australia is a parliamentary democracy. We uphold the rule of law.

We are a secular nation that makes room for all religious beliefs.

Our broad-based, open investment economy is the 12th largest in the world.

We are:

  • a regional leader in financial services, in manufacturing and professional service provision
  • a major agricultural producer and exporter and,
  • the biggest, most reliable supplier of minerals, energy and food in the region – which is critically important when sustained economic growth in Asia depends so heavily on minerals, energy and food security.  

Once, the remoteness of our geographic location (at the southern edge of Asia and the Pacific) and our European cultural inheritance were seen as negative, limiting factors.

But with the contemporary strengths of our multicultural population, abundant natural resources, an educated and skilled workforce, and our proximity to the vast markets of Asia, this is no longer true.

Australians are comfortable with their place in the region and confident about it.

And I think this demonstrates the point.

In October last year, the Australian Government released its blueprint for engagement with Asia - the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.

It outlined the steps Australian government and business should take to secure advantages as global economic and strategic power shifted to Asia.

As you would expect, the release of a major statement on both foreign and domestic policy attracted wide media coverage in our country.

National debate in Australia is generally colourful, critical and robust.

But what was remarkable on this occasion was the broad, immediate acceptance by the Australian community of the policy’s central thrust.

The rise of China and of other Asian economies, and the implications for Australia, were understood and welcomed.

There is wide acceptance that Australia’s future economic growth and ties will come from deeper engagement in this region. 

There was no sense at all that this was the wrong approach or even something to fear - as we might have seen in past decades.

And there was acceptance of it largely because Australia’s engagement with Asia is already happening. Stepping it up seemed so obvious.

Much has changed in Australia in 40 years including some of our foreign policy settings. 

Habits of consultation in the region have become second nature. 

Picking up the phone to Jakarta, Singapore and Tokyo has become the norm, embedded in the way we do diplomacy.

As it was decades ago, and still is, with London and Washington.

Regional consultation is not a new thing in Australian foreign policy – but I do think that it is now more frequent and more reflexive than it ever has been in the past. 

It’s done now with greater familiarity and ease.

A habit of consultation: listening as much as talking, consulting before acting and asking rather than assuming. 

These are the new habits of Australian regional diplomacy.

And they will be obvious during our two-year term on the United Nations Security Council.

Other things have changed too. 

Our fundamental foreign policy settings have evolved. 

We have drawn ever closer to Asia, while maintaining our strong alliance with the United States.

I said to one Chinese official on my first visit as Foreign Minister to China last year that just as we strive to understand China’s re-emergence through its history, others must see Australia through our history.

Australia has always enjoyed a security relationship with the world’s leading maritime power - English speaking maritime power, as it happens – first the United Kingdom (the Empire left us we didn’t leave the Empire) and since the end of WWII with the US.

In fact, it was the determined position of the Australian Government from the first years after Federation - the first years of the last century - to seek such an alliance.

Our path like other nations is driven by pursuit of our national interests.

In line with this we have worked to deepen our relationships in the region. 

Our relationship with Indonesia is at a high point and we continue to strengthen our strategic partnership with our close neighbour.

We have:

  • reinvigorated partnerships with China and Japan
  • increased links with India and,
  • strengthened ties with the Republic of Korea and the member states of ASEAN.

This year we secured a strategic partnership with China and struck a commitment to annual meetings between leaders, foreign ministers, treasurer and trade ministers and their equivalents.

We have a strategic partnership with India and we are continuing to build ties – in trade, defence, education and energy.

In 2002, for example, total Indian investment in Australia was $105 million. In 2012 it was almost $10 billion.

In a sign of the growing significance of the Australia-Korea strategic partnership, we are the first country – other than the US – to have 2+2 foreign and defence minister meetings with the Republic of Korea – a meeting I attended in Seoul last week.

We continue our long history of engagement with Singapore, one of our most important security partners in the region. And we have a vibrant trade and investment relationship, our biggest in ASEAN. 

Last year, we established a strategic dialogue with Vietnam, as we have with Singapore.

Step by step, we are drawing ever closer to Asia.

The Australia in the Asian Century White Paper captured that evolving reality, so central to our foreign policy.

While Australia’s engagement with all the countries in the region is strong, there are features of our relations with South East Asia that are particularly close. 

Education links, for example: There have been over half a million enrolments (614,327) by students from ASEAN countries in higher education in Australia in the past decade (2002 to 2012).

What began with the vision of the Colombo Plan (offering an average of 570 tertiary scholarships a year over 35 years) has flourished under the very much bigger Australia Awards (offering 5,000 tertiary scholarships a year).

And it has resulted in Australia becoming the leading provider of overseas education to the people of South East Asia. 

Our defence ties with the region are also strong – underpinned by bilateral defence partnerships and built further through personal contacts, training and joint exercises. 

The Five Power Defence Arrangement goes back decades.  These series of bilateral agreements between Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and the UK were signed in 1971 committing the five countries to consulting in the event of external aggression or threat of attack against Malaysia or Singapore.

Australia’s Defence Department estimates our investment each year in defence cooperation activities across Southeast Asia at $17 million.

And while other parts of our economic relationships grab headlines, taken as a group ASEAN is our second largest trading partner after China.

What’s more, that trade is broadly based and soundly positioned for the future. 

The centrality of ASEAN

Australia now has a more sophisticated understanding of our region and our place within it.

As ASEAN’s first dialogue partner (since 1974) Australia understandably appreciates and accepts the centrality of ASEAN in regional decision-making and regional planning.

Australia supports ASEAN’s role at the centre of regional institutions:

  • the ASEAN Regional Forum
  • the ASEAN Plus Defence Ministerial Meeting (ADMM+) and,
  • the East Asian Summit.

We welcome the economic and social transformation of the region.

We aren’t just seeing an economic transition - the growth in per capita income, the lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

We are living through a social transformation. People around the region are finding themselves more able to make choices about how they live their lives – to be better educated, to live longer and healthier.

And we are living through political change.

Democracy, freedom and greater transparency are spreading across much of Asia.

And ASEAN has been integral to these changes.

We’ve seen the achievement of ASEAN centrality at work and a shift from regional cooperation to regional integration.

Australia listens and takes close note of what ASEAN and its member states think.

And I highlight alignment with ASEAN as a feature of my period as Foreign Minister.

For example, on disputed territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, I’ve observed and encouraged the lead taken by ASEAN to develop a Code of Conduct and to de-escalate tensions.

And another: I’ve made decisions on extending Australia’s engagement with and aid assistance for Myanmar, guided by the views of ASEAN nations.

ASEAN has long been in favour of Myanmar’s re-engagement with the world – encouraging it to improve its performance on human rights and to open its economy.

Australia recognised the merits of this approach and aligned with ASEAN.

I announced the removal of travel and financial sanctions.

Not only that, I lobbied the European Union to lift their sanctions - a move that was appreciated by the Myanmar President Thein Sein.

Australia has doubled our aid to Myanmar, and we are on track to reach $100 million in annual assistance by 2015-16.

We are Myanmar’s biggest single education donor.

Beyond these examples, we seek cooperation between ASEAN nations across the full spectrum of issues of common concern.

Australia and Indonesia are working to support Myanmar’s democratic transition through support for the AusAID-funded Institute for Peace and Democracy in Bali.

I was pleased last week in Brunei to announce with Foreign Minister Shanmugam that Australia and Singapore would co-host a connectivity workshop in the first half of 2014 to support ASEAN’s vision of a 2015 Economic Community.

In Afghanistan, we are working with Malaysia on teacher training.

Australian funding is supporting Malaysian expertise to lift the skills of Afghan teachers.

And in Afghanistan we worked closely with Singapore in Uruzgan province as part of the International Security Assistance Force.

Australia works in partnership with Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines to help build understanding across faiths.

We have several programs designed to foster dialogue between different religious faiths and to build cross-religious tolerance.

Southeast Asia: Australia’s ‘core business’

ASEAN has been and always will be in Australia’s interests. Indeed, ASEAN is more important to Australia now than it has been at any time in our past.

50 years ago, as war in Vietnam intensified into a major conflict, the strategic importance to Australia of Southeast Asia was palpable.

The ideological divide of the Cold War was sharp.

Many feared that communism would sweep across Southeast Asia.

The creation of ASEAN in 1967 was in part a response to that – a desire by the leaders of Southeast Asia to find common strength and support within the region, in the face of great power meddling.

Almost 50 years on, in a post-Cold War era, old debates about communism and capitalism are gone.

The challenge confronting us now is how we peacefully reform the international order to reflect the perspectives, values and interests of the emerging and re-emerging nations: China, India and Brazil.

But for Australia, the strategic importance of Southeast Asia is just as critical as developments at either end of the Indo-Pacific arc.

In truth, Southeast Asia lies at the centre of our strategic concern.

Why? Because ideology might have become less important but competition is intense.

Now, we have competitive capitalism, nationalism and different views of state sovereignty.

We have competition for resources - minerals, oil and gas, fisheries, and so on.

And from time to time, we will see rising tensions like that over disputed territorial claims and concerns to ensure freedom of navigation.

Southeast Asia is again the arena where the interests of great powers from outside the region are in play.

Southeast Asia remains the locus of competition – with major strategic implications for a maritime country like Australia, so reliant on peace and stability in our region and on unimpeded trading routes for our own prosperity.

In this era, ASEAN will continue to play a vital role.

Through the rigours of the Cold War, Southeast Asian nations understood the importance of working together.

ASEAN as an organisation has done an outstanding job of promoting regional peace through consultation and cooperation.

Competition is inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing.

The key is to have strong institutions to regulate and manage it.

Over decades of growing prosperity – and still today – ASEAN has built links and ties between our various nations.

Australia recognises that the task of building habits of consultation is never finished.

We need to make sure we sustain our efforts.

Just last week I attended the ASEAN-Australia Ministerial meeting and the East Asian Summit Foreign Ministers meeting.

I was again struck by the potential of ASEAN-centred institutions such as the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum to further promote regional integration and stability.

The East Asia Summit, as the only institution that brings Leaders and Foreign Ministers together in one room, has particular potential to promote and manage strategic stability and economic integration. It will be important in coming years that ASEAN countries work closely with non-ASEAN members of the EAS to strengthen the role of that institution in the interests of all.

Regional fora confirm ASEAN’s capacity for region-building. 

The structures may not be simple but they are effective and ASEAN’s influence in them is enduring. 

In the great sweep of history, ASEAN’s hand in framing our regional institutions will be judged, in my view, to be pretty deft. 

ASEAN centrality has gone from being an assertion to a reality - with the association at the core of the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus Defence Ministers Meeting and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

So Australia has greater interest than ever before in ASEAN and its cohesion and effectiveness.

And ASEAN’s cohesion and effectiveness is being tested now – with member states aware of, even subject to, great power rivalry.

Australia, for its part, will seek to bring expertise on Southeast Asia (as distinct from Asia in general) to the world. The Vice Chancellor of Sydney University at the launch of Sydney’s Southeast Asia Institute last year told me he had tried to recruit Southeast Asian specialists at Oxford University. He did not receive a single application.

Yet when he arrived at Sydney University, he found there were over 190 staff in various faculties and disciplines deeply emerged in studying Southeast Asia.

As a nation, our ambition is to be the most Asia-literate society in the OECD. 

While Australian expertise on Asia has many strengths and the body of our scholarship on South East Asia is particularly strong, there are areas where we will need to improve.

For example, we will have to turnaround a recent decline in the number of Australian students studying Indonesian.

As we identified in the White Paper, building up our language skills will be critical to our success in the Asian Century

Australia supports the vision of a zone of prosperity from Yunnan to Assam - an economic corridor linking Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar through infrastructure and industrial zones that would cover 1.65 million square kilometres and 440 million people.

We see the enormous potential from creating an expanded zone of economic liberalisation across ASEAN, further lifting incomes and opportunities.

Some commentators suggest this could include the ASEAN Free Trade Area and the ASEAN-India and ASEAN-China Free Trade Areas - shaping the biggest free trade zone in the world.

This will boost processing, manufacturing and logistics and stimulate economic growth of large and medium-sized cities along the corridor.

ASEAN, for its part, has articulated what it needs to grow:


Governance support.

Know-how that will help its member countries avoid the middle income trap.

Support for ASEAN on regional issues: South China Sea

I’d like to speak briefly on a particular issue of concern for ASEAN members – the South China Sea.

Australia takes no position on any of the claims.

We have a legitimate interest in freedom of navigation and we look on the parties to resolve this peacefully, in line with international law including, but not restricted to, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

I acknowledge that ASEAN is working to develop a Code of Conduct to govern the parties involved.

I have suggested, as others have, that competing territorial claims could be set aside while parties move on to consider whether agreement might be struck on sharing in the joint development of resources.

Resource development might be possible even without a resolution of some of the more challenging sovereignty questions.

There are models that might be applied:

  • The Antarctic Treaty system for example which sets aside issues of sovereignty to preserve Antarctica as a natural reserve for peace and science.
  • Or joint development zones like those operate successfully in our region involving Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

My point is this: with goodwill, there are precedents that might help us find a way through.


No one doubts the transformation that has taken place in Asia over the last few decades.

And no one questions, in terms of economic growth, that we are living in the Asian century.

I know how much my own country has changed since Gough Whitlam was welcomed in Singapore by Prime Minister Lee four decades ago.

But all the years of economic growth and modernisation:

  • the lifting of hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the burgeoning ranks of the middle-class
  • all the improvements in health, education and living standards, and
  • leaps forward on human rights, free speech and free media…

…all come to a crashing halt if peace and stability in our region is threatened by conflict.

And that’s what makes ASEAN and its habits of consultation – its collective, cooperative approach - so important to all of us in this the Asian century.

Thank you.

Bob Carr was the longest continuously serving Premier in New South Wales history. He served as Leader of the Opposition in the state from 1988 until his election as Premier in March 1995. He was re-elected in 1999 and again in March 2003 securing an historic third four-year term. In March 2012 he was designated by Prime Minister Julia Gillard as Australia's Foreign Minister. He was elected to the Australian Senate to fill a Senate vacancy and sworn in to the Senate and Cabinet on 13 March 2012.

Back to content list

Event details

IISS-Fullerton Lecture
Senator Bob Carr, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Australia 
Fullerton Hotel, Singapore
Tuesday 09 July 2013

About the Fullerton Lectures

Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General, gave the inaugural lecture in 2012. Subsequent speakers include William Hague, Robert Zoellick and Felipe Calderón. Participation is by invitation only. Please contact [email protected] or tel: +65-64990055 for more details.