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Senior diplomat urges Australia to re-orientate foreign policy towards Asia
Kesha West speaks to Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubani, about Asia's growing influence in international affairs and Australia place in the region.

Kesha West speaks to Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations, Kishore Mahbubani, about Asia's growing influence in international affairs and Australia place in the region.
KEHSA WEST, PRESENTER: Australia is asking its business people to become 'Asia ready' as the country moves to enhance business links with the region.

But in the words of one of Singapore's most senior former diplomats, Australia's adjustment to the Asian Century will be painful.

Kishore Mahbubani was twice Singapore's ambassador to the United Nations and later served as president of the Security Council.

He's says the West need to step aside to cede global leadership to Asia.

Professor Mahbubani welcome to the program.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: It’s my pleasure to join you.

KESHA WEST: You’ve had a lot history with the United Nations; looking at what is happening right now in Libya and Syria, do you think the UN Security Council has been at all effective in helping resolve the conflict in those countries and could it have done things better?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: To be quite candid, the UN Security Council has obviously failed in its mission, especially in Syria, in trying to handle its responsibility under the UN charter to take care of threats to international peace and security. But when the Security Council fails it's important to understand it is the P5, the five permanent members who fail because they ultimately are the people who guide and control and determine what the UN Security Council does.

And basically the reason why the UN Security Council has failed is because the five permanent members are divided, as you know, with United States, UK and France on one side and Russia and China on the other side.

KESHA WEST: You've long spoken about the need for the West to step aside to allow for the rise of the East.

But where is the leadership from these Asian countries, like for example China, when it comes to resolving the conflicts in these countries? All we’ve seen is a very effective use of veto power?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Well I think to be fair to China, the United States has cast far more vetoes than China has had in the UN Security Council. And, to be fair also to China, and the other Asian countries they actually would be happy to play a greater leadership role within the United Nations and other bodies. But, as you know, the Western countries control the vast majority of seats and votes in place like IMF (International Monetary Fund), World Bank and even the UN Security Council are reluctant to change the composition of this bodies, reluctant to allow new Asian voices to come in. For example, as Martin Wolfe said in a column in the Financial Times, any UN Security Council that has the United Kingdom inside and India outside is an obviously absurd UN Security Council.

KESHA WEST: But do you really think the UN Security Council would be more effective if it included countries, not just the big five, but countries like India?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I certainly think so. And you know, I think one important point especially for a Western audience bear in mind is that the West represents only 12 per cent of the worlds ease population, and 88 per cent of the world's population lives outside the West.

So if you have a Security Council with 60 per cent of the permanent members that are controlled by 12 per cent, that’s a major global distortion right there. And frankly, at the end of the day, if you watch what Ibrahimi is trying to do with his missions now, if you want to have a non military solution you have to have a political solution to the Syrian case.

And to have a political solution you need to bring into play the countries that are closed to Syria.

KESHA WEST: If we could focus on China for a moment. You’ve spoken extensively about its growth, but even by your own estimation China has made some serious mistakes when it comes to diplomacy, hasn't it?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Yes, certainly in recent years China has made serious mistakes in the way it handled problems with Japan over the fishing boat incident, in the way it handled its problems with South Korea when there was a North Korean shelling of a South Korean island leading to civilian deaths in South Korea. And also in its handling of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). There’s absolutely no doubt that in the last year or two China has made serious mistakes.

The big question as we look ahead is whether China will be able to recover from these mistakes. And I actually believe that China is undergoing a very unique and special phase now where it's trying to manage a major political transition.

KESHA WEST: Do you think China needs to bite the bullet and sign on to the code of conduct for the South China Sea with ASEAN?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Oh, yes, I think - as you know China has been hesitant about signing up to the code of conduct, but the more recent signals from China have been positive. And you know I've had some private meetings with Chinese officials, and I think in private they’re beginning to sense signals that they have to in many ways indicate to the ASEAN countries that they're willing to find good political solutions to the difficulties that they've had with some ASEAN countries in the South China Sea.

KESHA WEST: Earlier this month, the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, renewed her call for China to sign up the code of conduct. Is the US doing more harm than good by butting in?

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I think for obvious reasons United States is trying to exploit the divisions between China and ASEAN. And this is quite normal when you have a contest within these two great powers, especially the world's number one power, the United States, and the world's greatest emerging power China. It is inevitable that both will try to take advantage of the mistakes made by the other side.

China, for example, took full advantage of the mistake that China - that United States made in invading Iraq. And in the same way the United States is trying to take advantage of the mistakes that have been made by China in the South China Sea. So we can expect these sorts of games to be played within the United States and China. But it's very important for all the countries in this region, especially the ASEAN countries, to be aware that these geopolitical games have been play and not to get too involved in them.

KESHA WEST: If I could look finally at some comments that you've made about Australia, including questioning Australia's right to be in the G20, that’s certainly not going to make many people in Canberra happy.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: I think, you know, I am a friend of Australia. I would like Australia to do well. But it's also important for a mid sized country like Australia to understand that we are now entering a new era, a world history where the Western domination of world history is ending. And what’s going to happen is Australia is going to be left alone as the sole Western country in a rising Asia, and you’ll have 30 million Australians having to deal with 3.5 to 4 billion Asians.

So in this new environment, Australia should try and reorient its foreign policy and become far more engaged with its neighbours, far more engaged with ASEAN and focus less and less on this its membership of G20. Because, at the ends of the day, the G20 is not what is going to protect Australia's security in the long run, it's the depth of its engagement with its ASEAN neighbours that is going to determine Australia's future.

So speaking as a friend of Australia, I am asking Australia to make the adjustments before the adjustments forced on Australia.

KESHA WEST: In fact Australia has been trying to forge closer ties with ASEAN for some time, and instead it seems that ASEAN is not interested in having Australia on board.

KISHORE MAHBUBANI: Well, I think when you have ASEAN, which is an organisation with 600 million people, and Australia which has 30 million people, I think normally the courtship should be from 30 million people to 600 million people.

And as you know, Australia's policies towards ASEAN have not been consistent. They were much stronger, for example, in the times of Paul Keating and Gareth Evans and they seem to be strong again now.

But there have been times when Australia declared that it wanted to be the deputy sheriff in the region. And that was a huge mistake for Australia to make because it forgot where it is in terms of its geography.

And I think that if - as Australia looks down the road for the next 50 to 100 years it's very clear that the Asian Century is coming. And Australia's got to adjust to being an Asian country in an Asian neighbourhood.

And that I'm afraid is the sort of thinking that hasn't happened in Canberra yet.

KESHA WEST: Professor Mahbubani, thanks very much for coming on the program.

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