LAST year, the then foreign minister, Gareth Evans, set up a commission that investigated and responded to general complaints, including India's, regarding the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Canberra Commission was an initiative that recognised accusations of "double standards" that India made against the West regarding the elimination of nuclear arms. This was the first time that India's position—that unless the western nuclear powers demonstrated a genuine desire to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether, it was unfair to expect India to sign the NPT—had been given any credence by a country belonging to the western alliance.
The Commission, which includes eminent persons such as former French socialist prime minister Michael Rocard, is due to bring out its first report this year. But Australia's new Foreign Minister Alexander Downer insists that "it's just not going to happen." In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation a few days ago, he said he did not see much interest in either India or Pakistan in the Canberra Commission's reports.
So, although the coalition will allow the Commission to complete its first report, it is clear that it will not use the report to campaign for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. It is policies like these which make people wonder about the new government's commitment to Asia.
According to Robin Jeffries, a South Asia expert at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Prime Minister John Howard is more Euro-centric than his predecessor. "There is a slight feeling out there that some people will expect the coalition to turn to Europe more," he says. "But others feel that the process of getting close to Asia, that began about 12 years ago, has a momentum of its own that can't be changed."
And while the new government may not agree with its predecessor on specifics regarding relations with the region, the coalition has stated categorically that Asian countries will get the highest priority of the conservative regime. So much so that it is at pains to put at rest a perception encouraged by the Labour Party, at home and abroad, that Howard is anti-Asian.
In a statement, the new coalition pledged closer ties with India and said the government would not oppose India's admission to the APEC. "It is important that bilateral relations with New Delhi be intensified," it said.
Besides improving his image in Asia, Howard will also have to set right some of the knocks received by the previous government—the most recent being the exclusion of Australia from the recently concluded Asia-Europe summit.
Downer had stated earlier that while the Labour government had been "obsessed" with Asia, the new government would merely make an effort to improve ties with the US and Europe without lessening relations with Asia.
Of course, there are some Asia supporters in the new regime. Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer is reputed to be a great lover of South Asia and has visited Bangladesh and Bhutan many times. His areas of interest have been rural development and charities. Fischer has stated that Australia should try to repair ties with Myanmar's military regime and adopt a more "flexible" approach to a country that offers great economic opportunities.
It is clear that the coalition does not have a jaundiced view of Asia, although public opinion would suggest otherwise. A huge mandate will, no doubt, give Howard the chance to prove his mettle, but he will have to work swiftly, and with effect, if he wants to earn the respect of Asian leaders.