Many in Canberra and indeed among the Australian "intelligentsia" believe that the key to Australian engagement with South East Asia is identification with the culture of the region.Ability in the regions'languages,marriage into any of the region's main ethnic groups,or better still being their ethnicity, are all thought to be assets that will only enhance Australia's relations with South East Asia.
The reality has proven otherwise.
Zuli Chudori,the Indonesian born and raised wife of the current Australian High Commissioner to Malaysia, Miles Kupa, has been reduced to pretending to be a journalist on Linkedin in what appears to be part of an effort to build a network of local contacts. Chudori is herself a senior executive of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade,and formerly in charge of the Malaysia Desk.
Michael Wise,High Commissioner circa 2003, despite being married to an Indian from Goa was so ignorant of goings-on in Kuala Lumpur that it took Australian media reports brought to the specific attention of his office for him to realise that a USD 8 billion Al-Qaeda linked fund based in Melbourne operated a bank in Labuan.
His predecessor Peter Varghese ,being of Indian descent, was best known as the High Commissioner who knew nothing.His pronouncements about the region when later appointed head of the Office Of National Assessments,prove the point.
Now there is the attempt to burnish the credentials of the Foreign Minister designate, Bob Carr,whose Malaysian born-wife Helena Carr is said to have provided him "a wealth of contacts" in South East Asia. Unfortunately , no one who is anyone in Malaysian business circles can recall even having met her.
Carr's predecessor, the Mandarin speaking Kevin Rudd's Asia-Pacific Community proposal was rejected by even Singapore which has a specific policy encouraging the speaking of Mandarin.
Despite this history, Canberra continues to believe that it has some role to play in regional security, together with China and the United States. While the Five Power Defence Agreement remains in force, the governments of the region realise that they need to prepare their own defences.The Butterworth RAAF base, for example,is not considered a serious deterrent to any transgressing force.
Carr himself, has spoken of a sharing of power between the three countries.
If only he and Canberra stopped to listen, and stopped pretending that they know anything, it would be obvious that arrangements favouring a larger US presence, with no Chinese presence whatsoever in the Strait of Malacca,and limited to the northern section of the South China Sea, are already in place.