Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 03:58 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 03:58 | SYDNEY

Asia Project ambivalence and argument


Graeme Dobell

8 November 2010 16:50

The Australian polity agrees on the central importance of the Great Asia Project, but the consensus is marked by deep argument and a tinge of ambivalence.

John Howard’s memoirs record his claim to stand in an unbroken line of Prime Ministers back to 1972, all engaged in what the previous column dubbed the Great Asia Project.

Like so much in the argument, the bestowed title — the Great Asia Project — has a certain duality. It covers Asia becoming great, and also Australia's huge undertaking to claim its rightful place in Asia. The Great Project for Australia is to deal with an Asia that is achieving great power.

Some ambivalence about this complex endeavour — decades old already and decades more to come — can be found in the catch phrases our leaders have hung on the Project.

Bob Hawke went beyond engagement and settled on enmeshment. The trouble with enmeshment is that it hints at being tangled up and netted, even caught.

Gareth Evans liked to say that Australia would seek security in Asia, not from Asia. Evans called this the great turnaround in contemporary Australian history. This is a big shift, because the Evans judgement, in one of the important tomes on Australian foreign policy, is that the 20th century taught Australians to be 'an essentially fearful people', despite their confident manner.

As the Evans' vision swings on its 'not' point, John Howard’s two oft-repeated mantras both pivot on a negative. One chant is used as the title of his Asia chapter: 'Asia first, not Asia only.' Howard expresses the other mantra in the second paragraph of the chapter: Australia does not have to choose between her geography and her history.

Australia's second longest serving leader claims that one of the 'signal triumphs' of his foreign policy was that his government never faced that choice:

Over a period of more than a decade, Australia built even closer relations with our Asian neighbours while reasserting the traditional intimacy of our links with Washington and London. It was always possible to do both, if one wished to. Uniquely, Australia is a product of Western civilisation, closely allied to the United States, but located cheek by jowl with the nations of Asia. Both history and geography have given us a rare opportunity; why should we be so foolish to think that we must choose between the two.

Happy is the country that is not forced to choose. Contented is the land that can have what it wishes: enjoying its cultural cake while feasting on geographic riches. The book sets out how China challenged Howard, but ultimately he proclaims no crack in his happy harmony of history and geography.

Perhaps the choices will seem harder when Asia rather than Australia defines the terms of the engagement. The day approaches when Asia will be deciding what is possible or even what to wish for. Witness the flutters caused when Asia's most pro–Western, Oz–friendly nation, Singapore, decides to buy Australia's stock exchange.

Howard is a self–described political warrior, and the warrior element helps explain why so much rhetorical blood is spilled over the Great Asia Project. Our leaders agree on the Project. The fight is to define and own it.

There is plenty of warrior mode in the way Howard takes up the cudgels against Paul Keating over the Project. When Howard declaimed on Asia as Prime Minister, I often imagined a large hologram of Keating projected on the wall that Howard was facing. That helped to explain why, so often, the Prime Minister seemed to be having an argument when talking about Asia.

My best Keating hologram moment came when Howard gave a speech on Australia and Asia in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006. A decade in power, Howard was still scratching at the Keating itch, sarcastically noting: 'I was regarded as somebody who wouldn't comfortably deal with the countries of the region.'

The moment of illumination in that Vietnam address, though, was when Howard put aside the warrior sword for a moment and embraced the aim at the heart of the Project, stating that Australia is now 'naturally and comfortably and permanently part of this region and see our future in it.'

That was such a striking, positive phrase, I made it the central point of the piece I filed to AM the next day. It's a pity that Howard couldn't find space to inject that moment of inspiration into his re–run of some of the old Asia battles.

A natural and permanent future in Asia is what the Project is all about.

Warrior footnote: Howard is ever alert to any opportunity to smite the enemy, even in his book's index. This lists eight references to 'political correctness'. Then it has a priceless cross reference: 'see also left–wingers. Ah, John Winston, just once you should have given in to the happy warrior instinct and let that quiet humour show through. Surely the reference should have read: 'see also left–whingers'.

Photo by Flickr user jef safi, used under a Creative Commons licence.