Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 15:44 | SYDNEY
Sunday 14 Aug 2022 | 15:44 | SYDNEY

'Asia' White Paper makes no sense


Andrew Shearer

24 January 2012 11:29

Stephen Grenville seems to have misunderstood the purpose of my post on American and Chinese power and the Gillard Government's 'Asian Century' White Paper.

I certainly did not intend to downplay Asia's importance. Even further from my mind was reopening what John Howard aptly calls the 'endless seminar on our national identity'. This would also be a major mistake for the White Paper. Michael Wesley demonstrated eloquently in his book 'The Howard Paradox' Howard's success in putting that sterile debate to bed, exploding many of the shibboleths of Australia's Asianists as he went about strengthening ties with Asia's major powers at the same time as revitalising the US alliance.

Stephen's post rehashes a number of these shibboleths: a tendency to view Asia as a monolith; the conviction that Australia's strong relationship with the US is a liability when we engage Asian countries; and, above all, the notion that to succeed in Asia, 'it's we who need changing'.

Australia has its flaws and can doubtless do better. In particular, we need to ensure our economy remains competitive, avoid unhealthy dependence on any one market and strengthen our ties with Asian countries that share similar interests and values – including Japan, India, South Korea and Indonesia.

But the idea that we are somehow marginalised in the region is behind the times. Moreover, it's far from clear than counting up Asia experts and language students provides a good measure of our interaction with the region. Australia today is widely acknowledged and respected as an active and constructive participant in the economic, political and strategic life of the Indo-Pacific in our own right. Our access and influence in Washington is accepted and in many cases welcomed as an added reason to take us seriously.

No doubt there are some elements in Asia who would prefer America wasn't around. But to judge from moves to strengthen links with the US not just by Australia but by many of China's other close trading partners – Japan, South Korea, Singapore, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and now even  Burma – that must be a pretty small club. North Korea and China seem to be the only states in Asia that aren't looking for a stronger US profile.

Nor was it my objective to defend American policy in Asia (which Rawdon Dalrymple has done rather well), least of all the US Treasury's ill-judged response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Indeed, as Stephen knows from his own close involvement, at that time the Australian Government lobbied hard, and ultimately with success, to overturn a misguided US position that was jeopardising Indonesia's stability and Australia's interests.

Rather, my purpose was to draw attention to the reality that the US remains a resident power in Asia and, despite growing intra-Asian economic links, an integral political, economic and security player in the region. I also sought to highlight, based on new research by Michael Beckley, that widely-held assumptions about US decline relative to China may prove wrong and that the US is likely to continue to play a central role in the region well into the future, one which the White Paper should take into account.

My concern is that the White Paper risks being framed too narrowly from the outset. Unfortunately, whoever drafted the terms of reference seems to have heeded the advice that what is happening in America or its relations with Asia does not matter to Australia. Among the terms of reference are 'the future course of economic, political and strategic change in Asia' and 'the political and strategic implications of the Asian Century for Australia'. Yet the US – still the region's major political, economic and military player and likely to remain so, if Beckley is right – is not mentioned once. That doesn't make sense.

Nor does the title. Just three years ago the Rudd Government titled its Defence White Paper 'Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century'. Now suddenly the nomenclature has changed. Why? Presumably the Gillard Government's choice of 'Asian Century' rather than 'Asia Pacific' or 'Indo-Pacific' century was deliberate. Either way, it was a mistake; signals matter.

Photo by Flickr user iz4aks.