Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 10:49 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 10:49 | SYDNEY

White Paper: Searching for Southeast Asia

This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

1 November 2012 13:56

This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Associate Professor Michele Ford is Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

It's great to see Indonesia identified as one of five key Asian nations, and Indonesian one of four priority languages, in the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, not least because I teach Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney and have a longstanding professional (and personal) commitment to that country.

But, having read the paper, I couldn't help but wonder where the rest of Southeast Asia was when it came to Australia's blueprint for the Asian Century.

Southeast Asia and ASEAN get plenty of air time in the background sections of the White Paper. A number of individual countries are mentioned repeatedly for their (potential for) rapid economic growth. We hear of the deep regional engagement of Australian companies like BlueScope Steel and Linfox, and of professional associations like the CPA.

The fact that Southeast Asia accounts for most Asian tourism to Australia is also highlighted, as is Vietnam's and Malaysia's place in the top five source countries of international students. We read about the flow of permanent migrants not only from Southeast Asia to Australia, but from Australia to Southeast Asia. Reference is also made to historical and contemporary flows of refugees from Vietnam and Myanmar.

But it's not all about business and various forms of human mobility. We also learn about the importance of Southeast Asia as a destination for our football teams, the very active involvement of Southeast Asian artists in South Australia's OzAsia Festival, and the influence of Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine on Australian food.

This is all well and good, but how developed is Australia's agenda for the 'other countries' of Southeast Asia?

They get a gander in the section on defence and security engagement, and Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines are identified as 'active regional powers'. The White Paper notes the conclusion of the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement and plans to negotiate similar agreements with Singapore and Thailand, along with Australia's ongoing commitment to working with the ILO and other multilateral bodies on issues such as sustainable development and fair work.

Vietnamese and Thai get a mention in a list of 'other' languages to be supported, and we are led to believe that Radio Australia will continue to broadcast in Vietnamese, Khmer and Burmese, as well as in Indonesian. Malaysia and Thailand join Indonesia in the list of countries with which Australia has formal working holiday arrangements, and the report signals the Government's plan to establish a full embassy in Phuket and a permanent ambassador to the ASEAN Secretariat.

Ultimately, however, I have a sinking feeling that this shopping list of initiatives lacks the kind of comprehensiveness and coherence needed if we are to truly engage with the complex and diverse place that is Southeast Asia. The language of the White Paper has been described in this blog as 'lofty and inspirational'. But where Southeast Asia is concerned, I was left wondering what the vision actually is.

Photo by Flickr user adaptorplug.