Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:12 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:12 | SYDNEY

WR Mead on Australia Asian century


Sam Roggeveen


3 August 2012 10:13

Below is the final part of my interview with renowned US foreign policy analyst Walter Russell Mead; part 1 here, part 2 here and part 3 here.

Q. Walter, I’d like to end with a question specifically about Australia. It’s often said here at the Lowy Institute that Australia faces a unique historical moment. In the past, we’ve been lucky enough that our major economic partner has also been our major strategic partner (the UK and US) or at least a major ally of one (Japan). Now our major economic partner (China) has strategic interests that are seemingly at odds with those of our ally. This could confront us with choices we’ve never had to make before.

Then there's the emergence of Indonesia as a strong economy and regional middle power, and the growth of other populous countries such as India and Vietnam.

There is concern among some observers here that, in the face of such change, Australia’s place in the region and the world will diminish, in relative terms, and that Australia could slip into a New Zealand-like role as a prosperous but small power with little international clout, a country which will be shaped by international events but will have little influence on them. Do you see that as a realistic concern, and what would you regard as Australia’s major international policy challenge in the Asian century?

A. The concern about Australia's primary economic power and strategic partner having different agendas might not be as troubling as some imagine. I still believe, for example, that US and Chinese economic priorities in Asia are complementary. The US goal of a peaceful and prosperous Asia can't really be achieved without Chinese participation. On the other hand, serious tension between the US and China is likely to frustrate China's attempts to work with its neighbours. So while there's a lot of noise and competition in Asia, it does seem to me that the US and China are looking for ways to work together, and that both countries are better served by some kind of cooperative relationship.

If that's the case, then countries like Australia will be able to manage their relationships with these two great powers over time. But I also think that in the long run China might not be so overwhelmingly the primary trade partner for Australia. So many other Asian economies are rising that Australia is likely to have many good customers for its products. India is likely to grow as a manufacturing partner, and will have to import many of the same Australian products as China does. And if Indonesia's economy continues to grow, Australia-Indonesia trade will grow too, perhaps dramatically.

So rather than seeing Australia pulled between one dominant economic partner and one strategic partner, it's more likely that Australia will have a wide range of security and economic relationships. And that's a situation that should be more easily manageable.

The rise of so many Asian countries is definitely going to make the geopolitical picture more complicated. And since Australia is already a developed economy, it's clear that other Asian countries are going to be catching up to Australia in overall development level. So if, for example, Indonesia’s GDP per capita were to reach Australia's level, Australia would have to worry about being somewhat overshadowed. But this is not going to happen overnight. And even so, the evolving Asian state system is one that offers Australia some interesting roles. There are going to be many middle powers in Asia, and Australia's natural resources are going to make it a significant player with some unique strengths that some of its peers in the region won't have. 

Barring some kind of US-China conflict, Australia probably has more opportunities than challenges in the Asian century. But the need to develop a strong relationship with Indonesia does remain a priority for Australian foreign policy. Australia should also be looking for ways that it can develop a deeper partnership with India, and to help pull India into the region as a significant great power.

Australia has and will have one unique advantage in the region, and that is the ability of Australians to understand and work with Americans in a uniquely close way. The shared cultural and political values, and shared language, make this partnership a very easy one, and there's a high degree of trust between both countries. It's going to be important for Australia to develop and deepen that bilateral relationship.

Australia's roots in the region can help Washington understand the Asia Pacific more clearly than it does now. And for Australia there's the opportunity to be present at the creation of a new American policy. With Australian advice, Washington will be able to develop a policy that works in the region and promotes the economic interests and political values that the US and Australia share.

Photo by Flickr user kasi metcalfe.