Be Yourself: Whatever Happened to Australia in the Asian Century?


Australia’s conception of its place in the world is in flux. Particularly since the 1990s apparently significant changes appear and pass through the public debate almost year-on-year. Some of these changes appear momentous at the time but lack staying power and influence. Others appear insignificant but become important with the passage of time and circumstance (the standard take on the zombie-like utility of tax reviews). Others still are significant at the time and have long-term effects, even if flawed and/or criticised at the time (Beazley’s 1994 Look West and Garnaut’s Asia Report as examples). The 2012 Australian in the Asian Century White Paper sits in that last basket. This is not a bad thing. Reassessing and critiquing is essential to strategic coherence, particularly when it generates debate, displaces complacency and challenges risk aversion, lack of awareness, and reflexive silver-bullet logics. Things move quickly on the ground in Australia as much as overseas, but strategy needs to be long-term. Having gradual and continuous - rather than windsock-like – activity in setting our international comportment is the best, most constructive course.

That is why the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century White Paper was and is important. Moreover, it was a step backward for the Abbott Government to so quickly jettison the Asian Century White Paper on coming to office, a fortnight after election. This was a mistake and here’s why: To state another important principle of effective, long-term foreign policy engagement: it should be largely bipartisan. Parties have different views – they should – but they should constructively iron them such that the product of engaged debate presented to the world recognises and builds on Australia’s advancements in international engagement. Such an approach may even help avoid some of the more bizarre and damaging major and minor bickering and missteps Australia is becoming known for. This, to prove the rule, is where the Abbott Government’s annulling of the Asian Century was short-sighted. For all its flaws, the Asian Century White Paper was a major step forward in Australia’s foreign policy. Even if broad of the mark in many respects, it is a milestone and reference point on which to build and learn. Most importantly it heralded a broader, evolving understanding of how and where to engage Asia, even if it hadn’t fully evolved to reflect Australia’s Indo-Pacific interests. The Asian Century White Paper certainly suffered serious flaws. Having spent valuable research time at the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Trade in 2013, I reported for a Senate Inquiry on Australia’s relations in the Indian Ocean: pointing to the Asian Century White Paper’s fundamentally flawed definition of Asia. It presented a partial definition of Asia as our international frame, the supremely awkward amalgam of the Asia-Pacific (our historical hangover of a vertical understanding of Asia) plus India. It is true, as some suggest, that it was a step forward to include India and that part of Asia directly west of Southeast Asia. But this missed the critical horizontal integration of Asia, leaving out South Asia outside India, all of West Asia/the Middle East, and Central Asia, at a time when Asia is a more integrated single entity than it’s arguably ever been. The Indo-Pacific promises to address this, but it rides on the back of ‘Asian Century’ advancements. Another significant criticism of the Asian Century White Paper was the emphasis on domestic reform. This has been called ‘a fail’ on the part of the White Paper. Tellingly, this was one of the Coalition’s major critiques, arguing the old chestnut: Labor is bright-eyed of vision, but bleary-eyed in execution. Developed by Ken Henry, the eminent former Treasury Secretary, the White Paper’s domestic focus was expected and had value. But for comprehensive international engagement, domestic reform and progress is necessary but not sufficient. Unilateral reform is rightly one of the longstanding pillars of Australia trade and diplomatic strategy and a significant focus of the Asian Century White Paper. But it shouldn’t distract policy-makers from the main game: engaging Asia according to Australia’s interests and strengths. Unfortunately Australian debate often falls into the trap of reflexive navel-gazing. As the plaintiff of the Asian Century ‘fail’ says: “here is the rub: this White Paper is not really about Asia. It is about using Asia to promote domestic reforms within Australia.” And herein lies the trap: reflexive navel-gazing becomes the order of the day, distracting from where Australia can constructively and pragmatically forge ahead in Asia. As a prime example of such reflexive self-absorption, a recent article by a colleague at Young Australians in International Affairs flies in the face of the fundamental principle of long-term and gradual development of foreign policy based on strengths. It suggests, specifically, an Australian republic as the antidote to disengagement from Asia. To quote: “Imagine an Australia that embraces its multiculturalism and fully accepts its historical and geographic identity as part of Asia… Imagine the Republic of Australia in an Asian Century.” Putting aside the jingoistic arguments for a republic (and the presumed up-tick in jingoism generally should we become one), the argument for why an Australian republic is necessary for proper engagement with Asia is a well-worn track. Silver-bullet arguments as to how an Australian republic would wonderfully and immediately integrate us into Asia and double and triple our trade were prominent in the 1990s debate leading to the rejected referendum. They still rear their head today. It is nice to think it would work that way (Santa’s nice too), but such feel-good arguments obscure our strengths and unique contributions to the region as well as distract from issues that can truly reframe Australia’s international image long-term, significantly improve the lot of its people, and build on strengths. Primary would be addressing the real sore of our identity that is the continued deprivation, marginalisation, and disempowerment of Australia’s Indigenous population. Australia needs less overwrought imagination than it needs to build on its historical strength in creative, yet pragmatic engagement. If anything is going to help Australia engage Asia it is a confident engagement with the contradictions of Australia’s own identity, a reconciliation with the past (rather than habitual navel-gazing to convince ourselves that we are, in fact, ourselves), and a focus on the realities of the region and what we can uniquely add. Australia is neither fully a part of Asia, nor is it an isolated outpost of the Anglophone world. Reducing our global position to simple binaries is mistaken, and impulsive magical sutures sewed together by such binaries (such as a republican silver bullet) is a self-serving and ineffective approach to the deeper issues at play. Australia can be a part of Asia and a valuable contributor without denying itself: neither Asian (what does ‘Asian’ mean in such a diverse and changing region?) nor Little Britain or Mini-‘Murka, but Australia. Arguably, foreign policy is coming into its own with more traction in Australian public debate than ever before. So while Australia’s foreign affairs are in flux, they are encouragingly more flow than ebb. The promise for Australia and the usefulness of the Asian Century lies there: as a reference point for informed and critical debate, rather than politicised miracle cures or blank canvases created by ignoring past steps forward. Australia will be best served by having a mature approach to the region and itself: using its heritage and singularity as an Anglophone country with an ethnically and culturally diverse background that sits ‘smack-bang’ in the most diverse and dynamic region. Recognising and reconciling historical hangovers, building on past advancements, and engaging heritage while resolving real issues, particularly the continued deprivation and disempowerment of its indigenous, will do more for Australia’s Asian engagement than denying heritage or policy advancements. Australia stands to be a real and unique player in the region by contributing to a pluralistic and diverse Indo-Pacific in the ongoing Asian Century by being true to itself. William Bullock Jenkins is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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Image Credit: AAP/Paul Miller