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Recognising the Asian Century at last

By Rory Medcalf - posted Friday, 2 November 2012


There's something extraordinary about the government's new Australia in the Asian Century white paper, released on Sunday.

It is not so much the fact that the report contains some bold and ambitious aspirations for changing Australia to cope with the challenges and reap the opportunities of a vibrant and prosperous Asia.

Rather what is extraordinary is the fact that it has taken this long for an Australian government even to attempt a comprehensive and publicly-articulated plan for charting the nation's future in the world's most powerful, wealthy and dynamic region.

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After all, there has been an on-again, off-again national conversation about Australia's future in Asia since at least the late 1980s. And as for the Asian century, it is 12 years old and counting.

The paper properly urges Australia to get its own house in order as a first step towards flourishing in the Asian era, including through a competitive and diversified economy, education, innovation, social cohesion, infrastructure, environmental management, security and diplomacy.

The bad news is that there is little evidence so far of a serious or sustained government commitment to funding some these principal goals. Australia's aggregate diplomatic footprint and funding have been in retreat for years, failing to find proven and sustained champions in any Prime Minister or Foreign Minister since Paul Keating and Gareth Evans in the early 1990s.

The new white paper deploys terms like 'when circumstances allow' and that most awful bureaucratic tautology 'over time' (as if some things do not occur over time) to caveat its timid undertakings on opening new diplomatic posts and reversing the nation's foreign affairs funding decline.

Moreover, parts of the white paper have been worded in such a way as to diminish the prospects of active bipartisan endorsement – even though this should be an essential ingredient to any enduring national strategy.For instance, the text identifies Australia's successful Asian engagement overwhelmingly with many of the values and domestic policies of the Labor party. The implication is that if one is sceptical about particular domestic policies, one is somehow against the universal good of engagement with Asia.

The other chief problem with the white paper is about realism and balance. The document says much about how to seize the economic opportunities of Asia. But it ventures less about how to manage what could become great strategic uncertainty, with the risk of things all going horribly wrong if Asia's rising mega-states China and India experience domestic instability or armed confrontation with others.

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Some of its strategic assessments are sound and well put. It acknowledges that Asia faces many alternative futures and not solely a rosy vision of the growing wealth, satisfaction, consumption, fulfillment and political stability of the largest middle class populations in human history.

Yet at times its strategic assessments pull their punches beyond what diplomatic tact might warrant. For instance, its description of tensions in the South China Sea implies that these are more a continuation of what has gone before than a worsening situation which could lead to new kinds of major-power confrontation.

And of course massive and fast-emerging middle classes can be incubators for nationalism, resource-grasping rivalries and destabilising phases of political transition as well as for peace, goodwill and rationality.

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About the Author

Rory Medcalf is director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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