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All take and no give

By K.C. Boey - posted Friday, 2 November 2012


In the jargon of media, Julia Gillard's Australia in the Asian Century ticks most of the boxes on intent, even if they may be short on detail and funding. Author, economics mandarin Ken Henry, admirably addresses most of the 5Ws + H: who, what, where, when, why and how.

The questions are not new. They have exercised Australia and its government of the day variously with the nation's shift in attitude towards Asia since Federation, dictated by domestic imperatives given the perennial contestation between Australia's history and its geography.

As identified by West Australian academics Mark Beeson and Kanishka Jayasuria in a 2009 essay in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, there have been four key periods of Australia's understanding of "Asian engagement".

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They define these periods from Federation to the Cold War; the period of the Cold War; the "turn to Asia" after the Cold War; and the reversal post-September 11, 2001.

The first period was dominated by imperial relations and Australia's "search for political identity within a common order shaped by Britain".

This gave way to a time when the study of Asia was dominated by the imperatives of the Cold War and strategic priorities of Australia's new "great and powerful friend", the United States.

"It is a measure of just how much had changed in both Australia itself and within the wider East Asian region, that our third period is marked by an unambiguous and unapologetic 'turn to Asia' signalled by what came to be known as policies of Asian engagement," write Beeson and Jayasuria.

This was the time of the ascendancy itself of economics mandarin of the time, Ross Garnaut, and his Australia and the Northeast Asia Ascendancy (1987), commissioned by the Hawke-Keating government.

But as Beeson and Jayasuriya note in their study, "the very nature of Asian engagement were surprisingly fluid and uncertain". The tenure of John Howard's government marked another recalibration of Australia's foreign policy priorities.

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"Indeed," Beeson and Jayasuriya note, "Australia-Asia relations during the late 1990s were marked by distinct cooling in enthusiasm for 'Asia', and a renewed interest in reviving older strategic ties with the US."

This shift, punctuated by Howard's personal emotions in the thick of the conflagration in Washington on September 11, marked the start of the fourth period of Australia-Asia relations, "which initially saw a renewed preoccupation with geopolitics, and subsequently came once again to be dominated by economic issues in general and the 'rise of China' in particular".

Beeson and Jayasuriya are an instructive backdrop against which to view Gillard's Australia in the Asian Century. Yet they are inadequate in the larger scheme of American philosopher Richard Rorty, and his contemporary compatriots of the time, political scientists Francis Fukuyama and Samuel P. Huntington.

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About the Author

K.C. Boey is a former editor of Malaysian Business and The Malay Mail. He now writes for The Malaysian Insider out of Melbourne.

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